Rappler not the only victim of state bullying

Rappler not the only victim of state bullying

Rappler.com has no shortage of defenders, but it only takes one order to close it for good.
Rappler.com has no shortage of defenders, but it only takes one order to close it for good.

The revocation of Manila-based independent news website Rappler's licence in the Philippines is just another case showing the state's attempt to silence the media.

The Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission announced the licence revocation on Monday, accusing Rappler of violating the constitution by selling control to foreign companies.

Many see the move as politically motivated. Rappler has often published critical stories about President Rodrigo Duterte. Its journalists are known for putting the Duterte government under pressure with tough questions despite the strongman's regular threats. He likes calling journalists "spies" or saying that journalists deserve to be murdered because they are corrupt.

Paritta Wangkiat is a reporter, Bangkok Post.

Undaunted, Rappler has repeatedly exposed controversial issues and conducted a series of investigative reports. In particular, its CEO Maria Ressa and her team spent months tracking pro-Duterte Facebook accounts, and found links between the Duterte administration and those accounts where fake news or reports were occasionally circulated to discredit its opponents.

As a result, Rappler and its journalists have faced vitriol, trolls and threats of violence by pro-Duterte social media members. The Philippine president, in order to discredit Rappler, has branded the website a "fake news" outlet.

As we all know, it's already a difficult time for the mainstream media, dubbed widely as a "sunset" industry, with dwindling income. State threats and intimidation just add to the trouble.

Rappler is not the only victim in the region.

Such threats and dirty tactics to discredit journalists have been used in most, if not all countries, in Southeast Asia.

Last year, the Cambodia Daily -- a newspaper recognised for its impartiality -- was forced to close after the Hun Sen government accused it of tax dodging. The closure came during Prime Minister Hun Sen's harsh crackdown on the opposition and media.

In Myanmar, two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were jailed in December for "illegally acquiring information with the intention to share it with foreign media". U Myo Aung, the editor-in-charge of Myanmar's regional newspaper Tanintharyi Weekly, is now facing a lawsuit for publishing a satire about government figures.

Press freedom, meanwhile, is not in the vocabulary of one-party states like Vietnam and Laos.

Thailand is no exception. The military regime's suppression and special laws have forced local media to conduct self-censorship to avoid trouble. Homegrown journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk, a recipient of the 2017 International Press Freedom Award, was summoned for attitude adjustment for his Facebook posts.

The regime has often rebuked Thai journalists who criticise or ask difficult questions for "being biased" or "finding falsehoods" regarding the military. It also suggested that the media "write good news about the government".

When frustrated with unfavourable news, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has issued threats.

It appears that intimidation has been transformed with the emergence of Facebook on which NGOs, civil society groups and those who criticise government policies are strenuously attacked. This new medium churns out trolls and even harasses critics in a bid to silence them. At the same time, pro-government webpages have emerged. Among them is a webpage that supports Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon who is embroiled in a luxury watch scandal.

Online media is also a threat to mainstream media striving to keep public trust. Anyone can now make and share news, even without seeking first-hand information or balance. Despite mistakes and flaws, this new media serves a new generation of consumers addicted to speed while mainstream media is seen as too conventional.

The rise of online media has forced some in the mainstream to shift their standpoint, producing viral and quick-but-low-quality news to boost "likes" and shares. This can mean poorer quality and a decline in public trust.

Speed is not always good. On the contrary, I think it's important that the mainstream media compete for quality. However, the role of the CSI-LA Facebook page in digging up the Prawit scandal has created a new media phenomenon because it provides information that mainstream media has never thought of.

But we still need bold and responsible media like Rappler that does its best to seek the truth. It's necessary for the media to provide space for poor, voiceless people to protect the public interest.

The media has to uphold independence and never compromise by sticking to ethics and professionalism.

Continued public trust and support can only be ensured by this.

Paritta Wangkiat

Columnist

Paritta Wangkiat is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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