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Governments Have Used the Pandemic to Curtail Press Freedom in SE Asia – FCC Panel

On World Press Freedom Day, an FCC Hong Kong panel of speakers representing press clubs across Southeast Asia painted a dire portrait of press freedom in the region as various governments have vilified, attacked and even arrested journalists throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the past year, the panelists said, a series of developments including the passage or threat of “fake news” laws, new visa restrictions, online harassment, physical violence and other forms of intimidation have led to a growing atmosphere of fear and self-censorship for reporters, particularly in Myanmar. 

“Myanmar has hit a new low, and it’s been a very sobering spectacle for all of us in the region,” said Gwen Robinson, former president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand. “Journalists are basically in hiding and fearing for their lives.”

Barnaby Lo, speaking on behalf of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines, described a similarly treacherous environment for Filipino journalists, who are treated as enemies by President Rodrigo Duterte. He noted that a total of 170 journalists have been killed in the Philippines since democracy was restored in 1986, including 19 of them during Duterte’s presidency. 

He also spoke about Maria Ressa, the high-profile Filipino journalist and editor currently facing 11 court cases and potentially decades of jail time, whose story has garnered international attention.

“While Filipinos do appreciate the support for Maria Ressa, I think a lot more journalists here in the Philippines need that kind of international support as well,” Lo said.

Ed Davies, president of the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club, said that Indonesia’s Electronic Information and Transactions law has been a cause for concern and has drawn criticism for its broad interpretation. 

Similarly, Ate Hoekstra, president of the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia, said the government there regularly speaks out against “fake news” and is working on a new cybercrime law, which journalists fear may be broad enough to curtail press freedom.

Speaking on the situation in Hong Kong including troubling developments at RTHK and the prosecution of journalist Bao Choy, FCC President Keith Richburg said, “I would summarise it by saying we’re suffering death by a thousand cuts, nothing major but so many small things.”

In spite of the difficult environment in Southeast Asia, the panelists did highlight some positive developments from the past year, including the increased role of amateur journalists and eyewitness media.

“It’s raised the bar for conventional media,” said Robinson. “The images are out there, it forces you to go further.”

She also said the pandemic and the coup in Myanmar had changed the media landscape. 

“There’s a lot that is positive that’s come out throughout the region in the new creativity in the ways journalists are pushing back, finding very resourceful ways to get news out, the way they’re operating,” Robinson said. 

“People are starting to go back to SMS, old-fashioned text messages. We thought the era of transistors was dead, but actually I wouldn’t be surprised if soon you see a proliferation of transistor radios in Myanmar.”

Watch the full discussion below:

FCC Statement Marking World Press Freedom Day

The past 12 months have been one of the most challenging periods for press freedom, not just in Hong Kong but across the region. The military coup in Myanmar, the crackdown on protests in Thailand and attacks on independent media in the Philippines have all threatened the physical safety and personal liberty of reporters.

In Hong Kong, which has fallen to 80th place on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, from 18th in 2002, journalists have contended with a range of challenges, including new police limits on accreditation, the prosecution of members of the media, ever increasing pressure on the editorial independence of RTHK, concerns over visas and an attack by thugs on a newspaper printing plant. 

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has said that the media are one of the priority sectors in Hong Kong that need to be “improved” and, with the support of Police Commissioner Chris Tang, says she wants to introduce a “fake news” law. Precedents from around the world have shown that such laws are invariably used to stifle critical coverage and freedom of speech.

On World Press Freedom Day, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong wishes to express its solidarity with journalists who are facing harassment, imprisonment or risking their lives to carry out their essential mission. The club is committed to defending press freedom in Hong Kong and across the region by speaking up when it is under threat, by providing resources and workshops for working reporters, and inviting prominent Hong Kong and international journalists and personalities to speak at the club on matters of public concern.

FCC Hong Kong remembers fallen journalists on World Press Freedom Day 2018

On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, the FCC honours the memory of the 10 journalists who lost their lives in Afghanistan this week, and calls on Afghan authorities to safeguard and facilitate the vital work of the country’s media.

The targeting of Afghan journalists in a suicide attack in Kabul comes against a backdrop of mounting threats to press freedom across Asia, creating one of the most restrictive environments for media workers in recent memory. Tools including fake news laws in Malaysia, press shutdowns in Cambodia and the Philippines, and outright violence elsewhere have created a dangerous climate that poses a fundamental threat to democracy.

Press freedom is at the core of free societies around the globe. For those who believe in keeping the powerful accountable to the public, it’s more important than ever to speak up.

FCC Hong Kong marks World Press Freedom Day

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong will mark World Press Freedom Day on 3 May by observing one minute’s silence at the Main Bar at 6pm, with remarks by Club President Eric Wishart honouring journalists killed in the line of duty.

According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a total of 13 journalists have so far been killed this year, with eight of the deaths confirmed by the CPJ as directly related to their work.

Three were from the Asia Pacific region: Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Philippines.

Closer to home, in Hong Kong, the FCC and our partner organisations, including the Hong Kong Journalists Association, have witnessed continued deterioration in the overall press and publishing environment.

The Club is a staunch defender of the fundamental principles of press freedom, media pluralism and journalistic independence.

On World Press Freedom Day, we call on governments around the world to respect freedom of speech, freedom of expression and to aggressively investigate crimes committed against journalists in the course of their work.

In Hong Kong, we call on Carrie Lam, the chief executive-elect, to implement her promise of enacting a freedom of information law and archives law.

The FCC event is part of a global day of action called by the International Association of Press Clubs, of which the FCC is a member.

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