The pandemic has opened up ways for regimes in Southeast Asia to curb freedom of speech in the name of national stability. While COVID-19 continues to attack the population of this region, they also become targets of the state, as they demand transparency of information on the pandemic. This article compiles latest developments taking place in selected Southeast Asian countries, based on recent reports from Reporters Without Borders (RSF).


Myanmar

In mid-coronavirus crisis, government blocks 221 sites for “fake news”. Reporters Without Borders calls on Myanmar’s authorities to immediately restore mobile phone access to the 221 news websites they have arbitrarily blocked on the pretext of combatting disinformation during the Covid-19 crisis, in what is a disturbingly authoritarian move. Without any public announcement, the transport and communications ministry issued orders to Myanmar’s four mobile phone operators in the last two weeks of March to block access to a total of 221 sites on the grounds that they were spreading “fake news,” to use the ministry’s term. The government has not provided a list of the censored sites, but several leading media outlets are now blocked, as are a number of news sites aimed above all at Myanmar’s ethnic minorities.

According to a statement issued by one of the operators, Telenor Myanmar, whose headquarters is in Norway, the legal basis given by the government was article 77 of the telecommunications law, which allows sites to be blocked in an “emergency situation.” The ministry’s concern was “fake news” about Covid-19, an official later claimed. Telenor Myanmar eventually complied with the order fully after initially resisting. The other three mobile operators, which are either state or army offshoots, all appear to have complied immediately. “While it is legitimate to combat all disinformation during a crisis such as the one caused by the coronavirus, the method used by Myanmar’s government is utterly inappropriate and is even proving to be dangerous,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of the RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “The censorship that the authorities are in practice applying to many news websites is going to deny sectors of the Myanmar population of reliable information that is absolutely crucial to combatting the pandemic. This decision recalls the worst times of the military dictatorship and sets Myanmar’s democracy back ten years.”

Thirst for News

After years of censorship, Myanmar’s population is now turning en masse to the mobile Internet to get their news. According to a survey published on 1 April, mobile Internet use increased by 25% in March, in a sign of the thirst for information among Myanmar’s 64 million mobile subscribers during the pandemic. The blocking of these websites has coincided with other disturbing press freedom violations. On 31 March the police raided the headquarters of the Narinjara news agency in Sittwe, the capital of the troubled northwestern state of Rakhine, questioning three of its journalists, Thein Zaw, Aung Lin Htun and Htun Khaing, for six hours and seizing their laptops. At the same time, ten police officers raided the home of Hline Thit Zin Wai, the editor of Khit Thit News, a news agency based in the southern city of Yangon.

Accused of Terrorism

The day before that, on 30 March, Voice of Myanmar website editor Nay Myo Lin was arrested in the central city Mandalay. All five journalists are facing charges of “terrorism” for interviewing or quoting the Arakan Army (AA), a rebel group seeking autonomy for Rakhine. A bugbear of Myanmar’s military, the AA was officially declared to be a terrorist organisation on 23 March. According to the information obtained by RSF, several other journalists have gone into hiding because they fear imminent arrest for having referred to the AA in their recent reporting.

Myanmar is ranked 138th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index, after falling seven places in the previous two years.


Philippines

Two journalists face two months in prison for coronavirus reporting. Philippine prosecutors have been urged to abandon all proceedings against journalists under a new law that supposedly combats “false information” about the coronavirus crisis but in fact constitutes a grave violation of press freedom. Two journalists based in Cavite, a province just to the south of Manila – Latigo News TV website editor Mario Batuigas and video blogger and online reporter Amor Virata – are facing the possibility of two months in prison and fine of 1 million pesos (17,500 euros) as a result of charges under the new law brought by the police on 28 March. They are accused of spreading “false information on the Covid-19 crisis” under section 6(6) of the “Bayanihan to Heal As One Act,” which President Duterte signed into law on 25 March, the day after its adoption by the Philippine congress with the aim of addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.

It confers special powers on the irascible president and is supposed to remain in effect for three months, but can be extended by the pro-Duterte congress. “Bayanihan” means “communal action.” “We urge Philippine prosecutors to abandon all proceedings against journalists under article 6(6) and we call for its immediate repeal,” said Bastard. “The article is supposed to penalise ‘false information’ but this is not a concept the exists in Philippine law, so it poses a major threat to the freedom to inform. During the coronavirus crisis, when information is especially crucial, the authorities must let journalists do their work, regardless of the kind of media they report for.” Bulatlat, a non-profit alternative media outlet that covers subjects affecting low-income sectors, has meanwhile been arbitrarily denied the accreditation that is now required in order to report on quarantine areas on Luzon, the Philippine archipelago’s largest and most populous island.

Broadcasting Halted

The Biggest TV and radio network were told to stop broadcasting. It has been warned by RSF that an order to stop broadcasting with immediate effect that the Philippine National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) issued today to the country’s biggest TV and radio network, ABS-CBN, would deal a fatal blow to media pluralism if carried out. The order is “effective immediately,” justice secretary Menardo Guevarra said shortly after it was issued by the NTC on the grounds that ABS-CBN’s 25-year franchise expired yesterday after the Philippine congress, which supports President Rodrigo Duterte, rejected all renewal proposals. The NTC has given ABS-CBN ten days to respond to the order.

Dictatorship

“By systematically refusing to renew ABS-CBN’s franchise, President Duterte’s faction is trampling on the spirit of the 1987 constitution, which enshrines the separation of powers and freedom of the press,” said Bastard. “This network’s TV channels play a major role in providing Philippine citizens with reliable and independent news coverage. If they were to stop broadcasting, media pluralism would be drastically reduced – to the point of recalling the worst period of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship and signalling the end of democracy in the Philippines.” Earlier this year, RSF listed the many threats that President Duterte has made against ABS-CBN, including advising the network’s owners on 30 December to “just sell.” Today’s “cease and desist order” to ABS-CBN is the culmination of a disgraceful offensive by the Duterte administration against independent journalism in the Philippines.

As soon as he was elected president in 2016, Duterte began attacking the “sons of whore journalists” working for independent media outlets. His targets have included the Philippine Daily Inquirer, which the Duterte faction neutralised by acquiring a significant stake in the newspaper. The authorities have also waged a campaign against the news website Rappler and its founder Maria Ressa, who have been subjected to at least 11 judicial proceedings by various government agencies.

The Negros Oriental Incident

A Well-known radio journalist was gunned down in Negros Oriental. The RSF urges the Philippine authorities to appoint a special independent team to investigate yesterday’s shocking murder of a radio journalist with a reputation for covering corruption, who was gunned down by two men on a motor-cycle in Dumaguete City, the capital of the central province of Negros Oriental. Cornelio Pepino, known to his listeners as Rex Corneliowas shot five times at close range at around 8:30 p.m. as he was driving home after presenting his programme Pokpokin Mo Baby! (Hit it baby!) on dyMD Energy FM 93.7. He died on the spot. Lt. Allen June Germondo, the police office in charge of the investigation, said he is examining the hypothesis that Pepino was killed in connection with his journalism. As well as being a well-known radio show host, Pepino had a solid reputation as an investigative reporter in Negros Oriental. He had exposed several cases of corruption, bribery and illegal mining. Negros Oriental governor Roel Degamo sued him for defamation in 2014, but he was finally acquitted in 2017. “There is every reason to suspect that Cornelio Pepino was deliberately silenced because people were annoyed by his journalism,” asserted Bastard. “We urge the Presidential Task Force on Media Security to take charge of the investigation and to appoint an independent team to carry it out. The vicious cycle of crimes of violence against journalists and impunity must stop.”

Sixteen Journalists Slain

 Two other radio journalists have been gunned down in a similar manner by hitmen on motorcycles in the past two years in Dumaguete City. One was Dindo Generosoa radio commentator who criticized a popular local form of gambling and the associated corruption. He was shot eight times last November. The other was Edmund Sestoso, who was shot in May 2018. He was well known for explaining local political conflicts in Negros Oriental. The current Philippine administration boasts of having created a Presidential Task Force on Media Security as soon as Rodrigo Duterte became president in 2016. Nonetheless, if confirmed, Pepino will be the 16th journalist to have been killed in connection with their work since then. Pepino was slain on the same day that the National Telecommunications Commission ordered the country’s biggest TV and radio network, ABS-CBNto stop operating with immediate effectABS-CBN’s TV channels and radio stations did indeed stop broadcasting yesterday evening.

The Philippines is ranked 136th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index, two places lower than in 2019.


Indonesia

Police used Covid-19 to silence criticism of government. RSF is alarmed to learn that Indonesia’s police have been ordered to combat not only disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic but also criticism of the president and government. Linking the two is very dangerous, RSF says, calling on the police to allow journalists to work freely. Journalists who criticise the government face the possibility of up to 18 months in prison under a directive that the head of the Criminal Investigation Agency, Gen. Listyo Sigit Prabowo, issued on 4 April. The directive orders the police to crack down on “coronavirus-related hoaxes,” “online frauds regarding the sales of health equipment” and finally – although it has no relation with the pandemic – “hostile information about the president and government.”

“In this directive, the Indonesia police are taking advantage of the need to combat disinformation linked to the Covid-19 pandemic in order to rein in journalists who might want to publish information critical of President Joko Widodo or his government,” said Bastard. “This constitutes an intolerable encroachment on press freedom, which is supposed to be guaranteed by article 28 of the 1945 constitution. We urge the police to allow journalists to work freely so that they are able to provide reliable and independent news coverage, which is absolutely crucial during this pandemic.”

Draconian Legislation

Many journalists are meanwhile also concerned that the ruling coalition could take advantage of the coronavirus lockdown to get parliament to approve a package of amendments to the penal code, some of which would endanger press freedom in Indonesia, especially articles 219 and 241, which criminalise criticism of the president and government. The proposed amendments were submitted to parliament last year but had to be shelved after a major wave of protests organised by civil society because of the threats to press freedom. The deputy speaker of the lower house nonetheless announced on 2 April that the proposed amendments were again being examined in committee and would soon be submitted to a plenary session of the house.

Indonesia is ranked 124th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.


Malaysia

Police investigate reporter who covered Covid-19 arrests. RSF calls on the Malaysian authorities to drop all charges against a reporter who is facing a possible two-year jail sentence on a charge of breaching the peace for covering the mass arrests of migrant workers as part of the country’s efforts to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

Tashny Sukumaran, the Kuala Lumpur correspondent of the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, has been ordered to report for questioning this morning at police headquarters in the Kuala Lumpur district of Bukit Aman. She is being investigated under Section 504 of the Penal Code (for “intentional insult with intent to provoke a breach of the peace”) and under Section 233 of the 1998 Communications and Multimedia Act (for “improper use of network facilities or network service”). The investigation was prompted by a story in the newspaper on the evening of 1 May, co-signed by Sukumaran and Hong Kong-based reporter Bhavan Jaipragas, about that day’s arrests of hundreds of migrant workers in Kuala Lumpur’s so-called Covid-19 “red zones” where the infection rate is said to be high. The raids and arrests came just hours after the health ministry told undocumented migrants that they had “nothing to fear” if they came forward to be tested for the coronavirus.

The police phoned Sukumaran the next day to tell her she was being investigated in connection with the article. “We call on prosecutors to immediately drop the absurd charges against Tashny Sukumaran,” said Bastard. “Malaysia rose more than any other country in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index, mainly thanks to a sharp improvement in the climate of censorship and self-censorship. But Tashny Sukumaran’s case serves as a reminder that Malaysia could fall again in the Index if the government does not quickly amend the draconian laws to which the press are exposed.” The improvement in the environment for reporters was largely due to a change of government through the polls two years ago, the first in the history of Malaysia’s democracy. But an arsenal of draconian laws for suppressing media freedom is still available to the executive. They include the 1948 Sedition Act, the 1972 Official Secrets Act, the 1984 Printing Presses and Publications Act and the 1998 Communications and Multimedia Act. They give the authorities strict control over publication licences and allow them to sentence journalists to up to 20 years in prison on sedition charges.

Malaysia is ranked 101st out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index, 22 places higher than in 2019.

FORSEA
We would like to thank Reporters Without Borders for the information collated in this article.

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect FORSEA’s editorial stance.

FORSEA

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