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Politics

As Southeast Asia muzzles media, investors do business as usual

Cases like Rappler chief's ordeal in Manila haven't slowed record money flows

Maria Ressa, the CEO of online news platform Rappler, arrives to post bail in Manila on Feb. 14. The site has clashed with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.    © Reuters

BANGKOK -- The arrest last week of a high-profile journalist in the Philippines and a gag order against a Thai television station are the latest reminders that Southeast Asia's press freedoms rest on the whims of governments. But after investors poured a record $145 billion into the region last year, there is little reason to think they will be deterred by the latest clampdowns.

Last year's inflow, recently reported by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, included an unprecedented sum for Vietnam, a one-party communist state. As usual, around half of the money went via Singapore, which has been ruled by the People's Action Party since independence in 1965 and where reporting is stymied by prolific use of the courts against foreign critics of the ruling elites.

"In general, if we compare to other factors -- political stability, infrastructure, predictability of rules -- [press freedom] is not a decisive factor" in investment moves, said Miha Hribernik, head of Asia politics research at Verisk Maplecroft.

Nonetheless, a free press can at least inform business decisions, according to Ebb Hinchliffe, Executive Director of American Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines, and John D. Forbes, Senior Adviser to the chamber. "A responsible free press is more useful and important than a censored one for the purpose of being informed," they said in an email.

But of 15 foreign business lobbies and chambers of commerce around the region that were contacted by the Nikkei Asian Review, most of those who replied declined to comment on whether press restrictions made any difference to investors or undermined a country's image.

"Even though democratic countries attract more foreign direct investment than their autocratic counterparts, repression against opposition parties, civil society groups and media organizations does not prevent engagement," said Lee Morgenbesser of Australia's Griffith University, author of "Behind the Facade: Elections Under Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia."

That bodes well for the leadership in the Philippines, where Maria Ressa, a former Manila and Jakarta bureau chief for CNN, was led away by police from the headquarters of Rappler on Feb. 13. The news site, which she co-founded, has fallen foul of President Rodrigo Duterte, who caused an uproar in 2016 when he said that corrupt journalists could be killed.

Ressa's arrest on 7-year-old charges of "cyber libel" -- she was subsequently freed on bail -- came a day after Thai broadcasting authorities barred Voice TV from airing for two weeks over allegations it carried "divisive" content, though that gag order was in turn lifted by a Thai court.

The station's editorial stance mirrors the views of political parties aligned with Thaksin Shinawatra, the self-exiled former prime minister, whose proxies had defied convention on Feb. 8 by nominating Princess Ubolratana as their prime ministerial candidate for the March 24 election. The shock move was nipped in the bud the same evening by King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, the princess's brother.

There are echoes elsewhere in the region of these developments in the Philippines and Thailand, where the army seized power in 2014 and where critics of the monarchy can be jailed for up to 15 years.

Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are serving seven-year jail terms in Myanmar, a country governed by Aung San Suu Kyi -- once a democracy icon. Most observers believe the espionage charges against the reporters were cooked up in retaliation for their revelations of extrajudicial killings carried out by the military.

Reuters journalists Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone are serving seven-year jail terms in Myanmar on what most observers believe are cooked up charges in retaliation for their revelations of extrajudicial killings carried out by the military.   © Reuters

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen cracked down on critical media, forcing the closure of The Cambodia Daily, and dismantled the main opposition party before his unopposed canter to victory in parliamentary elections last year.

Yet EuroCham Cambodia, a group representing European businesses active in Cambodia, last week described European Union moves to effectively sanction the country's garment exports as "counterproductive to Cambodia's socio-economic transformation."

The week before that, Eurocham Myanmar published a letter citing "a significant range of private sector investment opportunities across every sector of the economy."

When it comes to the pressure on Ressa, her detention triggered a swift outcry from journalists. Hong Kong's Foreign Correspondents Club -- whose former president, Financial Times journalist Victor Mallet, was expelled by local authorities last year -- said it was "appalled." Kathleen Carroll, chair of the board of the Committee to Protect journalists, described the arrest as "an outrage."

Citing the Philippines' history of press freedom, Hinchliffe and Forbes said actions against the media "may be of more concern than elsewhere in Southeast Asia, adding that "awareness of actions against press freedom in corporate headquarters is a negative factor for the country's image."

But investors seem likely to react the way they have to this point -- by continuing to pump in money.

After all, even the World Bank's annual "Doing Business" rankings suggest that governance and freedom of the press are marginal to the perceptions of a country's commercial environment.

Singapore is regularly at or near the top of the listing, while the ousting of elected governments in Thailand in 2008 and 2014 did little damage to the country's business reputation. Thailand's ranking stayed the same after 2008 and dropped slightly from 18th to 26th after the 2014 coup, keeping it ahead of the Netherlands.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen cracked down on critical media before his unopposed canter to victory in parliamentary elections last year.   © Reuters

Last year Vietnam outranked democratic Indonesia, though the Philippines, which ranked 99th for the final year of the Benigno Aquino administration before Duterte's 2016 election landslide, dropped to 124th in the latest 2019 rankings.

Cambodia's rankings for 2017 to 2019 went from 131st to 138th, a slight decline over the period that Hun Sen bolstered the rule of his Cambodian People's Party at the expense of the dismembered opposition and cowed press.

Myanmar languished at 171st in 2019, the same as 2018, suggesting that even a show trial of journalists with an organization as prominent as Reuters made no difference.

Debates over the relationship between political freedoms and economic development have veered between lauding high-growth autocracies such as China and Vietnam, to findings suggesting that "a country that switches from nondemocracy to democracy achieves about 20% higher GDP per capita in the long run," according to research published on the World Economic Forum website by Daron Acemoglu, co-author of the popular 2012 book "Why Nations Fail."

Verisk Maplecoft's Hribernik warned that "investment in companies with extensive state involvement, in countries with restricted freedom of expression, carries the risk of complicity... if a company willingly complies with requests to track or censor information."

Even so, he said the bottom line is that places like "China and Vietnam are hot investment destinations... [and] press freedoms are not a factor."

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