The poor state of press freedom is stunting social progress in Southeast Asia

Photo: Mbl2020 / CC BY-SA

The fundamental freedom to publish critical views on society and government is necessary for real democracy and human rights to flourish in the region.

By Zachary Frye                                                               

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released their annual ranking of the global state of press freedom earlier this month and Countries in Southeast Asia did poorly—none of the 11 countries in the ASEAN bloc scored above RSF’s “difficult situation” designation.

RSF ranks countries based on a questionnaire given to media professionals, lawyers and sociologists that focuses on media independence, self-censorship, legislative frameworks and other indicators. RSF then places countries on a five-rank scale depending on their overall score. The five categories range from a “good” media situation on the positive end of the scale to “very serious” on the negative end.

Out of the 180 countries ranked, the only Southeast Asian country in the top 100 was Timor-Leste, an ASEAN observer state. Vietnam ranked lowest in the region at 175, earning RSF’s worst rating. Singapore and Laos were also included in this designation of countries with the worst press freedom in the world.

Compared to last year’s rankings, several countries in the region showed modest improvement, including Thailand and Indonesia. Most Southeast Asian countries, however, saw their rankings fall, with Malaysia showing the region’s steepest drop, falling 18 places in the ranking.

In RSF’s report on the situation in Malaysia, they noted that since Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin took power in March 2020, media freedom has been significantly curtailed while political propaganda and prosecution of journalists under sedition and slander laws has risen.

Although freedom to express dissent and look critically at power structures has been restricted across the region for years, the continued rise and strengthening of autocratic regimes in Southeast Asia makes calls for changes in the media landscape all the more pressing.

View of the sprawling Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. flickr photo by DFID – UK Department for International Development shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Countries with media freedom are more likely to support democracy and human rights

Several studies, including by the United Nations, show the link between healthy media environments and well-functioning, democratic societies. The crux of the connection lies in the public’s ability to stay informed and hold leaders accountable, which leads to more responsive governments and encourages citizens to participate in public life.

When leaders with authoritarian tendencies restrict critical public discussion, however, this erodes healthy democratic systems. As detailed by Freedom House, a US-based advocacy organization, low or declining press freedom is heavily correlated with weak democracy. There is also a connection between a society’s ability to access a healthy media environment and adherence to basic human rights.  

In Myanmar, for instance, a crippled free press borne from decades of intermittent military rule exacerbates the persecution of the Rohingya minority because the government severely restricts independent fact-checking. Due to state-produced misinformation and rumors spread on social media platforms, many Burmese are subject to distorted and incomplete stories on the situation.

This media environment has a strong impact on public perceptions of the Rohingya crisis: according to a report by the International Crisis Group, a significant portion of the public worries that the Rohingya are a social and religious threat to the country. Although some lament the persecution of Rohingya, others are unsympathetic and follow the narrative pushed by ultranationalist voices that view the Muslim minority as outsiders.

Since persecution of the Rohingya deepened in 2016, thousands of Rohingya have been killed and over 800,000 have fled to refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh. In Myanmar, approximately 130,000 Rohingya have been confined to open-air detention centers in Rakhine State.

Len Leng, a former journalist with the Cambodia Daily holds up a copy of the final issue of the newspaper before it stopped publishing from within Cambodia in 2017. Photo: Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Rising authoritarianism makes a free and fair press a top priority in Southeast Asia

With the increased threat of militarism and authoritarianism in Southeast Asia, a free press and an informed public are paramount. Despite the restrictions against free press in the region, there are a host of independent and local publications pushing back.

In Cambodia, for example, recent years have seen many government attempts to disrupt and censor independent news outlets. Journalists are being jailed on dubious charges and some outlets are pressured to conform to government narratives.

One of the country’s biggest newspapers, the Cambodia Daily, shut down in 2017 after the government alleged that the paper owed US$6.3 million in unpaid taxes—a charge that critics say was politically motivated.

The Phnom Penh Post, another of the kingdom’s biggest papers, was bought out in 2018 by a Malaysian businessman with ties to a public relations firm that worked for Cambodian government interests. Although the government says it supports independent media, Human Rights Watch characterized the transfer of ownership of the Phnom Penh Post as “coerced.”

As with the Cambodia Daily, the government alleged the Phnom Penh Post owed the state US$3.9 million in taxes. The debt was settled as a part of the newspaper’s sale.

One outlet pushing back against the media restrictions in Cambodia is CamboJA (Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association). Instead of kowtowing to a government that has repeatedly shut down the political opposition for over three decades, the outlet looks to practice independent journalism without self-censorship and despite state pressure. 

Founded in 2019, CamboJA covers numerous sensitive topics in the country, including the sentencing of opposition leader Sam Rainsy, forced evictions and protests against the government by those in desperate need of food amid the COVID-19 lockdown. Impressed by their work, RSF nominated the outlet in 2020 for their annual press freedom award.

Myanmar, meanwhile, is seeing its own resurgence of smaller media outlets looking to expose junta crimes and highlight protest efforts. As the country is wracked by violence against civilians who protest the military’s government, including its clampdown on independent print media, underground outlets like the The Voice of Spring are helping to fill the void.

In a country where internet usage rates hover around 50% of the total population, the founder and sole team member behind Voice of Spring saw the importance of print media and began using it to get stories out. Speaking with Southeast Asia Globe, Voice of Spring publisher Ko Naing detailed how he had to find secret locations to print the publication.

As authoritarian governments across the region restrict independent media in order to maintain their grip on power, the work of independent media in the region should be acknowledged and supported whenever possible. Without a free and independent press, societies under authoritarian rule in Southeast Asia are less likely to find a way out.

About the Author

Zachary Frye
Zach is a writer and researcher based in Bangkok. He studied Political Science at DePaul University and International Relations at Harvard. Interests include human rights, political affairs, and the intersections of culture and religion.