The leaders of Southeast Asian nations have always tended to be thin-skinned when criticized. Criticism isn’t a problem, of course, in countries with authoritarian governments, where press freedom, if allowed at all, is regarded as a privilege bestowed by the powers-that-be rather than a right.
In countries where democracy waxes and wanes, such as Thailand and the Philippines – and in Myanmar, where they’re having another try – the news media have been going through tough times lately. While the Internet is routinely filtered, thin- skinned leaders and their governments unfairly target people working for newspapers and television news outlets.
In Cambodia, an Australian filmmaker who reports on the plight of homeless people in Phnom Penh has been accused of spying – for which country, the government isn’t yet sure. James Ricketson was arrested last June and charged with “collecting information prejudicial to national security”. He faces five to 10 years in prison if convicted. News reports quote his Cambodian friends as saying the 68-year-old is being held in a filthy, overcrowded cell and his health is deteriorating.
In Myanmar, reporters and editors have long toiled under a dark cloud of fear – fear that they could be the next ones thrown in jail on manufactured pretences, as have so many others. Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo met that fate in December and could spend 14 years in prison.
As punishment for shining light on what the United Nations has termed “textbook ethnic cleansing” with “elements of genocide”, they’re charged with violating the State Secrets Act. But observers agree their arrest was an old-fashioned set-up – cops had handed them secret documents related to the Rohingya crisis. In Time magazine, Shawn Crispin of the Committee to Protect Journalists called the indictment against the pair “a clear escalation of the government’s growing use of legal harassment to intimidate and jail journalists”.
We Support Journalists, a Myanmar-based civic organisation, says at least 32 people, including journalists, have been charged with defamation under the Telecommunications Law since Aung San Suu Kyi became Myanmar’s de facto leader in April 2016. It’s difficult to decide which is the greater tragedy here – the plight of these harassed people or the fact that Suu Kyi was once a global heroine of freedom and democracy.In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has set his gun sights on drug abusers and on Rappler, an online news outlet that publishes critical assessments of his bloody “war on drugs”. As punishment for suggesting that the extra-judicial killing of 12,000 people since mid-2016, when Duterte came to power, Rappler has been threatened with closure on accusations of violating foreign-ownership legislation. Duterte is unfazed about sharing the real reason, assigning Rappler the Trumpian epithet “fake news”.
It is sobering to recall that, only a few years ago, Southeast Asia was praised for its growing stability, flourishing civil society and robust grassroots movements that addressed issues like workers’ rights, environmental abuses and opaque government decisions. The news media, abetted by the spreading Internet, played a key role in promoting public awareness about what was wrong and what could be done to fix problems that arose.
Those days seem aeons ago now. The offline news media, already reeling with financial difficulties, are being bent to the will of national leaders. Progressive movements are in retreat. We can only wait and hope the pendulum swings back again, and soon.