The latest edition of Reporters Without Borders (RSF)’s annual ranking ranking of media freedom offers a deflating, though unsurprising, portrait of the state of the press in Southeast Asia, with 10 of the region’s 11 countries occupying positions in the bottom half of the ranking.
The World Press Freedom Index, in which the Paris-based press advocacy group assesses the state of journalism in 180 countries and territories, was published yesterday to coincide with World Press Freedom Day. The report found that the press situation was “very serious” in three Southeast Asian nations, and “difficult” in seven more. Just one – Timor-Leste – ranked higher.
According to a statement accompanying its release this year’s index highlights a continued retreat of media freedoms, which reflects the growing power of authoritarian governments and “the disastrous effects of news and information chaos – the effects of a globalized and unregulated online information space that encourages fake news and propaganda.”
Both of these trends were apparent in Southeast Asia, where the most significant slider was Myanmar, which ranked 176th out of the 180 countries and territories examined by RSF, down from 139th in last year’s survey. This obviously reflects the country’s rapid descent into repression since the military’s seizure of power in February 2021.
Prior to the coup, the country’s government was far from a paragon of press freedom. Since last February, however, the situation has transformed dramatically for the worse. Myanmar has become “one of the world’s largest prisons for media professionals,” the report stated, as the junta banned independent media outlets and re-established its old system of press censorship.
The military government also detained more writers, academics, and public intellectuals than any other country last year. According to PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index, which was released last month, Myanmar’s junta detained at least 26 writers in 2021, and now sits third in the world behind only Saudi Arabia, which currently has 29 writers in detention, and China (85). Two Myanmar journalists have died in custody since the coup.
Lagging just two spots behind Myanmar in RSF’s World Press Freedom Myanmar was Vietnam, which like its fellow communist states China (175th position) and Laos (161st) continued to maintain a close hold over the press. Much the same was true of Brunei (144th), where the leading daily newspapers are directly owned by the family of absolute monarch, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, and self-censorship among journalists is the norm.
The situation was not much better in the region’s nominal democracies, where the corrosive impacts of media concentration and rising illiberalism have undermined the freedom of the press to hold centers of power to account. The Philippines, which came in 147th, was one of several democracies in which the country’s outspoken media “face pressure from increasingly authoritarian and/or nationalist governments.” Under President Rodrigo Duterte, the report added, “some critical journalists [have been] targets of intense harassment campaigns, such as the one aimed at Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa.”
The next spots were filled by Cambodia (142nd position), where Prime Minister Hun Sen “went after the press mercilessly ahead of parliamentary elections in July 2018,” and Indonesia (117), where the freedom enjoyed by the country’s flourishing press remains circumscribed by the power of the military and radical Islamic movements.
Only slightly ahead of these were Thailand (115), whose treatment of the press has been in line with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-0-cha’s statement that journalists should “play a major role in supporting the government’s affairs,” and Malaysia (113), where reporters and editors have been subject to spurious legal challenges by powerful government figures. The report also spared no criticisms of Singapore (139), whose tight regulatory control over the media “does not fall far short of China when it comes to suppressing press freedom.”
The one gleam of light in an otherwise gloomy picture was Timor-Leste, which ranked a remarkable 17th, ahead of established democracies including Canada, Australia, and the United States. There, a relatively free press has played an important role in the consolidation of the country’s young democratic system since its independence in 2002. But the state of politics in Southeast Asia suggests that for all the hard work and bravery of the region’s media professionals, journalist will continue to be a risky occupation for some time to come.