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Politics

Malaysia falls 18 spots on press freedom index as ASEAN languishes

Reporters Without Borders warns of COVID providing pretext for censorship

A Malaysian ad against "fake news" in 2018: Reporters Without Borders says a new decree banning COVID-19 misinformation allows the authorities "to impose their own version of the truth."   © Reuters

KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysia plunged 18 places in Reporters Without Borders' annual press freedom ranking for 2021 -- the steepest drop from last year among all countries -- as Southeast Asia remained mired toward the lower end of the index.

Malaysia placed 119th out of 180 countries surveyed by the organization known by its French acronym, RSF. Its "astonishing 18-place fall, the biggest of any country in the index, is directly linked to the formation of a new coalition government in March 2020," RSF said in an analysis attached to the ranking.

The new government led by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, in turn, imposed a decree against "fake news" that the watchdog said enables the authorities "to impose their own version of the truth."

The ordinance, which took effect in March amid the country's coronavirus state of emergency, makes it illegal to publish inaccurate information about the pandemic -- punishable with fines and jail time. The government contends that this is necessary to combat misinformation, but the move drew strong criticism from rights groups and opposition politicians.

RSF likened the Malaysian law to a similar ordinance used in neighboring Singapore, which allows "the government to correct any information it deems to be false and to prosecute those responsible."

Singapore and the Philippines each fell two spots to 160th and 138th, respectively.

Myanmar was ranked 140th, down only one slot from last year, though the report stressed: "The press freedom situation has worsened dramatically since the military coup in February 2021. By resuming the grim practices of the junta that ruled until February 2011 -- including media closures, mass arrests of journalists and prior censorship -- Myanmar has suddenly gone back 10 years."

The index is compiled from 87 questions asked of media professionals, lawyers and sociologists. Norway maintained its hold as the country with most press freedom, while North Korea brought up the rear with the East African state of Eritrea.

The biggest improvement in Southeast Asia was seen in Indonesia, which jumped six places to 113th, while Thailand rose three rungs to 137th. But both were taken to task for using the pandemic "to reinforce obstacles to the free flow of information," and remained in the "bad" group.

Vietnam was ranked the least-free country in Southeast Asia, in 175th position. RSF said the government had reinforced its control of social media content, while conducting a wave of arrests of leading independent journalists in the run-up to the Communist Party's once-in-five-years congress in January 2021. This included Pham Doan Trang, who was awarded RSF's Press Freedom Prize for Impact in 2019.

Elsewhere, limitations on press freedom in China are always a pressing concern.

The world's No. 2 economy placed 177th in the index. "Just as COVID-19 emerged in China before spreading throughout the world, the censorship virus -- at which China is the world's undisputed specialist -- spread through Asia and Oceania and gradually took hold in much of the region," RSF said.

"This began in the semi-autonomous 'special administrative region' of Hong Kong (80th), where Beijing can now interfere directly under the national security law it imposed in June 2020, and which poses a grave threat to journalism."

Japan took one step down to 67th place, with the government of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga drawing criticism for not changing the "climate of mistrust" toward journalists "encouraged by the nationalist right."

"Nor has it ended the self-censorship that is still widespread in the media."

RSF's note on North Korea, meanwhile, is a haunting description of totalitarian control of the media and public news consumption.

"A North Korean citizen can still end up in a concentration camp just for looking at the website of a media outlet based abroad."

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