Singapore—Pointing out that many countries in South East Asia are experiencing a crackdown in press freedom, noted UK media outlet, The Guardian, has called Malaysia the ‘only possible beacon of press freedom’ in the region.
In comparison, based on the results from Reporters Without Borders’ 2018 World Press Freedom Index, Singapore ranks 151st among 180 nations, due to an “intolerant government” and “self-censorship.” The Republic has held this rank since 2017.
In an article published on Monday, February 25, Hannah Ellis-Petersen The Guardian’s South East Asia correspondent, outlines how it’s becoming a trend in the region to weaponise the law in order to prevent fair and free reporting.
The foremost example given is that of the Philippines, specifically that of Maria Ressa, founder of an online news portal, Rappler, which has been critical of autocratic leader President Rodrigo Duterte. Earlier in February, Ms Ressa was arrested on cyber libel charges and was detained in jail for one night before she was allowed to post bail. She has also faced a number of other charges from tax evasion to illegal foreign ownership.
Ironically enough, as The Guardian points out, two years ago the Philippines was “considered something of a beacon of free press in south-east Asia.”
The article continues, “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 weaponised to target journalists and muzzle the press.”
The Guardian article goes on to describe the muzzling of press freedom in Myanmar, Cambodia, and Thailand.
It quotes Shawn Crispin, south-east Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, who says, “South-east 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.
In Myanmar last September, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, journalists for Reuters, were given a jail sentence of seven years due to the violation of the country’s official secrets act. Many believed that the two journalists were set up because of their exposes concerning the massacre of the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state.
Thailand, which has also been known in the past for the freedom its press enjoyed, has seen a reversal of this freedom, with several critical journalists arrested and detained ever since the military took over the government in 2014.
In Cambodia, the free press has in effect been obliterated, following the removal of opposition political parties and the uncontested win of Prime Minister Hun Sen in the elections last July.
In effect, Cambodia lost its free press in under two years, with the main opposition paper, independent local and national radio stations closing down, as well as the arrest of several journalists.
The ownership of the Phnom Penh Post has also changed hands and is now run by a businessman with ties to the Prime Minister.
While The Guardian calls Malaysia “the only possible beacon of hope” in the region, it notes that even there, “optimism has dimmed in recent months.”
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Dr Tun Mahathir Mohamad’s return to power in May 2018 should have been a new dawn for media freedom, but his administration has yet to repeal legislation used to take down critical journalists in the former years.
Popular Malaysian political cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, commonly known as Zumar, told The Guardian, “All the laws that were used by the previous government to shackle critics, they still exist, and I see no serious steps to abolish them.
“People are still holding back criticism of Mahathir, they still want to give him time, but it cannot last forever. I am sure that he will go back to his old ways of being a dictator who silences his critics. In my view that is why he is keeping all these laws; because one day he will use them again.”
However, the situation in Malaysia is still better than in Singapore, where, according to Reporters Without Borders’ 2018 assessment, “Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s government reacts quickly to criticism from journalists and does not hesitate to use them, apply pressure to make them unemployable, or even force them to leave the country.”
The Media Development Authority has the power to censor all forms of journalistic content.
Defamation suits are common in the city-state and may sometimes be accompanied by a charge of sedition, which is punishable by up to 21 years in prison.
As a result of judicial and financial pressure from the authorities, self-censorship is widespread, including within the alternative independent media.
The red lines imposed by the authorities, known by journalists as ‘OB markers’ (for out-of-bounds markers), apply to an ever-widening range of issues and public figures.
As in many southeast Asian countries, governmental plans to legislate against ‘fake news’ are seen as a threat to the freedom to inform. A proposed law that would allow the police to search homes and electronic devices without a warrant poses a grave threat to the confidentiality of journalists’ sources.”