In Southeast Asia, Press Freedom Takes a Turn for the Orwellian

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In Southeast Asia, Press Freedom Takes a Turn for the Orwellian

Increasingly, journalists are being prosecuted not for publishing falsehoods – but for the potential consequences of their reporting.

In Southeast Asia, Press Freedom Takes a Turn for the Orwellian

A reading a newspaper on his motorbike in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Credit: Flickr/Bryon Lippincott

Last year, “fake news” legislation was the fashionable way for Southeast Asia’s authoritarians to silence journalists. Now some no longer even bother of trying to prove falsehoods; instead they reckon that journalists ought to be arrested and jailed because of how their words might be interpreted by readers, or how they may motivate an event that has not even taken place. I am talking about the charge of “incitement.”

Cambodia is leading this charge, and its “use of incitement laws to jail journalists sends a threatening message to news outlets and could result in self-censorship,” a Voice of America report informed us in July. For instance, Sok Oudom, a radio owner and journalist, was arrested in May after reporting on a land dispute. This, a court spokesperson said, was tantamount to “inciting villagers to grab military and state land for private ownership.”

A month earlier, we saw the arrest of Sovann Rithy, founder of online news outlet TVFB, for “incitement to cause chaos and harm social security”. His crime? Accurately quoting Prime Minister Hun Sen, who said that motorcycle taxi drivers should sell their vehicles if they went bankrupt during the pandemic. He was convicted in October and released from prison after having spent six months behind bars.

It’s not only Cambodia. An emergency decree adopted in Bangkok last month means that media outlets can be shut down for inciting public fear or chaos. Myanmar has used “incitement” charges against journalists for years, including the cases of Kyaw Zaw Linn, Nayee Min and Phyo Wai, who were charged in 2018 under article 505 (b) of the Penal Code, which criminalizes published or circulated information that causes “fear or alarm to the public.”

Like most of Southeast Asia’s media-gag legislation, the term “incitement” is broadly-defined – and able to stretch to whatever definition the authorities so desire. More worryingly, it fundamentally changes the nature of journalism: media ethics no longer hinges on “intent” or “content,” but the potential “consequence” of what a journalist writes. What Sovann Rithy wrote was factual and honest, but the authorities ruled it could potentially lead to “chaos” depending on how readers interpreted it. I say “potentially,” because the imagined consequence of his reporting never eventuated. (The irony that it was the PM’s words accused of creating the chaos was lost of the Cambodian authorities, yet it was also a correct assessment about Hun Sen’s rhetoric.)

It also reveals how much contempt these authoritarian governments have for their citizens, believing them to be so immature and frenzied that they cannot handle unwelcome facts. Infantilizing them, these governments reckon that their citizens are easily “feared” or “alarmed.” And it says a lot about how the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) views social stability, that the authorities regard a report that accurately quotes the prime minister as a potential prelude to “chaos.”

Yet it isn’t surprising that authoritarians see the media in this way. From the state-run media in Vietnam or Laos to the newspapers belonging to the ruling parties or their friends in Cambodia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, their only purpose is the consequence of their reporting: how they affect the reputation of the parties and their politicians. For these media outlets, the truth can be molded to fit whatever narrative authoritarian governments desire.

But if independent journalists must now consider every potential consequence of what we write, this not only radically changes the nature of our profession. It also means that it is no longer the truth that matters, but rather how the truth is interpreted. Clearly the incitement laws puts the burden on the journalists to interpret the numerous consequences. And with incitement laws, journalists must consider not just how they intend their words to be interpreted, but also the innumerable ways they might be interpreted by readers, an almost impossible task which will, as mentioned above, lead to even more self-censorship.

Since Phnom Penh has constantly rejected the following statement, including in another retort this week, let’s use it as an example: If I was to write that the White House judged Cambodia’s 2018 general election to be “neither free nor fair and failed to represent the will of the Cambodian people,” it would strictly be accurate. The White House did say that, as you can see here. But by reporting this, am I agreeing with it? Not necessarily (though in this case I do, as I covered those elections). And by reporting this statement, am I saying that the White House’s opinion is the truth? Or, for that matter, am I inciting readers to act upon this statement, with the logical conclusion being that the Cambodian government is illegitimate?

Clearly, one can report this statement without any intention to “cause chaos” (whatever that phrase means to the Cambodian government), but it doesn’t stop a reader from interpreting those words and using them to form their own conclusions. But am I “inciting” such conclusions? I might be “informing” an opinion that leads to unlawful behavior, but one would have to be incredibly presumptuous to think that this was my “intention.”

No journalist can know in advance what the consequences of their reporting will be. I cannot even presume that this article will be read, nor how the reader may react to the subtleties of what I say. Indeed, I am not painting an optimistic picture of free speech in the region, so it’s possible that whereas one reader may feel a pang of motivation to change the situation, another reader might drift into hopelessness. (Indeed, rarely is a journalist in Southeast Asia accused by the authorities of fomenting apathy, but given the glut of bad news from the region, that is surely a more common reaction than “alarm” or “chaos”.)

Aha, you may retort, but of course a journalist thinks about the consequences of their work: as they sit drilling at keyboards, do they not intend for their words to be read, to spark debate, to improve the reader’s knowledge of a subject, to shape a narrative? If they are a political journalist, do they not intend to alter how the public understands politics? When reporting on a corruption case, doesn’t the journalist wish to bring attention to the issue and thereby affect the outcome of that case? Doesn’t a journalist presume there to be certain outcomes because, if not, then their whole endeavor would be a waste of time?

Indeed, journalists understand that their work produces a reaction. One should be no defender of pseudo-objectivity in this profession, as journalists aren’t automatons, nor thoughtless or passionless. Indeed, the indifferent and detached, by their very nature, are always aligned with the status-quo and at risk of credulity.

But it is laughable to claim that a journalist’s intentions can be inferred from the potentially limitless ways their words can be interpreted. And it’s outright tyrannical to believe, as some government officials do, that journalists should be arrested because their reporting might lead to events that have not even taken place.

None of this about protecting people from “chaos” or “alarm”; it’s merely about protecting already coddled and insular authoritarian leaders from public scrutiny.