Lights Going Out for Free Press in Southeast Asia

Across Southeast Asia, the free and independent press is under unprecedented attack from governments hostile to the thought of allowing their citizens to read the truth.

"The press freedom situation is dire across Asia, with different factors motivating different types and degrees of crackdowns. There are few places, if any, in the region where it's safe to be a journalist these days,” said Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

As Crispin pointed out in a speech to regional ambassadors in Bangkok earlier this week, that attack is particularly acute in Thailand, where new restrictive guidelines for receiving and renewing foreign media work visas are to come into effect on March 21 that could effectively end the longstanding role of the country as a benign host for freelance reporters and photographers, among other things. But it is hardly limited to Bangkok, where arguably the region’s most repressive regime has taken over the reins of government.

In Hong Kong, Chinese surrogates have simply bought up an increasing portion of the mainstream press including in December the once-influential South China Morning Post, which was purchased by Alibaba tycoon Jack Ma, who has stated publicly that he deplores what he considers negative reporting on China. The Post’s coverage has turned xenophobic over aspirations by so-called “localists” who are pushing back against Beijing’s embrace of the territory.

Chinese interests, Quingdao West Coast Holdings, connected to an unnamed state-owned enterprise, earlier this week announced the purchase of Media Chinese International, which holds a controlling share in Ming Pao and Media Chinese International’s stable of newspapers in Malaysia, .

In Malaysian newspapers, where independent international news sites including Sarawak Report and Asia Sentinel have been blocked, along with Malaysian Insider, one of the country’s most popular news sites. Zulkifli Anwar Ulhaque, better known as Zunar, the irrepressible cartoonist for the Malaysian news website Malaysiakini, faces seven counts of sedition with a potential for 43 years in prison. The mainstream media are all owned by political parties aligned with the government.

In Singapore, where the government has had its foot firmly on the neck of the international press since the 1980s via libel suits and restrictive laws, it now appears close to extinguishing the last remaining independent online news site, The Online Citizen. In East Timor, after establishing a press council and adopting a code of ethics in 2013, the government imposed a tough new media law in 2013 which has led to widespread self-censorship, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Vietnam continues to maintain one of the region’s most restrictive environments for the media, with both legal mechanisms and physical harassment to punish and intimidate critical journalists. However, as with many other countries in the region, bloggers and other online reporters dare the consequences with increasing success.

In Indonesia, where the fall of the strongman Suharto in 1998 spurred some of the region’s freest and most lively journalism, the government in late February revealed it plans amendments to the Criminal Code designed to place limits on freedom of speech. The Press Legal Aid Institute said the government’s draft revision includes 65 new articles that are either “obscurantist or carried double meanings” in dealing with free speech. Also last week, the Indonesian Broadcasting System issued a letter to electronic media aimed at censoring lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in the country.

However, given the opening up of the country to independent journalism and a fast-growing social media, it’s questionable if they can pull it off. The government in January was forced to withdraw a bill making defaming presidents a crime because of the vague definitions of defamation.

There is no such social media counterweight to the government in Bangkok. Thailand, with its cheap and lively living conditions, has supported a thriving community of scores of freelance photographers and reporters ever since the Vietnam War. It is now delivering the most egregious limits on the press. Because of its central location in Southeast Asia and excellent air connections, Bangkok has also hosted large numbers of representatives of the mainstream television and newspaper press.

In his speech this week to foreign diplomats in Bangkok, Crispin said the new rules, if strictly enforced as written, “will inevitably hollow out Thailand's now robust foreign press corps and further curb critical news coverage of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's rights-curbing junta.”

Through the draconian lese-majeste law which bars criticism of the royal family, and the Computer Crimes Act, which has enacted stiff punishments for Internet users, the junta has already hamstrung what had been a relatively vibrant domestic press. The new measures, Crispin said in his prepared statement, require reporters to work full-time for a registered news organization, effectively make it illegal to work as a freelancer from Thailand.

“Equally worrying,’ he said, “the guidelines give authorities the power to deny visa applications in punitive response to any news they deem as "disruptive" to public order or security. How officials will measure or determine what constitutes a "disruption" is unclear. Those accused of "disruptions" will apparently not be able to challenge arbitrary or vindictive decisions in the Administrative Court system without work visa status, a no doubt by-design Catch-22 situation.”

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs will have broad new discretionary powers to deny media visas on the basis of an individual journalist's news coverage, Crispin said. “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs originally said that the new revised criteria were drafted in response to the "changing nature of new media and to re-categorize personnel eligible to media visas," and not designed to restrict or reduce the number of foreign journalists in Thailand.”

As Crispin pointed out, western newspapers, “faced with broken business models and ever tightening news budgets… rely on freelancers for their coverage of outpost countries like Thailand. The willful elimination of freelancers will effectively pull the plug on a vast amount of diverse and original reporting on Thailand. That, in turn, will give the government more leverage on news organizations with established bureaus and full-time correspondents, as we've witnessed in other countries that restrict freelancers, such as China and Vietnam.”

“The timing of these new restrictions, by our estimation, is no accident,” Crispin said. “Foreign reporters have broken a series of exposé stories that the local media either missed, ignored or lacked the resources to pursue, that have cast Thailand in an often unfavorable light. That reporting has often put Prayuth's junta on the back foot at a time it tries to win international recognition of its rule.”

Groundbreaking, investigative foreign reporting is in the public interest and fair game in any democratic society where the press is allowed to serve its checking and balancing role, he told the ambassadors. “And it's the type of reporting, I venture, that Prayuth's junta deliberately aims to curb through these arbitrary and vague new guidelines against the foreign press. While the government insists it's working to reform and improve Thailand's democracy, uprooting a diverse and robust foreign media presence in the country is inconsistent with that supposed aim.”