Journalists press case for freedom from fear
Even though the constitutions of Southeast Asian countries guarantee freedom of speech and the right of the media to do their job without fear of harm, the reality for Asean journalists is that their safety is increasingly at risk.
Investigative journalists say they continue to face threats and violence in their countries. The Philippines, for instance, is regarded as one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists.
Karol Illagan, a media and investigative expert from the Philippine Centre for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), said the media in her country was regarded as the most free not only in the region but also in Asia. This partly reflects protections of press freedom enshrined in the country's constitution.
"However, we also report fear because there are still threats to Filipino journalists coming in many forms. In the Philippines, we still don't have an Information Act and that's why we face difficulty getting information," Ms Illagan said.
"There is also impunity and the Philippines is the most dangerous place for journalists. 152 journalists have been killed in the Philippines since 1986. There is a corruption problem as well."
The PCIJ is an independent, non-profit organisation that specialises in investigative reporting. It was founded in 1989 by nine Filipino journalists who realised, based on their years on the beat and at the news desk, that newspapers and broadcast agencies needed to go beyond day-to-day reportage. Ms Illagan was part of a PCIJ team that investigated corruption by former president Joseph Estrada, who was convicted in 2007 but later pardoned.
The PCIJ believes the media play a crucial role in scrutinising and strengthening democratic institutions, defending and asserting press freedom, freedom of information, and freedom of expression. The media could and should be a catalyst for social debate and consensus that ultimately contributes to the promotion of public welfare. To do so, the media must provide citizens with the basis for arriving at informed opinions and decisions.
Ms Illagan was one of three investigative journalists from the Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia who shared their experiences of working under challenging conditions in their countries.
They were among almost 400 investigative journalists, media law and security experts from 65 countries taking part in "Uncovering Asia: The Second Asian Investigative Journalism Conference" in Kathmandu.
The event, jointly hosted by the Centre for Investigative Journalism in Nepal, Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, featured more than 60 panel discussions, workshops and demonstrations from Sept 23-25.
Highly experienced speakers shared with participants what they had done and learned from their investigations so that journalists would be able to produce higher quality investigative reports.
According to the GIJN, more than 1,200 journalists around the world have been killed since 1992 while thousands more have been assaulted and persecuted. About 200 journalists were in prison and nearly 500 exiled since 2008. Yet reporters around the world are still digging deeper in more places.
Kongpob Areerat, a reporter from Prachatai, a non-profit online news provider in Thailand, said Prachatai had been established for a decade. Many of his colleagues have been facing challenges since the military coup in 2014.
"The military has been summoning some of my colleagues for interrogation, basically about Prachatai's reporting," he said.
Thailand's military junta makes liberal use of an order it issued shortly after the coup, barring media outlets from presenting news that could be deemed harmful to national security, or in other words contrary to the interests of the military.
The Computer Crimes Act and the criminal defamation law are also widely used in Thailand to intimidate journalists and others who raise sensitive subjects.
Prachatai, a small and niche media outlet, also covers issues related to Section 112 of the Criminal Code, or the lese majeste law, which various governments have used as an effective tool to crush political opposition.
"Given the very limited freedom of expression in Thailand at this moment, I think we have been trying our best to use networks. We have been maintaining contacts with student activists and NGOs throughout the country and when something happens we have their support," Mr Kongpob told a forum.
"Even though I'm new, the situation in Thailand is very challenging for journalists. What we do at Prachatai is that we report serious human rights violations as well as stories about marginalised people," he said.
"Of course we are trying our best to protect our journalists and sources. If we get stories that we think are too risky to run by ourselves, then we tend to send them to other international media outlets and NGOs who are based abroad so they could publish them for us. If it is very risky, we will send complaints to the national human rights commission and the UN."
At a forum on women and investigative journalism, Bopa Phorn, a freelance journalist from Cambodia, said she experienced intimidation when she was a full-time journalist at the Cambodia Daily newspaper.
"Being a female journalist is not easy," she said. "I did a wide range of stories, especially investigative reports. I liked doing them even though sometimes it led me to some kinds of threats, verbal threats or physical threats."
Nonetheless, she likes to cover difficult cases. Whenever she did such stories that most journalists did not want to cover, she got responses from several ministries such as the interior and foreign affairs.
"I have even received 10 or 15 phone calls, threats from high-ranking officials. They threatened to sue me. ... They also asked me to stop working as a journalist," she said.
She recalled an incident in 2012 when she was invited to cover a news event at the Peace Building, which is the prime minister's office. At that time, Cambodia was hosting the Asean Summit.
"I asked Prime Minister Hun Sen but instead of answering my question he spent two minutes talking about me and teaching me how to ask questions and write stories carefully, which I believed it was a kind of threat," she said.
Ying Chan, an academic at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong, warned female journalists to stay away from unsafe situations when they are on the job.
"You have to stay away for your own safety first, not story first, and more important, you need to know who you are dealing with," said Ms Chan.