By Josef Benedict
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, Apr 29 2020 (IPS) – May 3rd marks World Press Freedom Day around the world. During this COVID-19 pandemic, a robust media environment is critical: access to life-saving information is key in the fight against the virus. As governments impose a range of restrictions in attempts to curb the pandemic, journalists help hold authorities to account by providing analysis, engaging in debate about government actions, and creating a space for dialogue about the future we all hope to see. However, civic freedoms are under assault across the world. Data released by the CIVICUS Monitor in its People Power Under Attack report — which rates and tracks respect for fundamental freedoms in 196 countries — shows that compared to the previous year, twice as many people are living in countries where the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly, and expression are being violated.
In Asia, the percentage of people living in countries with closed, repressed or obstructed civic space is now at 95 percent. There has been growing intolerance for dissent in this region and states are increasingly using restrictive laws or intimidation tactics to muzzle activists and critics. In the past year, numerous Asian governments – from Pakistan to Hong Kong – used excessive force to disrupt protests, while civil society organisations critical of the authorities faced smear campaigns or were forced to shut down.
This has made the Asian region an extremely repressive and dangerous place for journalists and media outlets to operate. Many seeking to expose human rights violations and corruption by those in power, or who try to amplify voices critical of the state, often put themselves in harm’s way.
Journalists are also being criminalised in many countries in Asia for their reporting. In the Philippines, Maria Ressa, executive editor of news website Rappler, which has published extensively on abuses in President Duterte’s ‘war on drugs,’ has faced baseless cases of tax evasion and libel. In Myanmar, authorities have repeatedly targeted journalists, while in Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen has attempted to silence the few remaining independent journalists and media outlets in the country. Cambodian Radio Free Asia journalists, Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin continue to face fabricated espionage charges since 2017 for their reporting, despite the lack of any credible evidence against them.
Even in a country like India, where the press has played a crucial role in protecting the country’s democracy since its independence, journalists now feel under attack. Kishorechandra Wangkhem, a journalist from Manipur, spent a year in prison under the draconian National Security Act for posting a video on social media criticising the ruling party.
Governments are also increasing the use of censorship to block the flow of news in the Asian region.
The Chinese Communist Party is the main perpetrator as it continues to expand its censorship regime, blocking critical media outlets and social media sites. In Bangladesh, the authorities have blocked Al Jazeera and numerous other news portals and websites critical of the state. While in countries like Singapore, the authorities have targeted independent news websites such as The Online Citizen, to suppress its critical reporting. States also have used internet shutdowns to block reporting, for example, in places like Indian-administered Kashmir, in Chin and Rakhine states in Myanmar, and in West Papua in Indonesia.
Across Asia, journalists are also facing physical attacks, threats and intimidation from the authorities and other non-state actors. Afghanistan remains one of the most dangerous countries for journalists. Dozens of journalists have been attacked by security forces and members of armed groups. Ten journalists were shot dead in 2019 by unknown gunmen and some were abducted by armed groups.
In the Philippines, there is a culture of impunity around attacks and killing of journalists, with perpetrators rarely held to account. In 2019, radio journalist Eduardo Dizon, who often reported on corruption, was shot dead while on his way home in Kidapawan City after hosting a daily news commentary show. He sustained five gunshot wounds when two gunmen on a motorcycle stopped beside his car at a corner and shot him.
Journalists are also going missing. Shafiqul Islam Kajol, a leading Bangladeshi photojournalist and newspaper editor, is believed to have been forcibly disappeared on 10 March, a day after defamation charges were filed against him by an influential ruling party lawmaker.
These threats to press freedom are being exacerbated as we combat the COVID-19 pandemic. As governments attempt to control the narrative, combat misinformation and silence criticism, journalists are in the firing line.
In February, Chinese freelance journalist Li Zehua went missing. He had travelled to Wuhan from Beijing to report on the COVID-19 outbreak and had posted a video saying that a local neighbourhood committee had not carried out the basic countermeasures promised by authorities and had also tried to cover up information about infected cases in the community.
In the Philippines, two journalists were charged in early April for spreading “false information” about the country’s COVID-19 crisis. While in Cambodia, police arrested a journalist, Sovann Rithy, for quoting the country’s prime minister who spoke about the economic consequences of COVID-19. The authorities also revoked the license for Rithy’s news site.
Most recently, in a blatant attempt to use the pandemic to intimidate a leading media outlet in India, Siddharth Varadarajan, founding editor of The Wire, was charged for reporting on a government minister violating the country’s coronavirus lockdown. These cases highlight a worrying trend that must be checked before it deteriorates further.
Therefore, it is crucial now more than ever for us to push back on these attacks and restrictions to press freedom. Individuals and their communities cannot protect themselves against disease when information is denied to them. The protection of the media is a protection of the public’s right to information. As we mark this important day for press freedom, we must ensure that journalism thrives and plays its essential role in informing the public and holding officials accountable.
Josef Benedict is a Civic Space Researcher with CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance. He covers Asia-Pacific.
By Josef Benedict