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Cover Story

Enemies of the state -- why the press in Southeast Asia is under attack

News outlets from the Philippines to Myanmar face growing threats

BANGKOK/MANILA -- Myanmar has closed off an entire section of the country to reporters. Cambodia is shutting down news organizations. The Philippine president has casually discussed murdering journalists. And the Thai government has suggested the press needs some "attitude adjustment."

Hopes for constructive, healthy tension between Southeast Asia's increasingly authoritarian governments and the media have degenerated into mutual contempt and increasingly naked repression. Indeed, some journalists and bloggers have effectively been designated enemies of the state.

"These trends reflect growing currents around issues of identity politics and populism," veteran Thai journalist Kavi Chongkittavorn, a regional commentator and former president of the Thai Journalists Association, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "They reflect the growing confidence, and even sense of impunity, of ruling parties that they are very much in control of their own narratives."

Media freedom was the issue that recently transported Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's civilian head of government and former darling of the international press, into an incandescent rage that ended a beautiful friendship. Her old American pro-democracy ally, Bill Richardson, the man who in the 1990s lobbied for her freedom from house arrest, had the temerity to request on Jan. 22 the release of two Reuters journalists arrested 41 days earlier under Myanmar's 1923 Official Secrets Act. Their row continued over dinner, with Richardson wondering at one point if he was physically safe in the quivering presence of the 1991 Nobel peace laureate.

"It was a very heated exchange," said Richardson, who dropped out of an international commission invited by Suu Kyi's government to investigate the exodus of nearly 700,000 Rohihgyas, members of a Muslim minority, into Bangladesh since August. In this bitter public divorce, the two sides later could not even agree on whether Richardson had resigned or been "terminated."

Detained Reuters journalists Wa Lone, left, and Kyaw Soe Oo are escorted by police during a break at a court hearing in Yangon on Feb. 1.   © Reuters

"The main reason I am resigning is that this advisory board is a whitewash," Richardson told Reuters. He refused to be part of "a cheerleading squad for the government."

Richardson was clearly stunned by Suu Kyi's hostility. His appeal for the two imprisoned journalists had already been telegraphed in the regional press. "She blames all the problems that Myanmar is having on the international media, on the U.N., on human rights groups, on other governments, and I think this is caused by the bubble that is around her, by individuals that are not giving her frank advice," the former New Mexico governor and U.S. ambassador to the U.N. told The Associated Press. His old boss, former President Bill Clinton, is among those who have appealed for the release of the reporters.

Significantly, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, heading an earlier commission set up on Suu Kyi's initiative, called in August for proper media access to Rakhine State -- something the government continues to refuse.

The two journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were arrested outside a Yangon restaurant on Dec. 12 with classified documents given to them by police relating to the brutal crackdown by security forces in Rakhine. The violence included the murders of eight men -- shopkeepers, fishermen and an Islamic teacher -- and two teenage students on Sept. 2 during operations to flush Rohingyas out of Inn Din, a coastal village. Although the reporters had no opportunity to disseminate any secret information, bail has been denied. The speed of the arrests and contradictory police statements have raised suspicions that the two reporters were entrapped.

"The Reuters investigation of the Inn Din massacre was what prompted Myanmar police authorities to arrest two of the news agency's reporters," Reuters said in a detailed investigative report published on Feb. 8. "Then, on Jan. 10, the military issued a statement that confirmed portions of what Wa Lone, Kyaw Soe Oo and their colleagues were preparing to report, acknowledging that 10 Rohingya men were massacred in the village." Members of the security forces are now facing rare disciplinary action over the slayings. 

The very public falling out between State Counselor Suu Kyi and Richardson illustrates the strained relations between media advocates and governments around the world. Media organizations facing walls of government criticism and official denials may be nothing new, but the walls have grown higher recently. At the global apex of this issue sits President Donald Trump, who pre-empted the Oscar season by doling out fake news awards -- but only for U.S. news organizations.

Across Southeast Asia, antagonism between government and the media is intensifying as the voices of both local and international news organizations come under pressure. This rising hostility toward press freedom is stoking concerns about growing authoritarianism in the region.

All 10 countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations fall into the bottom third of the annual press freedom league table compiled by Reporters Without Borders of France. Thailand and the Philippines, once vaunted as the freest presses in the region, have slipped from 66 to 142 and 89 to 127, respectively, since the index was introduced in 2002. (The U.S. has also fallen, from 17 to 43.) Within ASEAN, Indonesia does the best, at an unimpressive 124.

The bottom slot on the 180-nation list has long been owned by North Korea, but Vietnam and Laos are not much above it at 175 and 170, respectively. For regional comparison, the International Federation of Journalists recently reported "unprecedented hardship" in Hong Kong's media industry, yet RSF ranked it 73rd. India and China trailed in the ASEAN league at 136 and 176, respectively.

"Rollback of democracy"

The clampdown has been especially dramatic in the Philippines, long home to a fiercely independent press.

"Freedom of expression in the Philippines was a beacon of hope for much of media in Southeast Asia," lamented Kavi, harking back to the downfall of strongman President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

President Rodrigo Duterte, who in 2016 authorized a burial among national heroes for Marcos' embalmed corpse, has frequently growled profanities at the press over critical coverage.

"Just because you're a journalist, you're not exempted from assassination if you are a son of a bitch," he warned reporters in 2016 before entering office. An army of pro-government trolls constantly harries critics in cyberspace and by other means.

Journalists and others protest the decision by the Philippine authorities to revoke the license of online news site Rappler, in Quezon City, Metro Manila, on Jan. 19.   © AP

Last month, the country's Securities and Exchange Commission ruled that Rappler, an online news website set up in 2011, had violated a constitutional prohibition on foreign ownership of media companies.

The regulator cited a 2015 investment agreement with U.S.-based Omidyar Network, a fund set up by ebay founder Pierre Omidyar, which had used Philippine Depositary Receipts. The SEC branded the use of this popular investment vehicle a "deceptive scheme" intended to circumvent the foreign ownership ban. The SEC did not order the immediate closure of the website, but its decision will likely kill the company, which has grown rapidly into a popular, influential and viable news supplier. Part of its success stems from its probing of the Duterte administration, best known internationally for its bloody war on drugs.

"In a strange way, it's great to have something concrete because intimidation has been going on online," Rappler chief executive Maria Ressa told the Nikkei Asian Review. A former Jakarta and Manila bureau chief with CNN, Ressa is noted for her coverage of political violence. Ressa and her reporters at Rappler have been attacked online with death and rape threats by trolls and others who find their reporting unfair.

"It is much easier to be in a war zone because you know where the gunfire is coming from," she said. "In the virtual world, you don't know what's real and what is not."

Ressa continued: "It's a rollback of the democracy that we were so proud of -- no matter how imperfect -- to a period where there is a lack of respect for the rule of law and for the role of journalists."

Yet even after the fall of Marcos, the lives of Filipino journalists have been little respected. The Committee to Protect Journalists in the U.S. records 92 Philippine journalists killed in the course of their work from 1992 to 2018, with a spike in 2009 when 32 were among 58 people killed in a single incident during a local political campaign. CPJ's global figure for the same period is 1,278.

"After the president took over, I was convinced that we were in for a descent into authoritarianism, and I think we are well on that grim path today," Vergel Santos, a Rappler contributor and chair of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, told the Nikkei Asian Review. A "Black Friday" protest was organized by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines after the SEC decision.

"If Duterte succeeds in silencing Rappler, it will have a profound chilling effect on Philippine media freedom, encouraging self-censorship by reporters and media outlets fearful of government reprisals for critical reporting at a time when the watchdog role of a free press is more urgently needed than ever," said Phelim Kine, deputy director for Asia of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.

Duterte has threatened to open tax cases against other businesses. Buckling under such pressure, the owners of a critical newspaper, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, recently sold it to Ramon Ang, a businessman Duterte calls a friend. The newspaper initially attempted to publish a tally of the fatalities in Duterte's infamous drugs war, but stopped in February last year. The toll is now unknown.

National police acknowledge killing nearly 4,000 alleged drug suspects since operations began in 2016, but related vigilante killings exceed that figure. National Police spokesman John Bulalacao recently told a local TV network that over 20,300 homicide cases are under investigation, of which 2,000 are drug-related.

"Too generous"

In Cambodia, coverage is being stifled by the forced closure of critical news organizations. Foreign journalists seeking accreditation have also encountered increased official obstruction in the run-up to national elections in July -- even though there is little expectation of the Hun Sen government losing. Opposition leader Kem Sokha was arrested last September and is imprisoned for allegedly treasonous comments made to his supporters about receiving U.S. support. His Cambodia National Rescue Party was subsequently dissolved by parliament, much to the outrage of the U.S. senate and other foreign critics.

Copies of the final edition of the Cambodia Daily are seen at the newspaper's Phnom Penh office on Sept. 4, its last day of operation.

After local elections in June 2017, the government shut down 19 radio stations relaying U.S. government-backed Radio Free Asia and Voice of America broadcasts across the country. RFA has been threatened with a 20-year retroactive tax bill, and has had to close its office and operations in Cambodia after it was also accused of violating media registration requirements. Some three-dozen staff were laid off. VOA also has tax problems.

"The actions of the Hun Sen government make abundantly clear why 'surrogate' broadcasters like RFA are needed," Libby Liu, the president of RFA, told the Nikkei Asian Review.

After RFA continued to broadcast from outside Cambodia, authorities arrested two of its former employees, Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, and accused them of still working for RFA. They remain jailed.

The English-language Cambodia Daily, meanwhile, was presented with a retroactive $6 million tax bill that bankrupted it and forced its closure in September after over 24 years of feisty journalism. Douglas Steele, the newspaper's general manager, has not been allowed to leave the country pending a trial for tax evasion.

The situation in neighboring Vietnam is worse. Since mid-2017,  a half-dozen RFA contributors and staff members have been detained and questioned, of whom three are still in jail. RFA videographer Nguyen Van Hoa was sentenced to seven years in prison in November 2017 after reporting a notorious toxic spill by a Taiwanese steel plant that devastated hundreds of kilometers of fishing grounds.

Radio Free Asia videographer Nguyen Van Hoa, shown here at his trial in November 2017, was sentenced to seven years in prison after reporting a toxic spill in Vietnam.   © AP

Popular blogger Mother Mushroom (Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh) was given a 10-year sentence for commenting on the same environmental disaster. Her alleged offenses included interviews with RFA and others.

"The very nature of RFA's work -- holding regimes accountable to their people when they otherwise wouldn't be -- places us as a news organization in a position of contention," said RFA's Liu. "The free flow of information is the single most threatening thing to any totalitarian trying to control vast populations through violence and intimidation."

Repressive governments do have media allies, however. At the 19th General Assembly of the Confederation of ASEAN Journalists in Bangkok in January, only the Thai delegates complained about restrictions on media freedom. "From being a beacon of press freedom many years back, Thailand has now been put in a group of countries where the freedom of press is threatened," said Thepchai Yong, president of the Confederation of Thai Journalists.

Kea Puy, secretary-general of the Club of Cambodian Journalists, was more cheerful as he described a recent gala dinner for 3,000 journalists hosted by Hun Sen: "He was too generous. In fact, it is very fortunate for Cambodian journalists that we have had two historical leaders, King Sihanouk and Hun Sen, [who] are both journalist lovers, media lovers."

Kyaw Swa Min, general secretary of the Myanmar Journalists Association, remarked on the amount of "fake news and hate speech" surrounding recent developments in Rakhine. Following a number of arrests for criticizing the country's leaders in the press and on social media, he told his colleagues that the MJA had successfully lobbied for leniency. "Now the government has reduced the sentence from three years to two years," he said.

In the current climate, that might count as progress.

Additional reporting by chief editor of the Nikkei Asian Review Gwen Robinson in Bangkok, Nikkei staff writers Yukako Ono in Bangkok and Mikhail Flores in Manila, and Nikkei Asian Review deputy editor Zach Coleman in Hong Kong

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