Fri, Mar 01, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Southeast Asia suffers under media crackdown

Across the region, criminal law is being used as a weapon to target journalists and muzzle free and fair reporting

By Hannah Ellis-Petersen  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain People

Standing on the court steps last month after spending a night in detention, Philippine journalist Maria Ressa spoke defiantly to the dozens of gathered cameras.

This was the sixth time she had posted bail in the space of 18 months, she said.

“I will pay more bail than convicted criminals,” Ressa said. “I will pay more bail than [former Philippine first lady] Imelda Marcos.”

Ressa, the editor and founder of Rappler, a Philippine online news outlet that has been highly critical of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, has borne the brunt of a targeted crackdown on opposition media in the nation, which just two years ago was considered something of a beacon of free press in Southeast Asia.

The witch-hunt against Ressa and Rappler has seen the small, but influential news organization hit with a never-ending series of investigations and charges, from accusations of illegal foreign ownership and tax evasion to the latest charge of cyberlibel.

While it is a stark illustration of the Duterte regime’s increasing disregard for press freedom, it is also part of a broader regional trend, which is seeing criminal law weaponized to target journalists and muzzle the press.

“Southeast Asia has never been an easy place for press freedom, but what we have seen recently is a really alarming decline in almost every country, from arrests in Myanmar and the complete obliteration of opposition press in Cambodia to everything that’s been happening to Rappler in the Philippines. Then also in Thailand, where the junta have spent the past five years of their rule steadily crushing media freedom,” said Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

In September last year, Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were sentenced to seven years behind bars in Myanmar for breaking the official secrets act.

The pair had been investigating the military’s massacre of the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State and were among the first to reveal the levels of brutality.

Reuters allege the men were set up because of their journalism.

However, despite a case full of flimsy and contradictory evidence, they were convicted and Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has repeatedly resisted calls for them to be pardoned.

Free Expression Myanmar director Yin Yadanar Thein called the situation “dire and marked by self-censorship and fear.”

While the election of the National League for Democracy government in 2015, led by Burmese State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi, was supposed to mark a new era for freedom of expression in Myanmar, she said it could not be further from the reality.

The situation was only worsening, she said, leaving the vast majority of Burmese with media “that sounds like something out of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four.”

While not yet at the same censorship levels as Myanmar, the weaponization of the law against critical journalists like Ressa is also increasingly becoming the norm in the Philippines and cases have also been filed against the board of the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper and news channel ABS-CBN.

Rappler itself is facing nine legal cases and when Ressa was taken in Philippine National Bureau of Investigation officers, she was held overnight in what she described as a stunt.

“The whole thing was just an intimidation tactic to make me and the Rappler team feel like they have the power to take away our freedom, and that’s extremely petty,” Ressa said, accusing the government of using “mob tactics.”

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