A woman crosses a roadblock manned by soldiers at the entrance to Chow Kit Market in Kuala Lumpur on May 6. The market is under lockdown as a preventive measure against the spread of the coronavirus in Malaysia. (Photo: Mohd Rasfan/AFP)
Journalists around Southeast Asia are facing extra limits on their already circumscribed freedoms to report the news accurately during the current Covid-19 pandemic, media professionals say.
Governments and local authorities across the region frequently resort to laws ostensibly aimed at stopping the spread of misinformation to clamp down on journalists and media outlets, according to panelists who participated in an online forum called “Media under Covid-19,” organized by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) in Bangkok.
“Anybody who presents a narrative that challenges [the official narrative] could be accused of [purveying] fake news,” said Jonathan Head, a British journalist who is the BBC’s Southeast Asia correspondent and vice-president of the FCCT.
Making matters worse is that several countries such as Thailand have passed emergency laws to deal with the outbreak of the coronavirus, yet these laws can be subject to abuse by officials.
With the aid of these new emergency laws as well as existing ones, the authorities can stifle the freedom of the press by prosecuting journalists on various grounds such as “creating a public disturbance or damaging public confidence in the government,” Head observed.
In neighboring Malaysia, a local correspondent for the South China Morning Post newspaper in Hong Kong is being investigated by police for breaking a law of the country’s Penal Code that criminalizes “insults” or “provocation” that may lead to a breach of the public order.
Journalist Tashny Sukumaran ran afoul of the law by writing an article critical of the authorities’ round-up of hundreds of migrant workers and asylum seekers in Kuala Lumpur last week as part of an initiative to halt the spread of the coronavirus. If convicted, she could face up to two years in prison.
None of the countries within Asean offer much in the way of media freedoms, according to foreign watchdogs such as the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders.
On its Press Freedom Index of 2020, which ranks nations globally based on their degree of media freedom, countries in Southeast Asia perform poorly. Malaysia is at 101st place, followed by Indonesia at 119, the Philippines at 136, Myanmar at 139, Thailand at 140, Cambodia at 144 and Laos at 172.
Yet it isn’t just media professionals who are becoming even more wary around the region right now, Head said. The British correspondent observed that many local officials have also been less willing to speak freely to the media for fear of being penalized for doing so.
“In our day-to-day work we talk to officials and some of them would tell us what they thought was going wrong,” he said. “They are much more nervous about doing that now.”