Media freedom in the dock

Media freedom in the dock

The decision by Philippine authorities to arrest journalist Maria Ressa and the move by Thailand’s broadcast regulator to suspend the broadcaster Voice TV are the latest examples of how press freedom in Southeast Asia is deteriorating.

Ms Ressa, an award-winning journalist and CEO of Rappler, a news website critical of the current Philippine government and its leader, has long been a thorn in President Rodrigo Duterte’s backside. She has been indicted several times before. However, the latest charges being pressed by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) could land her in boiling hot water as they carry a potential of up to 12 years in prison.

Many critics maintain that previous libel and tax-evasion charges were politically motivated. The latest charge, under the controversial “cyber-libel” law, smells like the previous badly cooked-up dishes that were served to Ms Ressa before.

The law, intended mainly to silence dissenting voices, took effect in September 2012, four months after Rappler published an article by journalist Reynaldo Santos Jr which linked prominent businessman Wilfredo Keng to a former judge in the county’s top court during his impeachment trial.

The article by Rappler identified Mr Keng as the owner of the SUV that then-chief justice Renato Corona had used during the impeachment trial. It has also detailed the businessman’s alleged links to illegal drugs and human trafficking.

Mr Keng naturally welcomed the arrest of Ms Ressa, calling her “an irresponsible member of the media”, and said he intended to fight to the end to protect his reputation.

He faces a formidable adversary in Ms Ressa, who was CNN’s bureau chief in Manila and Jakarta before she co-founded Rappler in 2012. The popular portal has been a major critic of Mr Duterte’s tough-guy style of governing and his murderous war on drugs. She was also named among a group of journalists as Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2018 alongside murdered Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi, Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who have been jailed in Myanmar for a year, and the staff of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, where five employees were shot dead in June.

“I am deeply grateful,” Mr Keng said in a statement following Ms Ressa’s arrest. I, on the other hand, am deeply disturbed and disappointed by this latest threat to freedom of expression. The good news is that Ms Ressa has been released on bail.

“It’s about two things: abuse of power and weaponisation of the law,” Ms Ressa said as she stepped out of a Manila court after paying US$1,900 fine, the sixth time she has posted bail to avoid detention under the Duterte administration.

Closer to home, Voice TV has long been at odds with the current military regime because it is owned by Panthongtae Shinawatra, the son of ousted former premier Thaksin. The channel not surprisingly has aligned itself with the Thaksin-affiliated Pheu Thai Party, which appears to be the front-runner in the campaign for the March 24 election.

The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) insists the latest suspension, for 15 days starting last Wednesday, was not about politics. It used the same argument it has used on many occasions in the past — 17 times, in fact — when it has gagged Voice TV: its commentators made statements that could “cause confusion, incite conflicts and promote divisions in the country”. Translation: they sometimes say things the men in uniform don’t like.

“The suspension of Voice TV underlines the message that criticising Thailand’s military government prior to the elections is forbidden,” said Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch, in a statement last week. “Thailand’s generals are showing they don’t intend to ease their heavyhanded rule over the country to ensure a fair vote.”

The rules governing the current election already appear stacked in favour of the National Council for Peace and Order perpetuating its rule after March 24. The Election Commission has come up with all kinds of restrictions, such as a ban on online campaigning, that are not clearly understood. Media intimidation by a broadcast regulator that actually has no business being a censor seems like overkill. The possible dissolution of the Thai Raksa Chart party over its ill-advised prime ministerial selection could engender more ill-will towards the junta.

Erich Parpart

Senior Reporter - Asia Focus

Senior Reporter - Asia Focus

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