Earlier this month, Maria Ressa, a prominent journalist and outspoken critic of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, was found guilty of cyber libel in another concerning development for media freedom in the country. While the incident was notable on its own terms, it also spotlighted the wider troubles occurring in Southeast Asia’s media landscape over the past few years and how this can be addressed in the years to come.
While painting with a broad brush can gloss over complexities in a region as diverse as Southeast Asia, the region has long been a troubling place for media outlets to operate freely. There are a variety of reasons for this that have to do with politics more generally, including the unfree nature of some of the region’s regimes, repressive laws that remain on the books, and wider governance challenges such as corruption, civil-military contestation, and internal conflict.
But over the past few years, there have been indications that Southeast Asia’s troubled media landscape is worsening due to a confluence of factors, including wider democratic backsliding, the rise of new restrictive laws, growing fears about disinformation, and the undermining of democratic values in Western countries that have been traditional advocates of media freedom. Examples of this run the gamut in Southeast Asia, including the jailing of Reuters journalists in Myanmar, the previous shuttering of news media outlets in Malaysia and Cambodia, and growing censorship in Thailand following the May 2014 coup. The emergence of the coronavirus pandemic has only heightened these fears.