Red Lines and (Self-)Censorship: Journalism in Southeast Asia

World Press Freedom Day - New Naratif

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) didn’t have much good news to share when it released its 2018 World Press Freedom Index.

Somewhat predictably, China took the a large chunk of the spotlight. But RSF pointed out the implications for Southeast Asia: “Internationally, the Chinese government is trying to establish a ‘new world media order’ under its influence, by exporting its oppressive methods, information censorship system and Internet surveillance tools,” said RSF in its regional press release.

A list of Southeast Asian countries—Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore—were identified as having emulated the Chinese model, while Myanmar and the Philippines received special mentions for the decline in media protections and safety of journalists.

2018 World Press Freedom Index
Southeast Asia in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index. RSF’s colour categories: good (white), fairly good (yellow), problematic (orange), bad (red) and very bad (black).

There’s been a depressing number of high-profile breaches of press freedom in Southeast Asia over the past year. After 24 years of operations, the Cambodia Daily announced in September 2017 that it was shutting down less than two weeks after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen described the publishers as “thieves”, alleging that they had failed to pay a hefty tax bill (which the publication disputed). In January 2018, the Filipino Securities and Exchange Commission ordered the closure of Rappler Inc. by claiming that it had violated restrictions on foreign ownership of local media. In Myanmar, court proceedings are ongoing against two Reuters’ journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo—proceedings in which a police officer admitted that that he’d been ordered to entrap them.

Last month, New Naratif’s managing director Thum Pingtjin and myself made the headlines in Singapore when the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA) publicly refused an application to register a Singapore subsidiary of Observatory Southeast Asia, which publishes this website. ACRA said that allowing the company’s registration would be contrary to Singapore’s national interest and implied that we were “being used by foreigners to pursue a political activity in Singapore”—an allegation that we refuted in this statement.

But one doesn’t need to be shut down or jailed to face threats to press freedom. Behind the headline-grabbing cases, journalists across the region face daily challenges. On World Press Freedom Day, New Naratif contributors talk about the obstacles in their way.

“Red lines”

All too often, issues over what can or can’t be said emerge even before anything’s been written. In most Southeast Asian countries, there are “red lines”—sensitive subjects that can make it difficult for journalists to say very much at all.

Kirsten Han East Java - New Naratif
New Naratif’s editor-in-chief Kirsten Han on a reporting trip in East Java, Indonesia, in 2016.

Some of these are well-known. Thailand’s lese majeste laws can make writing or speaking about the monarchy extremely difficult, and perhaps even dangerous, for everyone in the country. As of January this year, at least 94 people have been prosecuted on lese majeste charges since the May 2014 coup. Writing about the royalty in other Southeast Asian countries, like Malaysia and Brunei, can also be a risky business.

In Myanmar, the media is blocked not only from Rakhine State, where the Rohingya crisis continues to unfold, but also from many other restricted areas in the country. Other boundaries are not so literal. According to Victoria Milko—who’s covered the erosion of press freedom in Myanmar—reporting on military activities, ethnic armed insurgencies, or anything critical of the government, on top of the current sensitivities related to the Rohingya crisis, requires journalists to tread with great care.

But other countries’ “danger zones” might be less well-known to outsiders. In countries like Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, covering race and religion can be dicey, particularly when legislation like Singapore’s Sedition Act defines something as being seditious if it has the tendency “to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes of the population of Singapore”.

“Journalists reporting on LGBT issues have been threatened with violence and reported to the police and to immigration for allegedly violating the Pancasila”

Febriana Firdaus, New Naratif’s consulting editor for Jakarta and Papua, identifies three sensitive areas when it comes to reporting in the country: the massacre of communists (or alleged communists) in 1965–1966, LGBT issues, and the matter of Papua, where there’s ongoing conflict between the Indonesian government and particular segments of the population.

Reporting on the 1965 story can be dangerous, especially when we talk about the controversy of the murky history behind the anti-communist propaganda during the Cold War,” says Febriana. “It’s a no-go for people to publicly discuss why communism has been banned in this country.”

Writing or reporting anything that might question (or be perceived to question) the established narrative could attract threats and harassment. The sensitivity around communism is still so present in Indonesia that accusations of being “pro-communist” can lead to concerns of safety. In 2016, Febriana was subjected to threats and intimidation while covering an anti-communist symposium, and also became the target for an onslaught of violent threats online that pushed her to go into hiding.

LGBT issues in Indonesia have also become more and more sensitive. “I was interrogated by immigration recently about my activities here. Most of the topics they asked me about were predictable —Papua and so on—but I was surprised that I was questioned about whether I wrote ‘about LGBT’, as they phrased it,” says Kate Walton, a Jakarta-based journalist who has written about gender and LGBT issues for New Naratif.

“Since a few years ago, I’ve even refused to comment on the topic to foreign journalists for fear of retribution [both from the government/police and the community],” she adds. “Journalists reporting on LGBT issues have been threatened with violence and reported to the police and to immigration for allegedly violating the Pancasila [Indonesia’s five founding principles].”

The issue of access

Press freedom isn’t just about the journalists’ physical safety, but the entire climate in which reporters have to operate. Outside of prosecutions or threats, there are far more mundane ways in which reporters are impeded and obstructed.

One example is to, quite literally, stop journalists from being present, or block them from accessing newsmakers. “In a country where most media outlets are owned by the government, Malaysiakini has long been accused of being a tool of the opposition,” says Koh Aun Qi, a sub-editor at Malaysiakini who wrote one of New Naratif’s earliest articles. “Our journalists continue to be banned from attending (or, in some cases, asked to leave) certain government events.”

“Our journalists continue to be banned from attending (or, in some cases, asked to leave) certain government events”

Another way, particularly in countries that lack freedom of information legislation, to put up roadblocks to critical or investigative reporting is to restrict access to full or reliable data. Without the ability to access the information—and lacking in resources to conduct independent large-scale studies themselves—journalists, particularly freelancers, are stymied in attempts to do in-depth work.

“As a business/economic journalist working in Malaysia, my main grouse is with the department of statistics,” says Emir Imrantski, who wrote for New Naratif about Malaysia’s bumiputra policy. “There have been numerous occasions where I need fact and figures to support my story and the official statistics are outdated. In other cases, the data published by the government may not be in line with the ones available in the previous year; the ethnographic breakdown might be removed or the grouping of the data has been simplified.”

Safety and self-censorship

The challenges journalists face aren’t always straightforward: the lack of press freedom often means that problems and dangers are neither consistent, nor always clearly identifiable. But the effects of this are often very relative—foreign and local members of the press often grapple with different issues and risks.

“As an American freelance journalist working in Southeast Asia, I have a certain level of protection—my family is far away, my income comes mostly from foreign media outlets, and I can always go home and be safe,” says Nithin Coca, who often reports on Indonesia. “But for the people I work with—local journalists and sources—this is not the case, and I always have to be aware that what I report on could have consequences far beyond a single story.”

This doesn’t mean foreign journalists don’t have worries of their own: for those settled in Southeast Asia, the lack of citizenship can be a reminder of a particular precarity. “As a foreign journalist in Indonesia, the price of writing an article saying the wrong thing is steep: arrest, detention, deportation and blacklisting,” says Aisyah Llewellyn, New Naratif’s consulting editor for North Sumatra. I’ve observed a similar concern in Singapore among non-citizen reporters, where stories of foreign journalists unable to renew their employment passes circulate within industry circles.

“I  always have to be aware that what I report on could have consequences far beyond a single story”

Such difficult environments tend to trigger anxieties that encourage self-censorship, particularly when one’s job depends on it.

“In Malaysia, there are two camps, at least that’s the way I look at it, of journalists. Ones who write for their owners and the others who write for their audiences,” says Susan Tam, New Naratif’s consulting editor for Malaysia. “Self-censorship is a real problem for journalists who have to work for their media owners, while access to information and security obstacles [are issues] for the ones that have bit more independence. It is frustrating when those in power who want to avoid accountability push out more repressive laws or buy up more outlets of expressions.”

“Every local journalist knows where not to cross the line, powerful people or evil corporations you can’t mess with, what to report and what can’t be reported,” says Yen Duong, who contributed a story on Vietnamese youth. “What I’m often told is that if I want to work in this field in the long run, I’ll just have to ‘compromise’.”

It’s a situation that can lead to disillusionment and disappointment. “Being a local journalist in Vietnam means being underpaid, under-appreciated, and undervalued for the job that many of my colleagues, I believe, choose to follow out of passion,” she adds. “But will that passion die or survive if you decide to submit to control?”

Sources and responsibility

Then there are the times when the issue isn’t about the journalists, but about sources—the people who share bits of their lives and provide information to substantiate a story or contribute crucial context. Finding good sources is an uphill battle in societies where people are afraid of speaking out.

It’s widely known that writing about sensitive issues in Vietnam is difficult, meaning that I sometimes have to leave information out of stories,” says Michael Tatarski, who’s written for New Naratif about environmental issues and online regulation in the Communist state. “Worryingly, even discussing mundane topics can leave interviewees scared of talking out of line. I once tried to interview someone associated with Saigon’s river bus service, and when I pulled out my recorder he reacted as if I had pulled out a weapon.”

“In Southeast Asia, we can’t just be reporting, we have to do our very best to ensure the safety and well-being of everyone around us”

Protecting and being responsible for sources is an issue that occupies the thoughts of every ethical journalist, and rightly so. But it’s a minefield in contexts where the powerful have wide-ranging options to exert costs, and where the boundaries of what’s “safe” might not always be clear.

The stories that journalists tell can have very real consequences on sources. “I spoke to villagers about pollution and health impacts of a nearby factory, a factory that was also providing them with some basic temporary jobs. I found, a few months later, that the factory had stopped giving work to villagers because they had spoken to me openly, and they were upset about losing a vital source of income,” recalls Coca.

“In Southeast Asia, we can’t just be reporting, we have to do our very best to ensure the safety and well-being of everyone around us, something that, at times, can be impossible.”

Aisyah Llewellyn With Rohingya Refugees In Medan - New Naratif
New Naratif’s consulting editor for North Sumatra Aisyah Llewellyn with Rohingya refugees in Medan.

Journalists don’t just need consent from sources, but informed consent. It’s important that sources—particularly those who lack power or capital—are aware of the potential risks and repercussions before agreeing to put their comments on record, but this isn’t always easy in contexts where people aren’t very media-savvy. Journalists are then left to wonder if they know what they might be getting themselves into.

“People here, especially in North Sumatra, will tell you anything. I enjoy amazing access and almost everything is on record. But this comes with its own set of issues,” says Llewellyn. “Because people are so open, it’s up to me to filter out what may be too sensitive to publish. I worry, like many journalists, that interviewees often don’t appreciate the consequences of some of the things they tell me.”

What this means for Southeast Asia

Every morning when I wake up in my Yangon apartment I think about the illegal acts I’ll be potentially committing for work that day,” says Milko. “For example, when I meet and interview the leader of an armed ethnic group about human rights abuses by the Burmese military will I be charged with the Unlawful Association Act?”

She adds: “The list of laws—both modern and colonial-era—that have been deliberately left intact in the country directly impact my ability to work while simultaneously threatening my safety, thus forcing me to make daily choices about just ‘how much’ I’m willing to risk in order to provide a voice for those who have been intimidated or silenced by authorities across the country.”

“Every morning when I wake up in my Yangon apartment I think about the illegal acts I’ll be potentially committing for work that day”

When journalists are forced to operate within such a climate, the impact is felt by the readers and audiences they serve. When the press is afraid to broach particular “no-go” subjects, societies end up being less informed about crucial institutions and issues, and the powerful continue to operate with little need to be accountable for their actions. When access to governments, influential actors, and data is blocked, the lack of in-depth, investigative work leaves everyone in the dark.

Ultimately, it isn’t just about the livelihood and daily routines of a bunch of reporters—when the press is not free, everyone is the poorer for it.

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