Some countries in East and Southeast Asia have little to celebrate on this year’s World Press Freedom Day, with the media worse off than they were a year ago as journalists face more instances of harassment, lawsuits, and even detention.
On Wednesday, a civil society coalition led by PEN Myanmar issued a scorecard noting a significant lack of progress in making key reforms to secure free expression in Myanmar and backsliding in other areas, such as freedom of assembly, speech, and opinion.
Concurrently, a national survey of more than 200 journalists conducted by Free Expression Myanmar found that media professionals believe that press freedom is in decline on account of the government and the military.
Both reports noted an increase in legal threats against journalists, harassment and imprisonment of media professionals, reporting restrictions preventing journalists from entering conflict areas, and a lack of changes to media laws and institutions as reasons for the decline.
“Working journalists believe that media freedom has declined over the past year, and that the government, including the military, has shown little willingness to reverse this trend” said Yin Yadanar Thein, program manager of free Expression Myanmar, in a statement.
“We call on the government to develop a plan of action to increase media freedom in a holistic way, including changing laws as well as the behaviors of public officials,” he said.
Myanmar in its second year of civilian government rule under State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi saw a decline in press freedom, with a six-point drop in ranking over the last year in an annual survey released in April by Paris-based press rights group Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
“We expected very much for press freedom under civilian government, but it turned out the opposite of what we expected,” said Lut Latt Soe, a joint secretary of the Myanmar Journalists Association and editor-in-chief of People’s Age online journal.
“We have more challenges and risks with digital platforms than before,” she said. “But, the NLD government still has three years to go. If it can start working on media freedom, we can expect to have at least a little more media freedom.”
Eleven journalists were arrested last year in Myanmar, and 24 are currently facing lawsuits, with several on charges related to defamation, unlawful association, or violations of the country’s Media Law.
Arrests and detentions
Two reporters from Reuters news agency, meanwhile, remain in detention while on trial on charges of obtaining state secrets while investigating the murders of Rohingya Muslims by the Myanmar military during a crackdown in Rakhine state.
Thet Oo Maung, also known as Wa Lone, and Kyaw Soe Oo were taken into custody on Dec. 12 on the outskirts of Yangon shortly after they had dinner with two police officers who gave them documents related to the violent campaign. They were formally charged on Jan. 10 and face up to 14 years in prison if found guilty.
On Wednesday, Amnesty International called on the Myanmar government to immediately and unconditionally release the detained journalists and ensure that media workers in the country are able to exercise their right to freedom of expression and carry out peaceful journalistic work, including sensitive investigations, without fear of reprisal or arrest.
In June 2017, authorities arrested three journalists for unlawful association for covering an event hosted by an armed militia in northeastern Shan state, but released them in September after charges against them were dropped.
That same month, the editor-in-chief and satire writer of The Voice Daily newspaper were arrested and later charged with defamation for an article that mocked a military-produced propaganda film. The armed forces dropped the charges in September.
“Because of arrests, charges, and the sentencing of journalists in 2017 and the detentions of the Reuters reporters this year, Myanmar journalists are fearful, and this fear is spreading throughout their news offices,” said Swe Win, editor-in-chief of the nonprofit independent Myanmar Now news service, who was charged with defamation after refusing to apologize for criticizing the extremist Buddhist monk Wirathu on Facebook.
“Because of this fear, many reporters and media are exercising self-censorship and avoiding sensitive news,” he said. “It hurts Myanmar’s media freedom because people lose their right of having information. If people don’t know true information, how can we build a democratic country?”
More must be done
Not everyone agrees with RSF’s lower ranking of Myanmar in the group's latest World Press Freedom Index.
Aung Hla Htun, Myanmar’s deputy information minister, said the current media situation is much better than it was when he worked as a reporter, but that work still must be done in the area of press freedom when the country was ruled by military governments.
“We have been abolishing and amending existing laws that counter press freedom and issuing new media laws,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“We were working during a time when we didn’t have press freedom for 60 years,” he said. “We had to struggle to free ourselves from this situation.”
Aung Hla Htun went on to say that the Information Ministry and central government has not lost sight of journalists’ needs.
“I really believe that press freedom can raise our country’s dignity, foster more trust between people and the government, and stop corruption,” he said. “But having press freedom can’t be done in a day.”
Myanmar writer and journalist Hane Latt expressed hope that the situation of the media in Myanmar would be better under new President Win Myint, the former speaker of the lower house of parliament who took office on March 30.
“We now have a new president who knows the law and who talked about respect for the media in his first speech,” he said. “He is the first president who mentioned the media in his [inauguration] speech. I hope our media world will change because he is a former political prisoner, a former house speaker who learned much about the people and the country through the parliament, and he has a law background.”
‘Harassment must end’
Over the past year, reporters and editors from independent news organizations in Cambodia were imprisoned on trumped-up charges of espionage as Hun Sen, the world’s longest-serving prime minister who has ruled the country since 1985, has cracked down on the media in the run-up to a general election in July.
In September 2017, RFA closed its Phnom Penh bureau and ended in-country operations because the crackdown on independent media had made it impossible to continue operating in Cambodia, which fell 10 places to 142 on RSF's World Press Freedom Index.
Independent English-language publication The Cambodia Daily was also forced to close and 15 radio stations were threatened with shutdowns unless they stopped broadcasting reports by U.S. government-funded RFA and Voice of America.
Former RFA Khmer Service reporters Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin have been in detention since police took them into custody on “espionage” on Nov. 14, initially for allegedly running an unlicensed karaoke studio.
They were later accused of setting up a studio for RFA and were formally charged with “illegally collecting information for a foreign source” under Article 445 of Cambodia’s criminal code, and face jail terms of up to 15 years.
A consortium of local, regional, and international press rights groups issued a united call in February for their immediate release, saying their lengthy pretrial imprisonment has violated Cambodia’s constitutional right to freedom of expression.
In response to the current climate, the Cambodia Center for Human Rights (CCHR), an NGO that promotes democracy and respect for human rights throughout the country, launched a 30-day social-media campaign to raise awareness of how journalists and other media professional function as a watchdog on those in power.
The theme is in keeping with the global theme of this year’s World’s Press Freedom Day, “Keeping Power in Check: Media, Justice, and the Rule of Law,” which also highlights the role of the press in elections to ensure transparency, accountability, and the rule of law.
“Press freedom is a crucial component of any healthy democracy,” said Sorn Ramana, CCHR’s protecting fundamental freedoms coordinator, in a statement. “The open exchange of information and ideas, including in relation to political and social issues, is key to ensuring transparency, justice, and the rule of law.”
“Moreover, the cultivation and protection of a free press is a key part of the government’s obligations to protect the right to freedom of expression, as guaranteed under the Cambodian constitution and binding international human rights law,” she said. “However, recent events have seen these obligations disregarded, as Cambodian media actors have come under relentless pressure amid a crackdown on critical voices.”
“The harassment of independent journalists and media outlets must end,” she said. “Access to independent information and a free media is in everyone’s interests, and vital to the future sustainable development of Cambodia.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a message on Wednesday for World Press Freedom Day, which is held annually on May 3 to raise awareness about freedom of the press and to remind governments of their duty to uphold the right to freedom of expression under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“To ensure that there is justice and the rule of law, media are required to continue to strive to improve the knowledge, faithfulness in profession, and brevity in reporting the truth that reflects the reality of the society,” he said.
“Press freedom is better enjoyed in Cambodia than in some democratic countries in ASEAN,” he said referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a regional grouping that promotes economic, political, and security cooperation among its 10 members. “There are more than 6,000 registered national and international reporters in Cambodia.”
The Cambodian government has a technical working group looking into drafting a law to regulate “fake news,” similar to controversial legislation recently passed by Malaysia’s parliament, The Phnom Penh Post reported on April 6.
Though it contains vague definitions as to what constitutes “fake news,” the Malaysian legislation gives the government broad powers to impose jail terms of up to six years and fines as high as U.S. $130,000 on those found guilty of creating or spreading inaccurate reports.
“The news media under the control of a communist or an authoritarian regime always produces fake news and manipulation in order to propagate and promote the regime and its leaders in deceitful way while attacking the opposition,” Kul Panha, head of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), wrote on his Facebook page on Wednesday.
“Such news media cannot provide true information that is critical of the regime and its rulers,” he said. “Now, Hun Sen is considering a law against fake news. Actually, such a law should have been made to address his news media instead.”
Behind bars in China
Meanwhile, the ruling Chinese Communist Party has 41 journalists behind bars as of November under the newly strengthened leadership of President Xi Jinping, New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in its annual report issued in December. In March, the party ditched a constitutional clause limiting presidential service to two terms in office, clearing the way for Xi to serve for an indefinite period.
In its annual report in December, CPJ pointed also to the use of “medical neglect” to target writers and journalists in jail and detention centers, citing the death of Nobel peace laureate and writer Liu Xiaobo in hospital under prison supervision last July, following a diagnosis with late-stage liver cancer.
Writer and journalist Yang Tongyan, who was better known by his pen name Yang Tianshui, died in November under similar circumstances, shortly after release on medical parole with a serious brain tumor, the CPJ said.
And Huang Qi, founder and editor-in-chief of the Tianwang rights website, has been held for more than a year on “spying” charges with repeated delays and inadequate medical treatment for his kidney disease.
Fourteen of the 41 imprisoned are Uyghurs in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region, where authorities have extended their reach to include the relatives of six reporters from RFA’s Uyghur Service who have been harassed or detained in re-education camps.
On Wednesday, the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) called on the Chinese government to stop its intimidation of the RFA journalists, who have reported on excessive repression and incarceration of the mostly Muslim minority group, by targeting their family members.
RFA has reported that hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs deemed “suspicious” by authorities have been forced into re-education camps in the Kashgar region where they receive political indoctrination in jail-like settings.
“China’s record on press freedom is abysmal,” said UHRP director Omer Kanat in a statement. “The leading monitors of press freedom agree that China is one of the worst violators of the right to a free press within its borders.”
“What is particularly concerning about the cases of the RFA Uyghur journalists is that China is now attempting to export its repression overseas,” he said.
“The intimidation of the Uyghur journalists based in DC amounts to an attempt to restrict counter-narratives to the Chinese government propaganda that all is well in East Turkestan,” he said, using the Uyghur name for Xinjiang.
‘Punished for simple expression’
Chinese authorities also maintain a firm grip on information control and dissemination by Tibetans who live in the Tibet Autonomous Region and in neighboring provinces.
As elsewhere in China, those who violate censorship policy have increasingly been subject to surveillance and arrest over the past 18 months.
“That is certainly the case in Tibet [with] more people being detained, punished, and even prosecuted, because of communications over WeChat,” said Sarah Cook, a senior researcher at Freedom House, referring to a Chinese messaging app.
China enacted a new Cybersecurity Law in June 2017 and other new regulations restricting online communications and the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) under which bloggers and social media users have been arrested or sentenced to prison for online comments critical of the government or in support of human rights.
“There is no good explanation for why people would be punished for simple expression,” said Michael Kozak, a senior advisor in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
Tibetans, for instance, are not permitted to disseminate information that is sensitive to the Chinese government, said Dhondup Wangchen, a Tibetan filmmaker and former political prisoner, who jailed for six years for his role in producing the documentary film Leaving Fear Behind, which contains interviews with Tibetans describing the harsh conditions of their lives under Chinese rule.
“One will be arrested and prosecuted if any information that is dispersed goes against the regime,” he said. “Tibetans know the risk of being prosecuted if they are caught giving out information about Tibet to the outside world. I was sentenced to six years for giving out information.”
The crackdown on information dissemination has grown worse in the past decade, he said
“It was easy to get details of news information within 24 hours from eastern Tibet in 2008 and the year after when self-immolations were taking place in Ngaba [(in Chinese, Aba) county in southwestern China’s Sichuan Province] and in [northwestern China’s] Qinghai province, said Lobsang Yeshi, a Tibetan monk from the Kirti monastery in Sichuan province who lives in exile in Dharamsala, India, referring to Tibetans setting themselves ablaze in protest against Chinese policies.
“But lately it has become so hard to get exact information from the region,” he said. “Nowadays, the information we receive on certain things are month old. It’s all due to the Chinese clampdown.”
Meanwhile, despite China’s increased efforts to suppress pro-democracy factions in Hong Kong, the former British colony rose three places to 70 in the latest RSF’s World Press Freedom Index.
Though violence against journalists has all but stopped, the Hong Kong media continues to be subject to growing interference by Chinese authorities, making it difficult for them to cover topics related to governance on the island or in mainland China, RSF said on its rankings website.
But several independent online media have pushed back hard to resist Beijing’s meddling.
“The resistance is being led by a handful of independent online media such as Citizen News, the Initium, Hong Kong Free Press, and inMedia,” RSF said. “After years of fighting, these new online outlets finally obtained official recognition by the authorities last year.”
‘A terrible situation’
Not much changed over the past year in Vietnam, Laos and North Korea, which continued to fall close to or at the very bottom of RSF’s annual press freedom ranking on account of severe restricted or nonexistent press freedom.
In Vietnam, authorities routinely use catch-all articles of the criminal code punishable by long prison terms against bloggers and citizen-journalists critical of the one-party regime to stifle dissent.
“As the media all take their orders from the Communist Party, the only sources of independently-reported information are bloggers and citizen-journalists, who are being subjected to ever-harsher forms of persecution including violence by plainclothes policemen,” RSF said of Vietnam, which was ranked at 175 of 180 countries.
“After hardliners got control of the party leadership, 2017 saw a marked increase in the level of terror, with many citizen-journalists either expelled or jailed in connection with their posts,” the group said, citing two women bloggers, Tranh Thi Nga and Me Nam, who were sentenced to nine and 10 years in prison, respectively, in 2017.
The Lao government, meanwhile, won’t allow foreign new organizations, except those from fellow communist states China and Vietnam, to set up bureaus in the country.
And the foreign journalists who do operate in Laos must submit the content of their reports to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before publication, Daniel Bastard, Head of RSF's Asia-Pacific desk, told RFA’s Lao Service in April that
“The Lao government strictly controls the press,” he said.
“The government should allow foreign and independent reporters to establish offices in Laos without any government control,” he said.
Bounthone Chanthalavong-Wise, president of the Alliance for Democracy in Laos, told RFA that restrictions on the press also extend to others, such as ordinary citizens and workers who take to the internet to express their displeasure with the government.
“Laotians don’t have freedom to express themselves, to gather together and protest,” he said, noting that three workers were arrested last year after they protested in front of the Lao embassy in Bangkok and posted comments critical of the Lao government on Facebook.
In 2016, Bounthanh Thammavong, a Lao-Polish man, was sentenced by a Lao court to four years and nine months in jail for posting negative comments about the Lao government online.
“There is no free press in Laos,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division at New York-based Human Rights Watch. “All TVs, radios and newspapers are strictly controlled by government, and Lao people turn to social media such as Facebook to express themselves.”
But many Laotians are warned at an early age not to be openly critical of the one-party government in speech or in writing.
“Our parents keep teaching us not to speak against high-level [authorities],” said a young resident of Lao’s capital Vientiane. “In other words, we are taught from our childhood until adulthood both at home and in schools not to express ourselves freely.”
Worst of the worst
North Korean authorities have maintained their tight grip on the authoritarian country’s repressive media environment, despite leader Kim Jong Un’s summit with President Moon Jae-in of rival South Korea on April 27 and his expected meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump later this month or in early June.
Authorities confine residents who have had contact with media outside the isolated nation to labor camps.
“[I]t is not getting any better; it is a terrible situation,” Bastard told RFA’s Korean Service in April.
Unlike Laos, North Korea has allowed only a few foreign news agencies to set up bureaus in the country.
But Bastard noted that the country does not even guarantee freedom of the press for the outlets, including Agence France-Presse, one of the three largest news organizations in the world, which has operated a bureau in Pyongyang since September 2016.
“AFP mostly reports information that it receives from the North Korean government,” he said. “It is very difficult to directly get any information from North Korean residents. They [reporters] have to be very careful about what they write — what the Pyongyang office writes — because if it really displeases North Korean authorities, then the bureau can be closed.”
Reported and translated by RFA’s Myanmar, Khmer, Tibetan, Lao, and Korean Services. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.