Southeast Asia uses pandemic and spread of disinformation to restrict press freedom
The year 2020 saw Southeast Asian governments use the pandemic to further squeeze media freedom. The unprecedented global public-health crisis became an excuse to tighten restrictions on news coverage and harass journalists, sending chills to newsrooms in the region. This wave of repression came on top of authorities clamping down on ‘fake news,’ using the supposed spread of disinformation as a justification to attack the press.
In the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, which looked at 180 countries, Southeast Asian countries ranked low, among those with a troubling media environment: Vietnam (175th), Laos (172nd), Singapore (158th), Brunei (152nd), Cambodia (144th), Thailand (140th), Myanmar (139th), Philippines (136th), Indonesia (119th), and Malaysia (101st). This ranking flows from the overall political context of these countries which are either under single political parties or authoritarian leaders.
In the words of Freedom House, they fall under two categories: “not free” or “partly free.” In its recent global survey on access to political rights and civil liberties, Freedom House rated Laos, Cambodia, Brunei, Myanmar, and Vietnam as “not free;” and Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines and Indonesia as “partly free.”
In Myanmar, the government shut down independent media sites and restrained the public’s access to information. “Whenever journalists are on the streets [doing field work], they are concerned that they will be arrested and charged under the Prevention and Control of Communicable Diseases Law,” Ye Ni, an editor at The Irrawaddy, wrote in a commentary. “Authorities took advantage of the pandemic by persecuting independent journalists…for supposedly ‘spreading disinformation.’”
In Malaysia, journalists were questioned and investigated for allegedly spreading disinformation and violating public order. Tashny Sukumaran, who reports for the South China Morning Post from Kuala Lumpur, was one of them. She said in an online forum that she was summoned by the police who pointedly asked her about her coverage of a government raid on migrant workers which led to their arrest, resulting in coronavirus outbreaks because of overcrowding in the detention centers: “I was questioned on what I had seen, my definition of human rights violation, and whether I was aware that some of the migrants targeted by the state were undocumented.”
Al Jazeera, which reported on the raids, was harshly treated. The police raided their office in Kuala Lumpur and seized two computers, saying the media bureau was under investigation for “sedition, defamation and violation of the Communications and Multimedia Act.”
A number of Indonesian journalists and news organizations critical of the government were victims of digital attacks, from online threats to hacking. They wrote about the slow response of the government in containing the virus and its lack of strategy. It is ironic, Abdul Manan, editor of Tempo magazine, said in a webinar that this has been happening in a supposedly democratic country under the leadership of Jokowi, once perceived to be a reformer. In reality, democracy has declined during Jokowi’s rule.
As the pandemic raged in the Philippines, authorities clamped down on free expression by shutting down the largest TV network in the country and recently detaining a journalist, Lady Ann Salem, editor of Manila Today, regarded as an “alternative publication.” The police red-tagged Salem, accusing her of being part of the communist network of organizations. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines decried the arrest of Salem saying it was “proof that the government was bent on silencing the independent and critical media.”
In Thailand, where the coronavirus has been largely contained, the government has been going after news organizations reporting on massive student protests. Four media outlets were threatened with legal action for breaching emergency laws. Authorities ordered the takedown of content by Voice TV, Prachatai, The Standard, and The Reporters because they were seen as a threat to national security.
For journalists in Singapore, media restrictions have been part of the media landscape. In 2019, the government passed a law to block disinformation, giving a minister the authority to determine false reporting and order a correction. Media outlets which do not comply have to pay hefty fines. This could even result in imprisonment. “Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the law had already been used against political opponents and critics,” wrote Kirsten Han, a freelance journalist. “It will last even after this current public-health crisis is over.”
Cambodia, for its part, has always been among the frontrunners in media repression in the region. In the past years, the government passed laws on “incitement” that justified a crackdown on independent media, resulting in court cases for at least 13 journalists. Authorities also pressured the Cambodia Daily Newspaper to pay millions of dollars in taxes, forcing the publication to shut down. The pandemic aggravated this as licenses of four media outlets were revoked because they allegedly shared ‘fake news.’
Overall, the region has not been a friendly place for reporters, requiring them to navigate minefields carefully as they fight repression brought about by the twin threats of the pandemic and disinformation. Journalists have pushed back where they can, with support from international press-freedom advocacy groups and colleagues in the region, they who help shine the light on these dark corners in our part of the world.