Using Covid-19 to muzzle Southeast Asia’s reporters

BANGKOK (UCAN): 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 said at an online event organised by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) in Bangkok, on May 4.

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 panellists who participated in an online forum themed, Media under Covid-19.

“Anybody who presents a narrative that challenges [the official narrative] could be accused of [purveying] fake news,” Jonathan Head, the BBC’s Southeast Asia correspondent and vice-president of the FCCT, said.

Making matters worse is that several countries such as Thailand have passed emergency laws to deal with the outbreak of the Covid-19 coronavirus that can be subject to abuse by officials.

With the aid of these new emergency laws as well as existing ones, authorities can stifle 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 neighbouring Malaysia, a local correspondent for Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post newspaper is being investigated by police for breaking a law of the country’s Penal Code that criminalises “insults” or “provocation” that may lead to a breach of the public order.

Journalist, Tashny Sukumaran, ran afoul of the law because of an article critical of the authorities’ round-up of hundreds of migrant workers and asylum seekers in Kuala Lumpur in early May as part of an initiative to halt the spread of the Covid-19 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 watchdogs such as Reporters Without Borders. On its 2020 Press Freedom Index, 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.

Head said that it isn’t just media professionals who are becoming even more wary around the region right now, observing that many local officials have also been less willing to speak freely to the media for fear of being penalised 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, adding, “They are much more nervous about doing that now.”

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