Picturing Media Freedom in 2021

Delivering her lecture as one of only two working journalists to have received the Nobel Peace Prize since 1937, Maria Ressa began with a reminder of the challenges members of the press face, and ended by outlining steps to protect independent journalism, counter the spread of disinformation as enabled by technology, and rebuild democracy all around the world. 

Reflecting on a year in which media freedom and media workers in Southeast Asia have come under old and new threats, New Naratif asked nine contributors to depict their own experiences of and interpretations of media freedom. Some artists looked to the past; some to recent events; and others to the possible futures in our grasp—futures we must act urgently to secure.

Five of these artworks were originally commissioned for our report Envisioning Media Freedom and Independence: Narratives from Southeast Asia.

A four-panel comic in black lines and full colour.
Panel 1: a blue humanoid figure sits reading a newspaper. They are frowning. The headlines on the newspaper read: “Editor sued in defamation suit. Ordered to pay $$$! TOC (The Online Citizen) shuts down!”. Two faint figures with red pupils in their eyes loom over the figure from the back.
Panel 2: the blue figure is having coffee with a friend, a green figure with yellow hair, who says: “I saw your comic! Good thing you like coffee, since the ISD might ask you for a kopi session!” The blue figure has an apprehensive look on their face. Unamused, they reply: “Ha. Ha.” Another of the faint figures watches them in the background.
Panel 3: close-up of the blue figure’s hands, typing on their mobile phone. They are deleting a comment which they’d drafted under a post about the editor of TOC; it reads: “This is so unfair and corru-”
Panel 4: the blue figure, seated and drawing on an iPad, looks around fearfully at the faint figures staring at them.

“Always Watching” by Anngee Neo

Self-censorship is a big issue in Singapore: because the parameters are very vaguely defined, we are left to guess where the lines are. It feels like someone is always watching over your shoulder, waiting to pounce on you once your toes cross the line.

A figure with red skin and white shirt holds a golden pen or stylus, drawing a line down the middle of the image. The line grows into a chasm dividing the two halves of the image. On the figure’s right, orange figures with laughing and smiling faces rise out of the chasm. On the figure’s left, dark teal figures with angry and upset faces loom.

“The Consequences” by Pssyppl

Once we start drawing something, there’s going to be consequences. In this piece, I wanted to visualise that feeling of balancing both feedback and consequences in the form of happy and angry figures haunting the artist from both worlds.

A person wearing a dark backpack and light shirt holds up a camera to their eye. In front of them, a blinding light source emits rays of light which spread to the corners of the image. Behind the rays, a demonic orange shape with black eyes can be seen.

“The Corrupted Light” by Tuna Dunn

This work is inspired by the arrest of 37 community members from southern Thailand’s Chana District, who came to Bangkok to protest against the planned construction of the Chana Industrial Park on 6 December. Despite the peaceful nature of the protest, police arrested the villagers for violating an emergency decree that empowers the prime minister to restrict gatherings to curb the spread of COVID-19. 

While arresting the protestors, police shone strong lights at reporters in an attempt to prevent them from documenting the situation. To me, this light symbolises the way the government pretends to be righteous and compromising but obscures the truth that they are corrupt, hence the red creature or demon behind the light.

Note: On 15 December, the Chana community members ended their protest after the Thai cabinet agreed to delay the construction of the industrial park and conduct a strategic environmental assessment.

A tree with green leaves bears a single golden durian high up in its branches. It stands in the middle of the picture. Below it are various individuals dressed in Southeast Asian clothing, gathered around the tree. One of them tries to use a long pole to harvest the single durian.

“Durian Jarang Runtuh” by Nadhir Nor

Durian Jarang Runtuh (“Durians Rarely Fall”) is a little nod to the Malay proverb durian runtuh (“falling durians”), which typically means an abundance of unexpected fortune—a windfall. 

Independent media practice and fortune often do not come hand in hand. There are a lot of exciting, passionate practitioners pushing the field into groundbreaking territories all the time, but financial instability and scarce resources hinder most of us from contributing substantially to this field. 

With just one single durian to feed all of us, how far will independent media be able to sustain itself until the next durian runtuh?

An illustration consisting of two panels, one on top of the other. In the top panel, a person in a suit holds up a sign saying ‘Everything is fine.’ in front of an orange background. They are smiling widely. A hand reaching from offscreen holds a pistol to this person’s head. In the bottom panel, which is upside-down, a person in a white t-shirt bearing a sign that says ‘Stop the attacks’ is shot by a similar hand holding a pistol.

“On the Flipside” by Rob Cham

The Philippines is still one of the most dangerous countries for journalists worldwide. The Duterte administration continues its police state with the anti-terror bill, red-tagging and the NTF Elcac, which are all aimed at silencing critics, activists and anyone whom they see as a threat. The Duterte administration is no stranger to violating human rights and rampant corruption, as seen in its failed pandemic response. What I want to show in this piece is the lose-lose situation we face: you either comply with these evils or lose your life, and that’s no way for anyone to live.

A white bird with a leaf in its mouth stands in the middle of a yellow background, wearing a press tag around its neck. It holds up a video camera. Four hands extend from the four corners of the image towards it. One hand points a rifle at the bird; the shape of the viewfinder on the rifle is similar to that of the peace symbol. Another hand holds a birdcage and a gavel with the word ‘Law’ written on it. A third hand holds a bag of money, which is chained to the bird’s leg like a weight. The fourth hand, belonging to a person wearing army camouflage patterns, covers the lens of the bird’s video camera.

“You Have the Power” by Sa-ard

The dictators always try to limit media freedom by telling the people that they do so to maintain peace and order. Because of that, freedom of expression is illegal, and one thing that the dictators can truly maintain is their own power.

A woman with long dark brown hair in a yellow cardigan, white shirt, and dark green skirt types away at a typewriter. Around her, other media workers form a ring of protection. Outside the ring, demon-like figures reach out towards the media workers.

“Safety and Solidarity” by Astro Ruby

As an illustrator, I feel that networks of safety and solidarity are something that every artist should be concerned about and cognizant of, whether or not they are involved in media or journalism work. Artists cannot go about creating without being actively involved in a multi-disciplinary network of peers, journalists, researchers, activists and others. Networks must facilitate not only solidarity among peers, such as exchanging inspiration or providing materials, but also safety for other artists to uphold and defend their rights, and in turn, also protect the rights of others involved.

A group of media workers face off against a dictator and two soldiers. Giant drawing implements (pencil, marker, stylus) move towards the soldiers, making marks in the ground. Two media workers carry a pride flag. Some raise their fist in protest.

“Rewriting the Narrative” by Marvinne de Guzman

As writers and artists, we have the power to create a space for the narratives that matter to us the most. We can use our works to shed light on the stories we want to tell, and use these to resist any forces that control and deprive us of our freedom. 

Riders on red birds carrying pennants and streamers fly out from cage-like towers, amidst a brilliant sky which is blue at the top of the image and vivid orange and yellow at the bottom. Some riders bear tools of their trade: microphones, pens, pencils, loudspeakers.

“Unbound” by Amita Sevellaraja

In researching imagery for the topic of media freedom, I explored many important visual identifiers that seem synonymous with media and reporting in today’s age: all-seeing, omnipotent eyes; censored mouths; erased or altered speech and thought bubbles; authoritarian figures in suits; and items of entrapment—chains, cages and the like. However, I ended up in a more hopeful space with this piece, using the bird and cage metaphor to envision a brighter future for media workers in Southeast Asia. I wanted to envision breaking free into a safer, more conducive space free from the policing of government bodies and the rigid societal status quo that they uphold, leading to the conception of more authentic and challenging media work.

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