Engendering Media Freedom

In this episode, we will talk about the 2nd and the 3rd publication of New Naratif’s Media Freedom Insights series titled “Engendering Media Freedom”, the role of Altermidya, and what to expect from New Naratif’s 4th MFI publication.

INTRO

Welcome to New Naratif’s Southeast Asia Dispatches. I’m your host, Bonnibel Rambatan, Editorial Manager for New Naratif. New Naratif is a movement to democratise democracy in Southeast Asia, and this podcast is one of the ways we attempt to do just that.

If you’ve been following us for a while, you’re probably familiar with The Media Freedom in Southeast Asia Project. This project strives to better understand the lived experiences of media workers when facing the increasingly hostile climate of Southeast Asia. Media Freedom Insights, the research arm of that project, is a series of New Naratif reports dedicated to the fight for media freedom in Southeast Asia.

Our current Media Freedom Insights series, titled “Engendering Media Freedom,” showcases the gendered experiences of journalists in the region to map out an overview of the media freedom landscape. We have published “Findings from Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei” in July 2023 as well as “Insights from Indonesia and the Philippines” in December 2023.

SPEAKER INTRODUCTION

Hi I’m Wai Liang, the Freedom of Expression researcher, here in New Naratif.

That is Wai Liang Tham, the primary author of the aforementioned series. He is New Naratif’s Researcher, and also an editor and literary scholar-in-training with a particular interest in memory studies.

I’m Avon from the Altermidya, I’m currently the National Coordinator of the network.

That is Avon Ang, National Coordinator of Altermidya. Altermidya is a national network of independent and progressive media outfits, institutions, and individuals in the Philippines.

In this episode, we will talk about the second and third publications of the “Engendering Media Freedom” series, the role of Altermidya, and what to expect from our Media Freedom Insights in the future.

INTERVIEW

Engendering Media Freedom

Let’s just start with the research. It’s been seven months since the publication of the “Engendering Media Freedom: Re-conceptualising Newsmaking in Southeast Asia, which we also talked about at this podcast. And you have very recently just published a follow-up to that. So can you tell us a bit more? It’s Series 4 Publication 3, I believe. Can you tell us more about that?

Well, to keep things very brief, each of the different reports that have been published as part of this series focus on different countries within Southeast Asia, so partly for the sake of convenience, but also because we felt that some cases in some countries were quite comparable to each other, we decided each of the different reports focuses on different groups of countries.

The latest report looks specifically at experiences of newsmakers of marginalised genders and sexualities in Indonesia and the Philippines. What we really want to emphasise is that New Naratif is not specifically the subject matter experts here, because the real subject matter experts are those who we spoke to and who shared their experiences with us.

Our job was really looking through their work on the ground, the challenges that they are facing. The challenges here, of course, are not just political, but economic as well. And what we found most interesting was that we could actually piece out some lessons learned from these interviews with our participants.

And because we found that, well, rather than having to list out the different challenges in specific detail, we thought it might be quite productive to actually talk about what steps could be done to potentially mitigate the severity of some of these issues.

This is not to say that our report is a definitive guide to surviving as a media worker, but rather we think that there might be some interesting lessons here that could be helpful in some context, again, not necessarily just in Indonesia and the Philippines, but perhaps in other parts of the region as well. And maybe even a little field. But yeah, that’s a very quick rundown on what to expect when you read through this report, which is available as a web post on the New Naratif website.

Findings

Yeah, I don’t think we’ve actually talked about the previous one as well. I mean, we did talk about research as activism, and we can explore the connection, the practice for that in these countries. But just very quickly, we have findings from Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, and the Philippines right now. So it’s already five countries. Have you found any uniqueness?

I believe there is a through line, obviously, because we all live in a pretty similar media climate in Southeast Asia. But can you talk us through some of your findings, some of the uniqueness, some of the unique things that you might have found there?

I think maybe we’ll start with Singapore first because Singapore is within Southeast Asia, a bit of an exceptional case in the sense of a high degree of centralisation. What we noticed was that rather than the image of the omnipresent sensor authority, there’s really quite a lot of flexibility on the ground for newsmakers to work.

Engendering Media: Findings from Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei

So there’s quite a bit of independence because as put forward by some of our participants and in some of the literature that we’ve come across, if you’re a media worker working for, effectively working for, under state institutions, you’re there because you’re already expected to know how to do your job.

So in this sense, there’s quite a lot of agency that’s supported by the news makers themselves. But at the same time, they’re very much constrained by the broader systemic, structural and institutional pressures which they work under.

And we found this particularly interesting because I think in many respects, when we were looking, we did speak to other news makers who worked in state-linked institutions elsewhere in Malaysia, for example, in Indonesia as well. And again, what was stressed was this certain degree of autonomy, the certain degree of agency that you can still express even under what seemed to be from the outside, very, very difficult and repressive conditions.

So although there are, of course, a lot of distinct differences between different national contexts, for example, in Indonesia, there’s very much the policing and the abuse against the community that’s very, very distinct. And of course, those have their own dynamics. But by and large, the main argument that we want to make is that there is always room for newsmakers to express agency even under very repressive conditions.

I guess what we’re trying to argue here is not so much to make but one single unified argument, but to basically put forward that there are definitely national differences at play across the region. But at the same time, there may be some similarities as well. I realised that this is a bit of a vague answer, but we’re also very cautious about not putting forward a single blanket statement that simplifies things.

And also, even in a case where there are national differences between countries, we want to emphasise that, of course, even within the countries themselves, there are lots of subnational variations. The way something is done in the Malaysian state of Sabah, for example, can be very different from how things operate in the capital of Kuala Lumpur.

So I think those are some things that we would like to emphasise a little bit. So perhaps the way that I would like people to think about these reports is a lens through which we can understand some specific experiences within a broader context, but without over-generalizing from there.

I realise this is a bit of a roundabout answer, but I think the longer that we engage in the research process, the more cautious we are about making statements and hence that means these talks of roundabout answers. I have to apologise for that if that’s all right.

Altermidya

Yeah, no, I don’t think there’s anything to apologise for, really, because I do believe that caution and just taking into account all of these nuances are important. Avon, you’ve been also doing this work. I mean, in New Naratif, we’ve been doing this research for a couple of years now, but you and Altermidya, you’ve also been doing work with lots of people in the independent media scene, whether that’s with multiple independent media outfits or journalists and stuff like that. Maybe you can explain a little bit about the work that you’re doing and then follow that up with your thoughts on the issues that Wailang has brought up.

Altermidya, we are a national media network of more than 30 media outfits. It’s committed to promoting pro-people journalism by amplifying the issues and stories of the marginalised sectors. We focus on unreported and underreported stories, especially on civil and political rights, economic and social, cultural rights.

4th Altermidya Congress at Baguio City (Altermidya)

The network has two major responsibilities. One, we serve as a Secretariat of the network, and the other we’re also a news organisation, so we are news speakers. We work closely with our member media outfits discussing local stories, various issues and concerns from safety measures to improving skills and capacities.

We deliver as a news organisation, we deliver weekly news broadcasts, analysis, documentaries, and among other formats. Apart from managing the network and this production, a key aspect of our work is engaging communities primarily through local screenings, local engagement with different communities. This ensures our audience reaches and understands the topics we cover and allows us to gather their feedback firsthand.

Lastly, we actively campaign to defend press freedom, freedom of expression and the public’s right to information. That’s what Altermidya is doing. We are connecting with not just independent and alternative media, but we also work with certain different media, mainstream media, so as we call it, organisations, primarily because of what we have experienced in the last few years, the shrinking democratic spaces and the attacks on the press.

Regarding what William has just shared, I think most, if not all, of these countries have very repressive laws that directly prohibit criticism of those in power or suppress critical reporting or dissenting views. Just like what he said, it is embedded in the bigger context of the media in society.

In the Philippines, there are laws, but that doesn’t really directly prohibit criticism, but actually has the equally same impact. Actually, these were mentioned in the draft of the publication, the anti-terror law, the label law, and etc.

Because of this, journalists became easy targets of harassment, intimidation, and arrests. Even the government started to control the internet using laws to control content, even in social media and other digital platforms, leading to concerns about online freedom of expression.

Just to share a quick short experience that we are just facing right now. For example, we have been reporting regarding the roots of the Civil War between the Communist Party led New People’s Army or NPA and the government forces. Most of these stories were taken down by social media corporations because the government tagged the NPA as terrorists. But the court said otherwise, a judicial body recently ruled that the warwage by the communists are not acts of terrorism.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Red-Tagging-Protester-AFP.jpeg
Red-Tagging Protester (AFP)

That report led to blocking of websites of different organisations, including three member outfits of Altermidya, labelling us as terrorist fronts that really made journalists vulnerable to different forms of attacks.

For another case, we have Frenchie Mae Cumpio, our colleague who was a reporter in the Central Philippines. She was tagged as a high ranking communist leader and that is used as a justification for her continued detention. It will be, I think, four years. She’s in detention for almost four years now and I could list numerous cases, but the repression for me appears very similar, varying only in faces, names and forms in these countries.

And maybe a difference for the Philippines,

As a country that claims to be democratic and open to different viewpoints and ideologies, supposedly, signs of tyranny are becoming more apparent.

AVON ANG

Which is I think a general description maybe for the other countries in the region.

Free Frenchie Mae Cumpio Campaign (Altermidya)

They will just employ this national security as a justification for prosecuting individuals and Yeah. I think overall, these countries grapple with the challenges to press freedom due to state policies, violence, economic factors, and gender inequality.

The State, Violence, and Capital

Yeah, we keep coming back to the claims of democracy for Southeast-Asian governments. We are open to different viewpoints unless you threaten national security and then you’re a terrorist, you’re a communist, and then, okay, different viewpoints than you’re a terrorist, then you’re communists. You just use all of these labels in a very roundabout way and it results in this repressive atmosphere.

You mentioned the role of state violence and, again, all of these multiple things, which also appears over and over again in one last research. Wai Liang, I’m going to go over to you now. What are your findings of these? You outlined three specific concerns, which are the state, violence, and capital.

Then these really… We really need to fix these situations to build better environments for newsmakers and marginalised genders and sexualitiesities. There are lots of intersections there, obviously. But yeah, I’ll let you speak, Wai Liang, about these concerns specifically.

So I think just to contextualise, so what is emerging areas of concern, which were brought up by our participants, basically what we try to do, of course, is to try and prioritise that to talk about how if you talk about the status and emerging area of concern, what we try to do over here in this report is to prioritise that idea of the status like a very overarching, top-down authority.

I mentioned a little bit earlier in this discussion that how the image of the all-seeing state is very much just that it’s really an image because in practice, things can be a lot more fuzzy. Evi Mariani, who was on Southeast Asia Dispatches some time ago, spoke about stuff like politically white tycoons and how this speaks to, let’s say, the broader confluence of media and different political actors who may be formerly outside of the formal structures of government, as I understand it.

And that’s what we really want to try and bring up through our research, the idea that while the state seems all powerful, there are ways of working against it or there are ways of working against it using mechanisms of law, for example, and things like that.

And I think at the same time, what we also want to be aware of is how states can co-opt what seem to be the things that we can agree on. I think, Bonni, just now you spoke about how the co-option of discourse related to democracy, but also very importantly, is how states can also effectively make use of the values of news banking.

You can be hired to be a newsmaker in a state-linked institution because you can be critical, objective, and fair, basically speaking to those values, which gives news-making, I guess, for lack of a better term, its moral authority. And those can be used by state institutions in various ways as well.

So it’s not just a matter of seeing the state, for example, as the big bad guy who manipulates and uses that thing, sometimes the state uses these ideals and it puts them into practice, but in such a way that it’s in their interest. It’s something that we would still like to look into further, perhaps in future research. But we’re hoping that this research output catalyses those sorts of questions and discussions moving forward.

It links up, of course, to ideas of hegemony and the media. There have been quite a few interesting studies that have been emerging in recent times. Those are areas where we would like to encourage further talk.

Violence, the second team that you mentioned, violence, that’s a little bit more straightforward. And this, of course, speaks a bit to Avon’s own experiences, because here is where we talked about, let’s say, the more salient issues such as the practice of red tagging, for example, which feels like it doesn’t receive nearly as much attention as the quote-unquote, war on drugs during former President Duterte’s time.

But I think one thing that was really emphasised by our participants in the Philippines was how the logic underlying quote-unquote, war on drugs and red tagging are quite similar in a sense that basically it’s about identifying particular targets and effectively directing action against those targets to begin with, I think, whether through vigilante action or mechanisms of state repression.

And also we also looked into very much, so, again, gendered experiences in this case, whether let’s say, for example, male or female newsmakers would be more targeted in terms of physical violence or online violence. There are quite a few nuances that we found over here. And of course, this is a bit self-selecting because we are limited by who we can talk to.

But judging from previous research that we did, that we connected as well, it appears that while male reporters seem to be at higher risk of physical harm, this may be correlated with how male reporters are more likely to be sent out into the field. This doesn’t mean that there’s no violence against a female reporter, for example, or someone from the queer community because violence manifests itself in various ways. It can be discursive. And of course, this can happen online or in person.

And I think that’s where we really need to pay attention to the different forms in which violence can express itself, because, of course, there are already a lot of platforms, organisations out there who are monitoring, let’s say, cases of harm, killings, and that sort of thing. But in our case, we want to try and broaden those parameters further to talk about what else happens on an everyday level in the newsroom outside and including within the newsrooms themselves.

I think moving on to the third point, the third area of concern, this one relates to capital. So we talk about capital in this very broad sense here. So, of course, there’s capital in the financial sense as we know it. So that relates very much, of course, to economic concerns about whether you can feed yourself as a newsmaker.

But also drawing from some experiences from our Philippine participants, they had identified how certain newsrooms, even as much as they speak for things like human rights or different other sorts of rights, the one thing that seems to evade a lot of organisations is economic rights.

So the question whether you pay, how fairly you can treat or pay your workers, of course, which seems to manifest in different ways where, can be a reluctance to report on strikes that are happening in other newsrooms, the fear, of course, is that for news owners, of course, your own workers might do something similar.

So I think those would be dynamics that we can talk more about. But then we also treat capital in a small metaphorical sense as social and cultural capital, for example, how in certain cases you might need a certain degree of privilege to succeed as in the news partly because you may not be. I think this was more to do with our, in the news, for Indonesian participants.

So some people did emphasise how you actually need to be in a particular position where you have safety nets to fall back upon because you’re going into a very precarious profession to begin with. Hence some of the dynamics that we try to emphasise as well.

So privilege, precarity, how are these related to each other. And also we start to talk a bit more about the perils, also the freedoms of freelancing. But freelancing, of course, can be tied into the broader system of exploitation, paying people by the piece, by the hour, that thing. And while, of course, you can do quite decently as a freelancer, the lack of security is always one concern that comes about. 

So looking into our interviews, we did identify some of the many different threats. And in identifying these threats, we need to put them to write this in a manner that on one hand, is simple enough to grasp, but on the other hand, allows for lots of room for discussion. And so we ended up with these three areas of concern. Again, the State, violence, and capital.

Research’s Calls

I’d be remiss not to mention that obviously, I, myself, and Dania, the producer of this show, are very painfully familiar with all of these concerns, especially in the work that we do and being trans people as well. Yeah, just having these all laid out. And obviously, these three are not mutually exclusive.

So the state is a machine to actually perpetuate all of these violence and then the violence itself is utilised to maintain the status quo, the distribution of capital, and then a lack of capital will make you more vulnerable to violence and so on. But I do really like your point about the state utilising values, so to speak, setting values, defining what values are good and what values are not good.

And that also speaks a lot to the experience of queer people and marginalised genders, because obviously, by definition, then we are defined as bad as the state. So it has all of these things that you can’t really be a good journalist working for the country if you’re queer, and stuff like that. 

There’s a lot of that going on, and especially in online circles with hosts of online bullying that I myself have witnessed, fortunately, not directly experienced, but witnessed by the people I know. It’s pretty severe. I wanted to move on. Avon, I do want to hear your thoughts on this. But before that, I guess we can talk a bit more about the calls that you do on your research about how to actually improve the situation. So can you really quickly just go through these calls and then we can go to Avon to respond and maybe enhance or give Avon’s thoughts on that as well?

Well, I guess we could also think of them as calls for improvement, but I guess it’s really up to different individuals working in a different context to decide what works best for them. Well, there’s a lot of the usual things that being more critical of representation, whether in terms of media representations or representation of diversity among the workforce.

Well, we also look at things very much like grassroots level stuff like empowering student journalists because I think student journalists don’t seem to get quite as much recognition as they should for the work that they do.

And of course, very importantly, there’s a question of I think it’s very much a question of data, but data goes to the heart of research. What some of the data can we get about, let’s say, your news makers working across the region and how important is such data for shaping how we structure policies, take affirmative action and that thing.

There’s quite a few of these, but I think if I were to try and sum up what we found most interesting was about how you can create the question of creating a humanitarian workplaces, because, of course, at the end of the day,

The company that you work in is still a business, it’s still a company after all, as progressive as it might be.

WAI LIANG THAM

So the question becomes like, right, so how can we be fair to everyone, but at the same time, survive in this very awkward, cut through media environment. So these are some of the questions that we have been circling around throughout the research process, because at the end of the day, we can ask like, right, so these are what we want to do for these are what we think would be great for media workers.

But the question comes back to like, what incentive is there for the media owners themselves to take these changes because the companies themselves are under a lot of pressure in environments where you’re extracting, declining revenue out of advertising or you’re depending on brand funders. This, of course, is another tricky topic in itself, but we’ll talk more about that in a future upcoming report.

So that’s why we got very interested in other ways in which a company can be structured. Can you think about collective leadership, for example? How can you reduce, let’s say, the gulf between, quote-unquote, senior management and, let’s say, the junior levels and also can actually think of ways in which ownership can be done differently.

Is it a matter of, let’s say, this might look better for, let’s say, like a small organisation, can you be run as a cooperative? This is a cooperative that has a future in this current economic climate.

And also there’s also a question, of course, of community. And this was quite an interesting case because we were speaking to a participant who spoke about how an indigenous community in the Philippines found different ways to support local media outfits, even though they didn’t really have a lot of money, but they would basically do things in kind, basically like things like providing payment in… Well, it’s payment in kind, of course, with grains rather than in cash, among other things.

So I think those are some of the lessons learned that we found really interesting because I think at this point in time, we need a way to think outside of the corporate structure because, and this is something we explore further down the road, but the corporate structure of the media does seem to be quite crippling in many senses, perhaps almost as crippling as the political actors.

Altermidya’s Role

Again, economic structures, political structures, they’re all very much entwined. But yeah, I want to hear from Avon, though, from your experience, what has it been like working with Altermidya and the independent media outfits that you work with? How do you navigate this landscape?

Actually, Altermidya’s principle has always been that grassroots and community-oriented, just what William had shared. We have a unique way of surviving in the Philippines, maybe because of our culture and this close ties with our audience from workers’ unions to farmer organisations, women and queer organisations, artist groups, and other communities.

Within these communities, we are also training correspondents. We’re giving them skills training, ethics of journalism. We really don’t have to physically be there and they can report on their community themselves.

We are also closely working with certain journalists. We are opening, we’re introducing this journalism to them, especially the media studies is Western-oriented in the Philippines. We’re trying to introduce this to them and invite them to be part of the network.

But there’s this one broad alliance of college editors in the Philippines and they are part of Altermidya Network. That’s the hard part of surviving because this is not really that marketable, but we are surviving and expanding, even expanding greater through these efforts of the communities.

What factors do you think have contributed to this? You did mention community support, solidarity, and maybe the culture of some of the people in some of the communities in the Philippines and themselves. But despite this situation and despite the shrinking civic space, the shrinking democracy, these things are expanding. Do you think that’s been a reaction to the shrinking civic space that people are actually noticing and hence supporting more independent media outlets? Or do you think there are other things that need to be highlighted in this dynamic?

I think yes, or at least for our part, but definitely it is going to be a really hard endeavour because really the landscape in the Philippines, the public has really lost its trust in the media. So it’s something that we are trying to search for solutions.

One thing remains certain amid these circumstances for us because whether journalists, whether from mainstream or independent backgrounds, face attacks, they are prepared to come together to defend the profession, the freedom of expression and the public’s right to information.

AVON ANG

After all, journalists continue to report because the people they serve are brave. I think it’s really about creating close ties with the communities so they can learn from media literacy to explain how important the media in this society really serves its purpose.

The Role of Research

Yeah, it is a breath of fresh air to really see, to really notice how people just navigate these things despite all of those repressions, how people just come together. I mean, one might think that, oh, mainstream journalist and independent journalist, you’re mainstream, you’re not as dangerous and stuff like that, but that’s not really the case. They do come together. They do fight for similar things in the name of media freedom, in the name of maintaining what little democracy that we have so it doesn’t get eroded further, which I think it’s a very important thing to keep pushing for.

In relation to that, in relation to pushing for all of these things and maintaining these connections with the community, maintaining this solidarity, I want to ask how you might see the role of research?

You did mention that media studies are very much Western-oriented and a lot of them don’t really connect with the actual on-the-the-ground situation in the Philippines or elsewhere in Southeast Asia. You did mention that a lot of the findings on Wai Liang’s Research and the Media Freedom research in general are actually things that people are concerned with, that journalists and independent media workers are concerned with.

How important do you think it is for us to find out more about how, about whatever it is, about the problems, the situations? What are the roles and the dynamics between these community connections, these independent media workers dynamics, and the research that needs to be done? Do you think we need to push certain kinds of research further? Do you think we need to push more for certain angles? What would you like to see in general?

Yeah, I think the research is really helpful in understanding the situation in the region so we can learn lessons to push for better practices. But at the same time, I think we can get more people to give feedback to the researchers, especially our audience.

I think this is one thing that we want to form as a habit for journalists to be really involved or not really involved, but to have closer ties, even researchers or doing other studies because the system has always been detached to reality as well as what we have been talking about.

We have this responsibility to go deeper into these communities so we can understand how they work and how they understand these researches, these studies, and the situation overall.

AVON ANG

Yeah, I think it’s very much aligned with the vision of research as activism that we uphold in New Naratif and that one of them has explained in a separate episode. I think the listeners can go ahead and listen to that to find out more. But yeah, sometimes people might think that, Oh, it’s the media. Why don’t we just fight for better things? Obviously, it’s because of state repression. Obviously, it’s because of this and that thing.

But after research, we find out that, no, actually, there are ways to actually circumvent this. There are nuances and experiences of how gendered it is that the media workers themselves and that the current initiatives, if they’re not open to the gender dimension of things, if they, for example, understand the state as the monolithic top-down institution instead of something that’s really pervasive, then that informs the kinds of activism and that might not hit the right, that might not solve the right problems or even solve any problems at all.

I do agree with your response, but also your suggestion, I suppose, that it needs to be a two-way street. After the publication is, I think that’s what you’re essentially saying, correct me if I’m wrong.

After the publication is out there, you would need more feedback from the journalist and really make it a living thing of a conversation, so to speak, between the researchers and the journalist and the independent media workers. Wai Liang, what are your thoughts on that? I believe you do have a similar vision, but maybe you can talk more about that as well.

So we’ve conducted the research, but what do we do now? How do people use it? And because we are very cognizant that

It’s very easy to produce research and to say, hey, we’ve done something, but after that, it just sits in the corner and no one really downloads it or reads it.

WAI LIANG THAM

So it’s basically just like one of those deliverables you have to get out there. I think it’s something that we would be very open to hearing ideas from readers, from practitioners about what you can do with this research next.

The obvious thing that we do is just produce events that are formed by some of these findings. We can assign the and, of course, those events can assign the research outputs as prerequisite readings and that thing. But it’s very much like a classroom format, but we would like it to… I think ideally, we would like it to inform things like policy decisions or stuff like that.

On this note, I have been… Well, this is something that I’ve attended recently in Kuala Lumpur. So this was a talk hosted by a media worker who had emphasised how in their work, they didn’t actually aim for a broad audience, but they aimed for highly specific and highly targeted niche audiences.

The reason was because these particular readers would be able to read in detail and they would be able to affect, let’s say, changes from them. These of course, people working public policy, for example.
So if the research could go down, let’s say, a similar route, if it could be both broad reaching for people at large, but at the same time also quite targeted, I think that might be a nice idea that we would like to strike. But of course, I think that’s where we really would like to hear back from folks on the ground about like, hey, how can this research be more useful to you? Because at the end of the day, we don’t really just want to be out there collecting data and publishing it because we would actually like data to then do something in the world.

Feedback and Challenges on Research

Have you had any feedback so far? Because I’m also curious about it, because we have published… Well, S4P3 about Indonesian, Philippines, very recent. But for the condition, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei was published a couple of months back. I’m wondering if you’ve had any feedback on that.

But also another question would be, after analysing these countries separately and we found a through line. Do you feel like there needs to be more research done on how to build, how to amplify the similarities between these countries? Or might it be more important to focus on the uniqueness of each country’s challenges and how might we build regional solidarity and stuff like that in terms of the current findings and possibly updates and feedback on your research? Do you have any thoughts on that?

Well, for the first question very briefly, well, much of our feedback came from our, at least our research participants, because any of the day we run the drafts pass them and to get their ideas and also our community peer reviewers to get their thoughts on whether this makes sense or whether any analysis is lacking.

I think for the most part, I think almost everyone was quite happy, at least for those of our participants. Those are the students who were able to get back to us. But I think the challenge is that it’s still a matter of us talking to people whom we already know.

So I think what we really would like at this point is to hear back from the public in general and to see and also just to see what impact is happening at the very broad level, because, of course, there are many ways in which research comes out, not necessarily just in terms of the full bank-based reports, which are, well, admittedly, they tend to be very long, but of course, they can be disseminated in various ways, short-form content on IG, that thing. So we definitely have got some feedback so far, but we always welcome more feedback.

Could you repeat the second question?

Speaking of that, though, about the feedback and stuff like that, I was also wondering to follow up on that, whether you’ve had feedback about if we should go in a more specific direction to face unique challenges in each country, or if actually, oh, it’s more important to the overarching challenge in Southeast Asia is the same, so let’s just go transnational, build regional solidarity. Which one is it from the things that you’ve been hearing so far?

Honestly, it’s always good to have more research within individual countries. That’s really helpful as well, because then you get very, basically get very targeted findings that will be really helpful.

I think if we go back to the case of, let’s say, the case of red tagging in the Philippines, for example, because then perhaps this can help inform how you can keep working, even with this very highly specific issue in mind. But on the other hand, of course, then if we focus on the domestic context, then we keep our… The research still stays in a silo because it’s all segregated along the lines of existing policies.

We do like the idea of possibly doing something more transnational, but the challenge with this then that also tends to flatten out a lot of differences and variations. So maybe what might be a sustainable way for research in the future is if we facilitate, let’s say, researchers working in ground, researchers here don’t necessarily need to be formal academic researchers, but they can also be practitioners themselves, for example, or let’s say, let’s say, the individual networks, organisations wanted to conduct their own research.

Maybe what the role in the future could be is facilitating the research process, giving feedback and offering to help out because, of course, a lot of people are doing a lot of work on the ground, sometimes very, and I think in many cases it happens very independently. So you might end up inadvertently duplicating the work that someone else is doing.

So maybe one thing we might have to think about collectively outside of New Naratif and maybe in concert with what others are doing is to see what everyone else is up to and how we can use our resources wisely and to maximise our funding, that thing, because, of course, the other challenge that goes out is that because a lot of this work here has to be funded externally by donors.

And of course, it’s a thing where donors don’t really want to duplicate the work that they’re doing. So it might just be a matter of optimising what we have the ways that we are doing things right now because there’s a lot of excellent, very much needed work that’s happening on the ground. But the question that follows now is whether or not this has been done systematically and how we can best organise for research to actually do something out there and work.

Altermidya Focus

Avon, what are your thoughts on this? Because I do feel like we do need to find a balance between the specifics of each country but also going more broadly in a regional level, but more specifically to your work, to Altermidya’s work, do you feel it’s now more important to actually expand regionally and get regional support for the independent media workers in the Philippines and vice versa?

Have the independent media workers just been supported on a regional level? Or are you more focused on like, you know what? It’s very urgent. It’s our thing that we’re just going to build on a more national level.

Regional support is very important because our system is really not working, I think from the judicial to the executive, legislative areas, it’s really not working.

Avon ang

So while we are doing things on our part here in the Philippines, I think it’s high time for us to reach out and to join different initiatives within the region, Southeast Asia, solidarity with different journalists, activists, maybe to facilitate collaboration and mutual support because of what I said.

Sometimes international support gives pressure, more pressure to the local governments, to the state.

Avon ang

So I think it’s also the thing for maybe other countries facing the same environment, media, landscape. So I can’t answer which should be prioritised, but I think it’s equally important for us now.

Regional Solidarity

It’s interesting because I think both are equally important, but with different roles. On a national level, you do get very granular on the specific challenges. But as you mentioned, the system is not really working all that well if you just want to push things nationally.

So the role of the regional solidarity is more for push, for support, for pressure for the government, while the national movements are to identify these specific challenges, which I think is a great insight. It’s like you can’t choose. You have to do both. It’s just that you assign different roles to all of these movements.

Speaking of solidarity, being of regional solidarity, though, this is how we always wrap up our podcast. So what do you think needs to be done first in terms of building this regional solidarity in support of Altermidya, in support of independent media work in Southeast Asia in general? How do you build this solidarity? And the listeners do? How can the listeners support the building of this solidarity?

New Naratif has been into these initiatives already. I think we have had a lot of collaborations in the past. So we really have a positive outlook on strengthening this, maybe other regional media networks. For now, what we really need, I think you can join us to call for I think investigations or maybe learning more about the red tagging.

I think this is just what William had said earlier. This is really the unique thing, if not it is really prevalent in the Philippines. So maybe learning about this and calling for investigations or writing letters to your embassies may tell the Philippine government to investigate this or to stop this practice.

And of course, our pressing issue as Altermidya is the continued detention of our colleague, Frenchie Mae Cumpio. You can search for the case updates, but we’re trying to highlight her case as the face of the media repression in the Philippines because she experienced almost everything from censorship to directly being in prison.

It has not stopped there because she’s experiencing red tagging still, even if she’s in prison, judicial delays. So this is really something that we want to maybe the region to act on or at least try to support these faults.

Yeah. Unfortunately, there are activists who just get the brunt of these violence and highlighting their cases is very important. I believe there are lots of activists like that in Southeast Asia and just highlighting the similarity between all of these cases to actually realise that, Hey, this is a thing that is not just a matter of like,

It’s not just the problem of independent media workers in the Philippines, it’s everywhere. It’s the tip of the iceberg for larger pieces. That’s why we need to build regional solidarity.

Bonnibel rambatan

I think that’s a powerful thing, a powerful statement. Wai Liang, do you have any last thoughts on this and maybe some other things you might like the listeners to do, some other calls to action?

I think not too much more to add on because, Avon, you have very succinctly wrapped up, again, those different modes by which solidarity can be built even from elsewhere within Southeast Asia. I think at least as far as the media freedom research goes, our work is also very much tied to the broader media freedom network.

So in a sense, the research effectively serves to complement the activism that the New Naratif tries actively to do things like legal briefings and legal briefings, newsletters, updating on different happenings across Southeast Asia. I think for us, it’s also very much a matter of thinking about how we can, how we can try and do something more substantial.

But I think for now, at least the important step that we would like to do is at least help to build up networks, whether or not they don’t have to be very formal networks, but they can be very informal connections between, for example, someone working in Indonesia and someone working hypothetically in Thailand, for example, and at least having those conversations going. 

That’s perhaps the first step towards helping build something else. We also emphasise, of course, that there are other groups doing very important work at the regional level. So, of course, the New Naratif is not the only one, but it helps here to have more redundancy, more people doing the same thing or something similar, as long as they overlap and have that common goal of ensuring greater media freedom.

There’s no such thing as too much solidarity.

Bonnibel rambatan

There’s no such thing as doing too much important work. So everyone, I guess, again, to the listeners, just keep learning, keep discovering about all of these cases, not only in your country, but all around you and just keep reaching out, keep building all of these connections to people, to independent media workers, and to just push for better civic and democratic space in general.

Thank you so much, Avon, for being here, and Wai Liang, for coming back here to talk about your research again. This has been a great and wonderful conversation. Thank you.

OUTRO

And that wraps up our discussion with Wai Liang Tham and Avon Ang.

From horrific practices such as red-tagging to more insidious and often gendered forms of oppression regarding how moralistic ideas of good and bad are communicated through laws and policies, it’s very clear that media freedom in Southeast Asia has a long way to go.

While each country has its own unique challenges, we all must stand together as a region to resist. National solidarity is important to tackle specific laws and practices that oppress media workers, but transnational solidarity is no less important for change, as it garners international attention and puts pressure on governments.

If you’d like to know more about the campaign to free Frenchie Mae Cumpio, visit altermidya.net/freefrenchiemaecumpio. We’ll also leave a link in the show notes. And of course, you can always visit our Media Freedom in Southeast Asia Project on newnaratif.com/mediafreedom, all one word.

My name is Bonnibel Rambatan, and this has been Southeast Asia Dispatches. Brought to you by New Naratif, and produced by Dania Joedo. I’ll see you around.

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