January 12, 2018 7:00 am JST
Keith B. Richburg

Trump's 'war on media' reverberates in Asia

Region's strongmen endanger prosperity with press crackdowns

The U.S. government under President Donald Trump can no longer be a reliable advocate for the rights of journalists worldwide. © Reuters

Asia witnessed a particularly disturbing rollback in free expression last year amid escalating attacks on the media and harassment of journalists. And 2018 holds little promise for improvement.

One striking shift over the past year has been in the role of the United States under President Donald Trump. Once a staunch defender of media freedom, Washington can no longer be counted on to advocate for the rights of journalists worldwide. Trump, who has labeled U.S. reporters as "the enemy of the American people" and purveyors of "fake news," has abrogated the president's traditional role of standing up for the value of an independent press and the free flow of information.

Asia's authoritarian leaders have begun to echo Trump's cry of "fake news" to justify their crackdown on the media. From Beijing and Bangkok, to Phnom Penh and Naypyitaw, journalists have been jailed or subjected to violence, media outlets shuttered, and new restrictions imposed on reporters. This has happened without a word of concern, let alone condemnation, from the White House. In many cases, Asian leaders have echoed Trump's words, with some, such as Cambodia's Hun Sen, acting as if they had the U.S. president's tacit support.

"I would like to send a message to the president that your attack on CNN is right," Hun Sen said, calling journalists "an anarchistic group."

Recent developments suggest such pressures on the media in Asia are only likely to increase this year. In the coming year, at least three Southeast Asian countries -- Cambodia, Malaysia and Thailand -- are scheduled to hold elections that seem set to further cement authoritarian rule. In all three countries, muzzling the media through censorship, arrests or even closures of media outlets have been a central part of government strategies to retain control and quell dissent.

China's growing presence in the region also makes it much easier for Asian autocrats to tamp down the media in their countries. All three countries holding elections, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia, have been growing closer to Beijing's orbit in the face of criticism from the West. China recently announced plans to assist Cambodia with its elections after the European Union and the U.S. pulled out, citing the ongoing repression.

The media clampdown is more than a moral concern. A free press is also an economic imperative. Corruption is the cancer eating away at many Asian economies, deterring investors and retarding growth, and one of the cures is to unshackle the media.

Various academic and research studies have concluded that countries where journalists can report and publish unfettered have lower levels of corruption than those under authoritarian regimes, and their governments are more accountable. Organizations like Transparency International and Corruption Watch list Cambodia and Myanmar among the world's most corrupt countries, while graft is also a serious problem in Vietnam, Laos, China, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines.

The list of Asia's most corrupt nations and those where the media is most restricted or under threat is closely correlated. According to Reporters Without Borders, which ranked 180 countries in 2017 for their degree of press freedom, Myanmar came in at 131, followed by Cambodia at 132, Thailand at 142, Malaysia at 144, Laos at 170, Vietnam at 175 and China at a dismal 176. Only the city-state of Singapore managed to score high for not being corrupt while also registering low on the press freedom index.

Corruption cleanser

In almost every case, a free press is integral to a corruption-free economy. An independent media, playing a watchdog role and holding government officials accountable, is an essential pillar of democratic development.

Asia's authoritarian leaders did not need Trump to pursue their own media clampdowns. They were restricting the media long before Trump emerged on the political scene. But Trump's "fake news" meme has given them a handy cudgel with which to beat their own media into submission. It allows them to dismiss the foreign media, particularly U.S. outlets, as dishonest -- parroting the Trump line.

Trump seemed to bolster growing hostility among some Asian leaders such as Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi and Cambodia's Hun Sen against negative Western coverage, tweeting after his November trip to the region: "While in the Philippines I was forced to watch @CNN, which I have not done in months, and again realized how bad, and FAKE, it is. Loser!"

People's Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, followed suit with its own tweet saying: "Trump's #fakenews mantra speaks to a larger truth about Western media." The Twitter post was linked to an editorial in the paper which accused the Western media of only reporting biased and negative stories that downplayed China's accomplishments.

"If the president of the United States claims that his nation's leading media outlets are a stain on America, then negative news about China and other countries should be taken with a grain of salt since it is likely that bias and political agendas are distorting the real picture," said the People's Daily.

Hun Sen, in office for more than 30 years and preparing for re-election, also reflected Trump's attacks on the media. He used Trump's vitriolic attacks to justify closing down the Cambodian broadcasts of Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.

It is no coincidence that the venerable Cambodia Daily newspaper, closed by Hun Sen over purported unpaid back taxes, was exposing alleged human rights abuses, including the arrests and forced exile of opposition figures, and government corruption. The paper reported on land disputes involving associates of Hun Sen and misappropriated funds by government officials.

Similarly, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak launched a campaign against local media outlets that exposed the huge scandal involving his personal bank account and the country's sovereign investment fund, 1MDB.

Hiding crimes

In Myanmar, authorities accused Western media of reporting "fake news" on the military's brutal campaign against the minority Muslim Rohingya -- a campaign that has been widely labeled ethnic cleansing. Two Reuters journalists covering the Rohingya crisis were jailed on Dec. 12 and remain in custody, accused of violating the Official Secrets Act.

U.S. presidents have traditionally used the power and prestige of their visits abroad to pry open official doors a little for journalists in the most restrictive countries by insisting on taking along a large contingent of White House reporters, raising the cases of jailed journalists, and insisting on joint press conferences with often recalcitrant foreign leaders. Not so with Trump.

As far as is known, Trump did not raise the issue of press freedom in China or with any Southeast Asian leader he met during his Asian trip in November. Press access was largely restricted throughout his tour. I n China, there was no joint press conference with Chinese President Xi Jinping because "it was at the Chinese insistence there were no questions," according to White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Sanders was recently asked whether the White House was concerned about authoritarian regimes adopting the phrase "fake news" to try to delegitimize the press.

"I'd have to look at their comments to be more specific on what they've said," Sanders replied. "But our concern is making sure that the information that the people receive in this country is fair and accurate."

Shortly before Trump's election in 2016, the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists took the unprecedented step of warning, "Any failure of the United States to uphold its own standards emboldens dictators and despots to restrict the media in their own countries."

At the time, the group's warning was criticized by some as hyperbolic. One year into Trump's term, it seems eerily prescient.

Keith B. Richburg, a former foreign editor of The Washington Post, is director of the University of Hong Kong's Journalism and Media Studies Center.

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