UPDATED at 5:45 P.M. EST on 2017-12-19
Despite hopes for greater press freedoms in Myanmar under civilian rule, news outlets continue to self-censor reports in deference to the country’s powerful military, media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in an annual report released on Tuesday.
Cambodia meanwhile dropped four places to 132 in RSF’s 180-nation ranking this year, while China and Vietnam remained close to the bottom at 176 and 175, respectively, the group’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index said.
In formerly military-ruled Myanmar, “the formation of a civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi raised hopes of a significant improvement in respect for media freedom, but, in practice, little progress has been seen,” RSF said in its report.
“Media freedom unfortunately does not have a place amongst the new government’s priorities,” RSF said, adding that Myanmar has dropped four spots in its ranking to 131 from a rank of 128 last year.
Reporting on government officials and military leaders is routinely blocked by self-censorship, with authorities sometimes pressuring news outlets, or even intervening directly, to shape coverage of sensitive issues, the rights group said.
Press access has also been restricted in conflict-hit Rakhine state, where clashes with Muslim militants and reported atrocities by government troops have driven hundreds of thousands of Myanmar's stateless Rohingya minority group as refugees into neighboring Bangladesh, RSF said in its report.
Meanwhile, in December, two journalists working for the Reuters news service, Kyaw Soe Oo and Thet Oo Maung, were arrested after being found in possession of what the government called “important security documents” describing military operations in Rakhine.
The pair now face a possible sentence of up to 14 years in prison under the country’s Official Secrets Act.
Radio stations closed
In Cambodia, recent moves by Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party to destroy his political opposition before national elections next year have led to the closing of independent radio stations, including the Phnom Penh office of Radio Free Asia, with the rest of the country’s media put under “close watch,” RSF said.
“Journalists can pay a high price for covering illegal logging or trafficking in fish or other resources,” RSF said, adding that “defamation” and “destroying the country’s image” are the charges most often brought against reporters offending powerful government-linked figures.
On Sept. 4, the English-language Cambodia Daily newspaper, a frequent government critic, was forced to close after being hit with a sudden demand for payment of U.S. $6.3 million dollars in alleged “back taxes,” RSF said.
And on Nov. 14, former RFA journalists Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin were arrested in Phnom Penh on suspicion of attempting to transmit news reports to RFA after its office in Phnom Penh was closed. They were later charged with “collecting information for a foreign source.”
May Tithara, editor-in-chief of the Khmer Times, told RFA’s Khmer Service on Tuesday that the situation facing Cambodian journalists is “alarming,” due to severe restrictions from the government and an environment that inhibits unbiased reporting.
Sources regularly decline to comment because they fear lawsuits from the government and powerful officials, he said, adding that journalists are routinely denied credentials from the Ministry of Information, making it hard for them to carry out their work.
“In 2017, journalists in Cambodia were subject to serious pressure … [and] found it difficult to write well balanced news reports,” he said.
“We used to take pride that, within ASEAN, our country enjoyed great freedom of the press, but now … we are facing further restrictions. Some [government] officials dare not talk with us, and even say they cannot speak with certain media organizations … I call on them to open their minds and comment to all media organizations, without placing restrictions on themselves.”
China and Vietnam
In China and Vietnam, both stalled near the very bottom of RSF’s annual ranking, authorities arrested bloggers and citizen-journalists, often on charges brought under vaguely worded laws, RSF said in its report.
More than 100 are now being held by China, RSF said, calling China now the “world’s biggest prison for journalists and civil rights activists.”
In December, police in Beijing detained citizen-journalist Hua Yong for three days after he posted videos showing the mass eviction of migrant workers in the city, images of what “anyone who was there could see,” RSF said.
Also this month, Chinese plainclothes security officers punched and kicked South Korean journalists, part of an official delegation, trying to cover the visit to China of the South Korean president.
“Chinese state propaganda openly portrays foreign journalists as enemies so it is no surprise that security agents felt hostility towards them and even felt they could act with impunity,” RSF noted in a quote from its East Asia bureau chief Cedric Alviani.
Meanwhile, in Vietnam, “the only sources of independently-reported information are bloggers and citizen journalists, who are subjected to harsh forms of persecution including violence by plainclothes policemen,” RSF said in its report.
“To justify jailing them, the [ruling Communist] Party is increasingly resorting to articles 88, 79, and 258 of the criminal code, under which ‘anti-state propaganda,’ ‘activities aimed at overthrowing the government’ and ‘abusing the rights to freedom and democracy to threaten the interests of the state’ are punishable by long prison terms.”
On Dec. 14, the European Parliament in an emergency resolution condemned Vietnam’s suppression of press freedoms, calling for the release of “all citizens detained for peacefully exercising their freedom of expression.”
Reported by Richard Finney and RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo.