BANGKOK – As authoritarian regimes continue their crackdown on the media, there are fewer countries where journalists can safely practice their profession.
This stark reality is one of the findings that emerges from the newly released 2019 World Press Freedom Index of the Paris-based media group Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
Across the globe, “the number of countries regarded as safe, where journalists can work in complete security, continues to decline,” said RSF. Of the 180 countries and territories covered in the report, only 24 percent were classified as “good” or “fairly good” as opposed to 26 percent last year.
Southeast Asia paints a similarly gloomy picture, as authoritarian governments remain relentless in tightening their grip on the media.
“With totalitarian propaganda, censorship, intimidation, physical violence and cyber-harassment, a lot of courage is needed nowadays to work independently as a journalist in the Asia-Pacific countries, where democracies are struggling to resist various forms of disinformation,” said RSF in its report.
Six of 11 countries making up Southeast Asia (SEA) declined on the index while two ranked the same as last year. Malaysia leads three SEA countries that have moved up the index, rising several notches from 145th in 2018 to 123rd in 2019. The others are Timor Leste and Thailand.
Released a few weeks before the World Press Freedom Day commemoration on May 3, RSF’s annual World Press Freedom Day Index examines the state of journalism in 180 countries and territories.
In Vietnam, the monopoly of power exercised by its president Nguyen Phu Trong was cited as a reason for the country’s decline on the index, from 175 to176. RSF said: “the ruling elite suppresses all debate in the state-owned media while cracking down relentlessly on citizen-journalists who try to make a dissenting voice heard.”
“Around 30 professional and non-professional journalists are detained in Vietnam,” RSF added.
Laos fell one place, 171 from 170 in 2018, “for preventing journalists from covering the dramatic collapse of a dam in July 2018.”
RSF cited the Chinese system of “total news control” as a model for “anti-democratic regimes” such as Singapore, Brunei, and Thailand. In Cambodia, censorship has become the norm.
In the Philippines, “attacks against the independent press by President Rodrigo Duterte’s government are accompanied by coordinated cyber-attacks.” RSF cited as “the most emblematic case” the series of prosecutions against news website Rappler and its CEO and executive editor Maria Ressa.
In Myanmar, the spread of disinformation and anti-Rohingya hate messages on social media without moderation benefits the government. RSF rues the “deafening silence” of Aung San Suu Kyi on the seven-year jail sentence slapped by the courts on Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were arrested in December 2017 and convicted in September 2018 for reporting on the Rohingya crisis.
In Indonesia, RSF said “the absence of structural reforms that foster greater press freedom” prevent the country from progressing.
Malaysia showed the biggest improvement among Southeast Asian countries for its historic May 2018 elections, where “Prime Minister Najib Razak’s ruling coalition suffered a surprising defeat” – seen by many as a “breath of fresh air.”
In Timor-Leste, the “coverage of the parliamentary elections in May 2018 nonetheless served to show the importance of the role that media pluralism.”
RSF said the Asia-Pacific region “continues to exhibit all of the problems that can beset journalism” which ranks third from last among the six main regions around the world.
The Press Freedom Index is determined “by pooling the responses of experts to a questionnaire devised by RSF. This qualitative analysis is combined with quantitative data on abuses and acts of violence against journalists during the period evaluated.”
RSF reviews the questionnaire based on the following criteria: “pluralism, media independence, media environment and self-censorship, legislative framework, transparency, and the quality of the infrastructure that supports the production of news and information.”