By Zachary Abuza
Media freedom across Southeast Asia continues to decline according to Reporters Without Borders’ (RWB) 2015 report. Despite the region’s economic vibrancy, Southeast Asian states languish in the lower half of the 180-country survey. Half the countries in ASEAN saw their rankings drop and only three improved. Meanwhile, Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index indicates that endemic corruption continues to plague the region. It is time that ASEAN governments recognize a free press is conducive to the economic growth and clean governance that they seek.
Journalism in Southeast Asia is under threat according to numerous watchdog organizations. Since 1992, some 112 journalists have been killed, including 77 in the Philippines alone. Two journalists were killed in Southeast Asia in 2014, while 28 were arrested, up from 19 in 2013, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. This represents more than 10 percent of the total global arrests in 2014. Likewise Freedom House‘s annual report on internet freedom found that the Philippines had the only free internet in ASEAN.
Indonesia saw the sharpest decline in the latest RWB report, falling by 6 places to 138. Attacks on journalists remain frequent and under-prosecuted. Recent apostasy charges against the editor of the Jakarta Post, later dropped, demonstrate just how fragile Indonesia’s gains are. Indonesia’s internet is still only ranked “Partly Free” by Freedom House.
Thailand, whose leaders intensified a media crackdown following the May 2014 coup, fell by four places to 134. Thailand’s overall human rights situation since the coup has been described by Freedom House as in “free fall” and the government is trying to increase its ability to censor and eavesdrop on all communications. The junta arrested two journalists in 2014, including an editor who published a work deemed to be in violation of the country’s archaic lèse-majesté law. In late December 2014 and again in February 2015, the prime minister expressed support for a proposal to shut down media outlets that were critical of the government.
Authorities have tried over 30 people for lèse-majesté violations since the May 2014 coup. The Ministry of Information and Communications has shut down 1,200 Thai websites deemed to violate the lèse-majesté statutes, while arresting anti-coup activists for their social media postings.
Singapore, whose government uses libel laws to silence the opposition and any legitimate criticism, fell by 3 spots to 153 in RWB’s report. The government has never lost a libel case, including against major western news organs, and recently a Singaporean court ordered a blogger to pay $28,000 in legal fees in a defamation case brought by the prime minister. Brunei, inexplicably rated the “freest” media in Southeast Asia by RWB, also fell by 4 to 121.
Vietnam has the most restricted media in the region, ranked 175, and its assault on the media has only increased ahead of the quadrennial party congress in early 2016. Vietnam currently has 19 journalists and bloggers under arrest, making it the fifth leading jailer of journalists in the world. In a one month period, between November and December 2014, Vietnam arrested three bloggers, charging them for violating vague national security provisions and “abusing democratic freedoms.” Although it recently released prominent two bloggers on bail, both are still being investigated. The government recently shut down a legally registered newspaper for its anti-corruption investigations and is planning to charge its editor-in-chief on similar grounds.
The most improved country in the region is the Philippines, which rose by 8 places to 141. The Philippines has a very vibrant and free media, and the freest internet in Southeast Asia. But violence against journalists and the government’s seeming unconcern continues to pull the Philippines down. According to Human Rights Watch, since the end of martial law in 1986, only 14 convictions have resulted from the 172 cases filed for journalists being murdered. One of two targeted assassinations in Southeast Asia in 2014 was, unsurprisingly, a Filipino.
Myanmar improved by 1 spot to 144, but the targeted killing of a journalist in 2014, and the stalling of reforms and surge in sectarian violence, demonstrate how fragile gains are.
Malaysia’s ranking remained unchanged at 147, below the once Orwellian Myanmar. Prime Minister Najib Razak broke a promise to rescind the colonial era Sedition Act and politically motivated prosecutions under it have increased. More than 10 sedition cases have been filed against prominent opposition politicians, youth activists, and a law professor.
Laos’s ranking also remained unchanged at 171. In September 2014, Laos passed a highly restrictive internet law based on those of Vietnam and Myanmar. The law is vaguely written and criminalizes undefined anti-government and party content. All print and broadcast media in Laos is state-owned and heavily censored.
Governments in the region argue that a controlled media environment leads to social harmony and economic growth. But without a free press, corruption will continue to hinder growth and development. And Southeast Asian states will be caught in the middle income trap if they cannot develop knowledge-based economies that depend on the free flow of information. Vietnam’s software industry, for instance, is one of the most important growth areas in its private sector. Yet it is facing restrictions based on the government’s attempt to control the internet. It is time that ASEAN governments view a free press as conducive to the economic growth and clean governance that they seek.