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Despite Bright Spots, a Gloomy Outlook for Media Freedom in Southeast Asia

A Cambodian boy hangs up copies of the English-language newspaper, Phnom Penh Post, at the newsstand in Phnom Penh, file photo.
A Cambodian boy hangs up copies of the English-language newspaper, Phnom Penh Post, at the newsstand in Phnom Penh, file photo.

Shawn Crispin, senior Southeast Asia representative at the Committee to Protect Journalists, sat down with VOA Khmer to talk about the outlook for independent reporting in Cambodia.

[Editor’s Note: Economic issues appeared to trump human rights concerns during US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visits to Laos and Cambodia last month. The leaders of the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are now preparing to gather in California on Feb.15 and Feb. 16. The focus of that summit is also likely to once again be trade and economic cooperation, amid the Obama administration’s ongoing efforts to counterbalance the influence of rising power of China in the region. However, the summit comes as journalists in many parts of Southeast Asia are facing tough times, and advocates will be hoping that American officials take the opportunity to press regional leaders on their treatment of independent media. Among them is Shawn Crispin, the senior Southeast Asia representative at the Committee to Protect Journalists. He spoke at length with VOA Khmer’s Say Mony about the outlook for independent reporting in the region.]

First of all, what is the current state of press freedom and independent news media in Southeast Asia?

As always in the region, it's a mixed bag and there are different dynamics in different countries which we monitor. There are some very upbeat stories as far as the emergence of independent media goes, for instance in Burma or Myanmar. What we have seen since 2012 as the military lightened its censorship grip has been a burgeoning of new independent media outlets, particularly in print media, that have taken up new stories and angles which were, frankly, unheard of under the previous military regime. We see this as a very positive development, this emergence of new voices in Burma. It's instrumental in the country’s transition towards what we view as a quasi democracy as long as the military maintains a strong political role. That's been a good news story.

In other places such as Malaysia, where since the late 1990s, you had an emergence, particularly online, of new independent media, particularly outlets like Malaysiakini and now, more recently, Malaysia Insider. These publications have challenged the state and political parties' long-dominance over the media and reported news that quite frankly have made a various UMNO [United Malays National Organisation]-led regimes quite uncomfortable. And they’ve been absolutely instrumental in opening space in Malaysia for debate and dialogue that was unheard of previously, when the dominant-UMNO party dominated the media. Of course, the story is not quite so positive in regards to the broadcast media, which is very much dominated by the state, but the online space that has been open has really in many regards in Malaysia pushed the political-oriented media—i.e. the ones controlled by UMNO—to take up stories they wouldn't have previously just due to the base embarrassment of not covering some of the stories that outlets like Malaysiakini and Malaysia Insider are covering. So, that's been a positive story as well. Unfortunately, in Malaysia, the state and authorities are starting to crack down on some of these outlets. This has been spasmodic over the last few years, but it has been particularly pitched last year with the deterioration of the political climate there. Malaysia is one of these mixed-bag stories

Where I sit, in Thailand, we would argue that this is a bad news story, where you've seen a clear deterioration in press freedom conditions and an assault on independent media by military authorities, where there are unclear guidelines as to what constitutes overly-critical news. Media outlets find themselves suddenly lashed-out against by military leaders for reporting on issues deemed sensitive, or just, frankly, perceived as negative of the military regime’s image. The independent media in Thailand now really doesn't know where the line is towards what is permissible and what is not. That remains a very delicate situation for the reporters here.

Which country in the region has the most independent media right now?

The most independent media in the region is probably in the Philippines. That's been the case for a long time and that judgment comes from the fact that you have independently held and privately run media in all formats—broadcast, online and print—and have for sometime. The Philippines most certainly has a free-wheeling and at times rollicking media. The problem there is that the media is perceived as so free that journalists sometimes say things that perhaps they don't necessarily have the facts to back, and this often leads to conflict. Unfortunately, with the Philippines’ underdeveloped judicial system, it's not capable of mediating these and, oftentimes, it results in violence. The Philippines is far and away the freest media in the region but it's not a complete sunshine story there because journalists are sometimes killed for their reporting and commentaries. It’s a situation where freedom sometimes results in violence, which is something that we have campaigned against for a long time. The government there needs to gets strong about improving its judicial processes and actually prosecuting the killers of journalists.

What about the least independent in the region?

I think at this point it's probably Laos, the often overlooked, landlocked country. It's still very much run by an authoritarian, communist regime that tolerates almost no free media. You have the Vientiane Times there, but that’s very much under the state's control. The broadcast media's totally dominated and there’s just no room whatsoever for free reporting and commentary.

The only reason I would put Laos ahead of Vietnam—which is a country that is very troubling in regards to its lack of any sort of free media—is that there's been a real burgeoning blogosphere in Vietnam that the authorities have had trouble coming to grips with and finding ways to bring under the same control that it has the mainstream media. In Vietnam, it's a real cat-and-mouse game, where bloggers hide behind pseudonyms and anonymity to write pretty critical commentary on the political situation and the social situation there. The authorities try to find out who they are and crack down on them. Until recently, Vietnam was one of the worst jailers of journalists in all of the world. Most of those journalists wrote online—i.e. the ones they imprisoned were free, independent bloggers, and not state-controlled, state-dominated media.

So, people are now going online, where they can express themselves freely. But some countries are now managing to curb those freedoms, is that correct?

The emergence of free, independent media online was something that really kicked off in the mid-2000s and governments were slow on the uptake on how to control these new independent outlets. But a decade later, governments have slowly but surely figured out how to ferret out these independent voices that hide behind anonymity and pseudonyms, and to ramp up harassment against them, and try to bring them under the same controls and strictures they've long had over the mainstream media. This is the process that I think has actually narrowed the space that was much more open in place like Vietnam—and increasingly here in Thailand—in the mid-2000. Some of that space has been taken back by government authorities.

With the introduction of the ASEAN Economic Community this year, the focus seems to be on economic growth, rather than on issues like press freedom. Why is independent media important for Southeast Asia?

In our view, independent free media is essential for well-functioning democracies and modern globalized economies. In respect to your question, it's crucial for a well-functioning, modern, capitalist economy for there to be a free flow of information so that investors and consumers can react to market conditions as they shift and change. In countries where the press is not free, there’s not a free flow of information, then that leads to market distortions which oftentimes hurts investors and consumers and inhibits their ability to make wise business-based decisions.

Unfortunately, for a region like Southeast Asia, many of these countries look north to China and see a country where the media is harshly repressed, and has been for sometime. And at the same time, they see a capitalist miracle story taking place without a functioning free media. I would argue that the reality of the situation is coming to roost right about now where the world at large has no idea what is the real state of China's economy, precisely because they don’t have a free media and for years people relied on what's obviously been over-robust government economic statistics. But now people are starting to question those numbers and unfortunately don't have a free media to chime in and put a check on those. I think China eventually is going to prove a story where the lack of free media actually allowed very big economic distortions to build up without journalistic checks to pinprick these bubbles before they became too large. The risk and the fear for Southeast Asia is that in countries where you don't have a free media to check economic policy making or in a countries where you did and now that media freedom is being taken back, you don't really know what are the true states of these economies.

I would point to a country like Thailand in particular, where the government remains upbeat about its performance, but increasingly investors are starting to question the integrity of some of the economic forecasts and statistics that are being put forward in a way that they perhaps they didn't question when the country is under democratic rule. Now that ASEAN has gathered, and they are prioritizing economic growth, we would say that they need to simultaneously and coincidentally prioritize press freedom to ensure that the economic growth they achieve is healthy and transparent.

What are some of the other setbacks in media freedom and independent media in Southeast Asia recently?

Cambodia is another one of those, in our opinion, mixed-bag stories. For years you've had a pocket of independent print media outlets, like the Phnom Penh Post or the Cambodia Daily and various others that have taken a pretty strong independent line and jousted with Hun Sen’s government for years over their reporting on issues that he’s at times considered sensitive. We also acknowledged the important work that Radio Free Asia and Voice of America have played in the broadcast media, particularly their radio broadcasts which has reached such large audience for such a long time. Obviously your reporting has frequently got in Hun Sen’s crosshairs as well.

In regards to the broadcast television media, this is something that has been pretty sewn up and controlled by the ruling CPP for some time. That obviously reaches perhaps the largest audience in the country with pro-CPP news as its nightly fare. I think there was some hope there that the accommodation would reach Sam Rainsy and that he was going to be allowed to run his own television station, and you would finally get an opposing voice in the television media, but obviously the politics there has deteriorated again, and the hopes for that are pretty much dashed.

As the political climate in Cambodia deteriorates, I think the pressure on some of these independent voices is likely to grow. I think there was hope in Cambodia when you had this delicate power-sharing arrangement that you might have seen more critical news targeted at the CPP, but as the rapprochement falls apart between the two sides we're pretty much back to square one with the CPP attempting to dominate the narrative and putting pressure on the few independent outlets that are there to counter their narratives.

Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, has recently started using Facebook as a means to connect to the people. Do you see this as a positive sign for the country’s media climate?

It just becomes another pro-government channel, does it not? I doubt you see much criticism on Hun Sen’s Facebook page. Leaders of the world over use social media channels as a way of trying to counter critical news coverage of their governments. I don't think Hun Sen or the CPP top leaders are any different in that regard.

We are pretty aware of stories that are reported by some of the mainstream media where authorities make it very clear of their displeasure over that reporting, and that hasn't changed, even if Hun Sen does have a Facebook page.

We see it in Malaysia as well. The Najib [Razak] regime has made use of Facebook and Twitter. Their crack down on opposition voices, contemporaneous with their own engagement with social media, has been quite striking. So in some respect, it's really just another channel for pro-government propaganda.

Why do you think Southeast Asian governments are not able to tolerate having free and independent media?

Very few governments in the region want a genuine, true and independent and critical check on their power. In most countries that's a reflection of the fact that they are still poorly governed and that authorities are oftentimes involved in corrupt practices that they do not want to be exposed by a free and independent media. [They want] to protect themselves from harsh scrutiny, which they see could potentially destabilize their regime or most certainly counter the positive spin that they perpetuate through state-controlled media on a nightly basis.

They clamp down and that try to promote cultures of fear and uncertainty among reporters that if you go too far in checking our regime, there are serious repercussions on the other side. That's true across the region from Malaysia to Thailand to Cambodia, most certainly in Vietnam, and even in Burma.

ASEAN leaders are set to meet Barack Obama in mid-February in California. What can the U.S. do to improve the state of media freedom in Southeast Asia?

We would hope that President Obama would prioritize the need for greater press freedoms across the region in that meeting. Obviously we understand some of the strategic and economic imperatives that are driving the initiatives and recognize those. But we think that deeper economic and strategic engagement with the United States should be predicated on allowances for greater press freedom in the spirit of American democracy.

This is something that we would hope that as the U.S. shifts its gaze once again toward Southeast Asia on its strategic and economic importance, particularly as a counter-balance to China in a larger Great Game sort of contest between the two super-powers, that the US maintains priority on issues like press freedom and obviously more broadly in the promotion of democracy in these countries. So we've pushed very hard in Vietnam as Hanoi—or at least the faction inside the communist party there—starts to look toward the U.S. for strategic backing vis-a-vis China. That any engagement is predicated on allowances for more press freedom and the freeing of bloggers and independent journalists in Vietnam. We've been somewhat heartened that over the last year 10 journalists were released. Not all early, but nonetheless after they completed their sentences, in Vietnam. So we would hope that the U.S. would, as it engages with other countries in the region, make similar demands, not necessarily for releasing imprisoned journalists, but for allowing for more independent media online and in all formats including broadcast media. So we're hoping that this is something that is giving voice at that meeting. And it's something we are absolutely pushing forward from behind the scenes.