Southeast Asia may never have been a paragon of the free press, but the democratic strides it made in the late ’80s and ’90s are rapidly unraveling. Targeted financial inquiries have forced newspapers of record to close or compromise their independence. Journalists have been discredited by sophisticated social media campaigns. Defamation, sedition and other vaguely worded laws have been used to put reporters behind bars, often alongside new legislation created to control cyberspace.
The tools of one state’s repression seem to have influenced neighbors in the creation of their own. Last year, all 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations landed in the bottom third of Reporters Without Borders’ annual World Press Freedom Index of 180 countries. Four have plummeted over the past year alone as arrests and online harassment increase.
Most Southeast Asian states have steadily sacrificed freedoms in the name of stability, looking to China as a guiding model for information control. Since 2014, Thailand’s army has overthrown an elected government, the Philippines has voted in a populist who brags about committing murder, Myanmar has been accused of ethnic cleansing and Cambodia has abandoned all pretense of democracy.
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Several of these countries, like Vietnam and Laos, have never had a truly independent press, while media survived in others such as Indonesia and the Philippines even under periods of authoritarian rule. But as China’s economy outpaces the U.S., the largely underdeveloped region is no longer beholden to the “strings attached” assistance of the West. Meanwhile, pressure to uphold standards of accountability has waned under the Trump administration. “Press freedom is deteriorating while Chinese influence is growing,” says Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “It’s unmistakable.”
With the proliferation of social media and easy access to cheap smartphones, platforms such as Facebook have become a tool to harass and intimidate journalists and activists all over Southeast Asia.
“In some countries, Facebook’s policies can have a greater impact on online expression than the law,” says Matthew Bugher, head of Asia program for Article 19, an NGO that defends freedom of information. “As the control of traditional media becomes more pervasive and social media is the one outlet that’s accessible, governments are figuring out ways to clamp down on that as well.”
Well before Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was inaugurated, it was clear he would be no friend to journalists. The day after he swept the polls on a promise of wiping out the nation’s criminals, the president-elect told reporters in his Davao City heartland that they, too, could become targets of assassination if found to be a corrupt “son of a bitch.” After taking office on June 30, 2016, he launched a brutal war on drugs that has killed thousands of suspected users, while managing to effortlessly subvert reality and discredit his critics.
Attorney Jo Clemente, chair of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) and a journalist of 30 years, says that 11 media practitioners have been killed since July 2016. While the Philippines has always been dangerous for journalists — at least 34 died in the 2009 Maguindanao Massacre — Clemente says the broader media environment is as challenging today as it’s been since the martial law period under the authoritarian rule of Ferdinand Marcos. “The entire scenario, the hatred of journalists, the hatred of lawyers, the hatred of everybody that goes against Duterte and whatever he wants to do, that jeopardizes the democratic space we live in,” she tells TIME.
Maria Ressa, editor of Philippine news site Rappler, says it was as easy as flipping a switch. An award-winning journalist and former CNN bureau chief in Manila and Jakarta, Ressa now faces six lawsuits filed by government agencies aimed at shutting down her site, which is one of the nation’s most critical independent news outlets. What may have riled the government as much as Rappler’s coverage of the drug war was its series of investigative reports about the president’s so-called “propaganda machine.” In 2016, Ressa warned colleagues in other parts of the world that the Philippines was patient zero of an epidemic she calls “online state-sponsored hate.”
Rappler’s reports detail how the Duterte campaign’s social media strategist Nic Gabunada built a network of users, at home and overseas, that disseminated pro-Duterte, inflammatory and sometimes fake content created by a team of bloggers. After Duterte’s election, two of the team’s celebrity “influencers,” pop star and sex advice columnist Mocha Uson and conservative blogger R.J. Nieto, were given official roles within his administration. They’ve since been accused of singling out and degrading journalists who reported on extrajudicial killings, setting off a cascade of online trolls that harassed them with rape and death threats on Facebook. “It’s this hate targeting journalists that is rolling back democracy,” Ressa tells TIME. “But I thank the government for giving us clarity of thought about exactly who we are, what our values are, and what we’re fighting for.”
As recently as 2016, Cambodia’s press had unusually free reign, with some of the region’s best newspapers. But ahead of July elections, Prime Minister Hun Sen launched a brazen assault on independent institutions, dissolving the largest opposition party, arresting its leader and altering the constitution. In September, The Cambodia Daily, an award-winning paper founded by an American journalist not long after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, was forced to close after failing to pay $6.3 million in back taxes the government claimed it was owed. The Phnom Penh Post, the nation’s first and last independent paper, was sold in May to a Malaysian businessman with ties to the ruling party.
If he weren’t in exile, Aun Pheap would still be breaking stories on ethnic minorities, land rights, and the cockfighting ring run by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s brother. “He was drawn to blatant injustice and abuse of power, and the chance to expose it,” Zsombor Peter, a Canadian journalist and Pheap’s frequent reporting partner at The Cambodia Daily, tells TIME. Last year, the two uncovered allegations that the military was siphoning profits from the illegal timber trade to Vietnam. They won a prestigious award from the Society of Publishers in Asia, and Pheap, 54, went to Hong Kong in October to receive it. He hasn’t returned to Cambodia since. The two had been charged with “incitement” over another story, about last year’s local election. Peter calls the charges “ludicrous,” others called it legal harassment. Instead of reporting on national elections next month, Pheap is overseas applying for asylum. (He declined to comment, citing his legal proceedings.)
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Meanwhile, the government cut more than 30 radio frequencies to prevent broadcasts from U.S.-backed Radio Free Asia and Voice of America. After RFA suspended operations in the country, two of its former reporters were arrested on espionage charges in what a State Department spokesperson described to TIME as “a politically motivated attempt to undermine media freedom and to dissuade other journalists from doing their jobs.”
A raft of new government-friendly outlets have emerged instead, while the owners of eight of the 10 biggest television networks have links to the ruling party. With opposition obliterated and the media either shut down or within its control, the administration has issued election-reporting rules that warn against undermining confidence in the vote. “The intention is to generate a climate of fear,” says Sek Sopha, of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media. “Everyone is going to be silenced.”
A similar charge has been made in Myanmar, which just two years ago was one of the region’s bright spots. When Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, a former political prisoner once fêted as a democratic icon, was peacefully elected after six decades of dictatorship, many hoped her party would grant greater freedoms to the press. Instead, dozens of journalists have been arrested and attacked. Freedom of expression activist group ATHAN has counted 36 journalists who have been charged during this current administration, most under a telecommunications law criminalizing online defamation. Several others reporting from conflict zones were charged under legacy laws including the Unlawful Association Act, which prohibits liaising with rebels. “This is a degrading blow for the [National League for Democracy] NLD-led government within the international community,” says ATHAN executive director Maung Saunghka.
Journalists say the biggest threat to press freedom is that colonial-era laws, routinely used to stifle dissent under military rule, are still being used to prosecute and muzzle the press, while new ones have been created to control online expression. Though Suu Kyi’s government is hobbled by a constitution that allows the military huge amounts of power, critics say the ruling party has done little to protect civil liberties. “Instead of stopping media harassment, the NLD government uses these oppressive laws to punish journalists,” Yin Yadanar Thein, founder of advocacy group Free Expression Myanmar (FEM) says.
Two Reuters reporters, who were investigating the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslims discovered in a mass grave, have now spent more than six months behind bars. Almost every week since their arrest, Wa Lone, 32, has stepped out of a police truck at a Yangon courthouse flashing his now-famous smile and two thumbs-up, despite his handcuffed wrists. He and his colleague, Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, could face up to 14 years in prison for violating a colonial-era Official Secrets Law. The pair were arrested in December in what may have been a sting operation: police invited them to dinner and allegedly handed them secret documents. They were held incommunicado for two weeks. Wa Lone’s pregnant wife, Pan Ei Mon, remembers that time as “the scariest moments of my life.”
The Myanmar government denies atrocities in Rakhine state, where 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fled into Bangladesh after a brutal military crackdown. An entire portion of the state has been put on lockdown; U.N. investigators have been blocked, while aid workers and journalists are only given access on brief, state-chaperoned visits. Suu Kyi’s government dismisses independent reports as “fake news.” Much like the harassment seen in the Philippines, trolls on social media portray Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo as traitors for countering the official narrative.
Where once pre-publication censorship under military rule set strict rules for what could and could not be reported, now journalists are unclear what stories will get them into trouble. “We can never say ‘there are democratic developments’ as long as we see ethical journalists are charged,” Maung Saunkha says.
Speaking outside the Yangon courtroom on June 18, Wa Lone directed his comments to state counselor Suu Kyi. “I want to let the government, especially the state counselor, know this. We were [arrested] for covering Rakhine state,” he said. Their prosecution risks casting a spell of paranoia over a generation eager to shake off the residue of junta rule. Few expected this to be Aung San Suu Kyi’s legacy.
While Singapore may be regarded as one of the most economically free and liveable cities in the world, it doesn’t fare as well when it comes to press freedom and censorship. The skyscraper-laden financial hub languishes near the bottom of global rankings at 151st out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders 2018 World Press Freedom Index.
Government-linked or owned media behemoths exercise a virtual monopoly over the country’s mainstream print and broadcast media. Journalistic content is regulated and liable to censorship, and in recent years activists, bloggers and cartoonists have been subject to detentions and charges of defamation and sedition. Human rights observers say strict legislation, including a recently enacted anti-terror law permitting media blackouts in the event of terrorist attacks, has been deliberately designed to limit freedom of expression. “This results in a chilling effect and the exercise of self-censorship by journalists and media workers, both on and offline,” says Rachel Chhoa-Howard, researcher on Singapore at Amnesty International.
Kirsten Han has encountered this kind of government intimidation first-hand. As a civil society activist and editor-in-chief of New Naratif, an online news organization covering Southeast Asia, she has been affected by the changes in Singapore’s media landscape since the 2015 general election. “The space in recent years has been shrinking,” she tells TIME. “The environment has been getting more tense and the government are now charging activists for all sorts of things and bringing in laws that will have an impact on press freedom.”
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New Naratif was conceived in 2017 as a place “where we could tell Southeast Asian stories, ones that wouldn’t fit in foreign news publications or local publications that might have censorship,” Han says. One of her main concerns, shared by tech firms like Facebook and Twitter, is the government’s intention to introduce legislation to tackle fake news. “It’s very problematic. If there’s no clear definition of what the government calls deliberate online falsehoods, the law could turn out to be very broad.”
In April, New Naratif was denied permission to register as a company or legal entity and was accused by the government of “being used by foreigners to pursue a political activity in Singapore.” Yet Han remains defiant, and continues to publish on the platform with her network of contributors. “We want Singaporeans and southeast Asians to have a space to talk about politics. Why should we not talk about these things?”
Ever since reunification in 1975, the Communist Party of Vietnam has maintained authoritarian control over freedom of expression. Independent media does not exist, leaving citizen journalists and bloggers to disseminate news at the risk of being imprisoned. Vietnam ranks 175 out of 180 on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. And yet somehow, 2017 got worse.
According to Human Rights Watch, 2017 was one of the harshest years for dissidents in Vietnam, with at least 24 known activists convicted and 41 arrested. And 2018 is looking to be even worse, with 26 known activists convicted since May. Among more than 140 political prisoners, are high-profile activist Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, aka Mother Mushroom, and environmental blogger Nguyen Van Hoa.
Another is Nguyen Trung Ton, an activist blogger who was left to die in the jungle by state security forces. While traveling to visit fellow activists in February 2017, the Protestant pastor and his friend were kidnapped by plainclothes agents. They were driven around blindfolded, beaten with iron bars, stripped naked, and abandoned. Nguyen is one of Vietnam’s most prominent dissidents. He was the last elected president of the Brotherhood for Democracy, an underground network of mostly jailed dissidents that promotes human rights. As a blogger, he wrote extensively about corruption, national security, and religious freedom. Five months after his abduction, he was arrested and charged for attempting to overthrow the state. He is currently serving 12 years in prison.
“People are really scared. They cannot freely speak out,” says his son, Effy Nguyen, 22, a video-blogger living in exile since 2012. Effy says he will be imprisoned if he returns to Vietnam, and that in the past year, writers have had to go into hiding. “People have had to completely shut down in Vietnam.”
In December, the state unveiled a cyber unit called Force 47 designed to silence critics on social media platforms like Facebook. Vietnam’s crackdown appears to work in tandem with international attention. During negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation free-trade agreement, arrests decreased “dramatically,” says Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, but were substituted by more reports of beatings. But once President Trump pulled out of the agreement, the status-quo resumed.
“The main theory is that they are copying the China-model, believing the U.S. under Trump is not going to challenge them on human rights,” says Adams. “The Vietnamese are calculating Trump doesn’t care about human rights, which is demonstrably true, and there will be little or no consequences.”
On May 10, Malaysia woke up to a new government and a surge of optimism. Voters had ousted a prime minister caught up in a multi-million dollar corruption scandal and, overnight, the country became a source of hope in a region known for its autocrats. With some of the world’s toughest censorship laws, Malaysia’s press freedom rankings had deteriorated year-on-year as the government tried to muzzle reporting on the 1MDB scandal.
Though the new Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad — who previously served from 1981 to 2003 — was himself a top-down leader with little tolerance for the press, his new administration has promised reform. He’s pledged within 100 days to abolish the world’s first Fake News Law, a vaguely worded injunction that endows the government with sweeping powers to adjudicate truths and falsehoods.
But the Fake News provision is just one among a slew of draconian laws designed to inhibit a robust press, says political cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Haque, better known as Zunar. He would know: he’s facing up to 43 years in prison on nine sedition charges over drawings deemed “detrimental to public order.” Zunar also questions whether, after the honeymoon period ends, Malaysia’s media will continue toeing the incumbent’s line, or instead adopt a new paradigm of critical, accountability reporting. “I am worried that [what] is changing is only the political master,” he says. “I can see the light at the end of the tunnel of the media freedom in Malaysia, but right now it is still very blurry and fragile.”
Steven Gan, the editor of one of Malaysia’s only independent news sites, Malaysiakini, says he is optimistic for the first time in a quarter century. “Malaysians are experiencing freedom of speech which they have not had before, and it will be hard for any government to roll it back,” Gan says. “Freedom is like toothpaste; once it’s out, it’s hard to put it back into the tube.”
With reporting by Aung Naing Soe/Yangon