ASEAN press freedom weakens as Malaysia slips furthest

Press freedom in Southeast Asia continues to languish as Malaysia steps back the farthest among world nations in this year’s World Press Freedom Index.

The index compiled by Reporters sans frontières (RSF), also known as Reporters Without Borders, shows a general “bad” press freedom situation across ASEAN countries with Laos, Vietnam and Singapore on the “black” or having the worst environment for journalists.

In its analysis for the Asia-Pacific region, the Paris-based group noted that “authoritarian regimes have used the Covid-19 pandemic to perfect their methods of totalitarian control of information,” while so-called “dictatorial democracies” have used it as a pretext for enforcing repressive laws with provisions “combining propaganda and suppression of dissent.”

RSF noted Malaysia falling 18 notches to the 119th spot, a reversal from its previous position since the 2018 elections.

“Its astonishing 18-place fall, the biggest of any country in the Index, is directly linked to the formation of a new coalition government in March 2020,” it said.

The new government under Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has revived the propaganda arm Special Affairs Department, locally known as JASA.

Its “draconian legislative arsenal” allows authorities to have “strict control over publication licences” and imprison journalists for up to 20 years on sedition charges, the non-profit watchdog said. Such legislations include the 1948 Sedition Act, the 1972 Official Secrets Act and the 1998 Communications and Multimedia Act.

Recently, Yassin imposed an ordinance penalizing anyone found guilty of publicizing “fake news” about the pandemic and its current state of emergency. RSF said the law enables authorities to “impose their own version of the truth.”

A similar decree is being enforced for the past two years in Singapore, which also dropped two spots to 160th, RFS noted, likening its suppression of media freedom to that of China’s.

Indonesia (up six at 113th), Thailand (up three at 137th) and Cambodia (144th) have also adopted similar rules which make the spread of false information punishable by several years of imprisonment.

Meanwhile, the Philippines, which went down two spots at 138th, went on a “grotesque judicial harassment campaign” against online news site Rappler and its chief Maria Ressa. The ranking decline was also attributed to the Philippine Congress’s refusal to renew the franchise license of the country’s biggest media network ABS-CBN Corp, as well as media persecution through online harassment campaigns launched by troll armies supportive of President Rodrigo Duterte.

Vietnam (175th) made a wave of arrests of independent journalists days before the Communist Party’s Congress in January this year. “In all, more than 30 journalists and bloggers are now held in Vietnam’s jails, where mistreatment is common,” RSF said.

The eruption of a coup d’état in Myanmar in February has sent Burmese journalists back a decade, the group said. “They again face systematic arrest campaigns and censorship, and many will resign themselves to working clandestinely in order to be free to report what is happening and to evade the police,” it claimed.

RSF said journalism – touted as the main vaccine against disinformation –  is seriously impeded in 73 countries and constrained in 59 more.

“The Index data reflect a dramatic deterioration in people’s access to information and an increase in obstacles to news coverage,” the organization said.

“The coronavirus pandemic has been used as grounds to block journalists’ access to information sources and reporting in the field,” it added.

Photo by the foreign photographer – ฝรั่งถ่/Flickr