When the Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were freed Tuesday after more than a year in Myanmar’s Insein prison, it was heralded as a victory for press freedom. The Pulitzer Prize–winning reporters, who were jailed in December 2017 for their reporting on the country’s crackdown of its Rohingya minority, were among thousands of prisoners released by the Myanmar government as part of a traditional mass amnesty to mark the start of the Buddhist New Year.
Their release was met with “relief” by the Committee to Protect Journalists, praised as “good news” by the United Nations, and dubbed an “important day for press freedom” by Amnesty International. But beyond the fanfare lies a more foreboding sentiment: that far from heralding a new era of press freedom, the release of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo represents a false dawn. Within Myanmar and across Southeast Asia, journalists have faced alarming crackdowns from their governments over what can be reported on, and how. From China to the Philippines, and virtually every country in between, journalists remain under near-constant threat of censorship, arrest, and detention.
“Southeast Asia has always been a tough yard to be a journalist,” Shawn Crispin, the senior Southeast Asia representative to the Committee to Protect Journalists, told me. “But it’s getting tougher.”
Here are four countries in the region that are the worst for journalists:
The country’s abysmal record of press freedom goes far beyond the arrest of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. Indeed, Myanmar continues to exercise its stringent laws to intimidate and silence local newsrooms. Last month, authorities announced the opening of a criminal complaint against U Ye Ni, an editor for The Irrawaddy, a Burmese-language news website, for an article on clashes between security forces and an armed ethnic group that the military deemed unfair. The country’s prosecution of journalists under Section 66 (D) of its Telecommunications Act, which criminalizes online defamation, has earned Myanmar a ranking of 138 out of 180 countries on the 2019 World Press Freedom Index.
China’s record is worse. It ranks 177 in the same index. In addition to tightening control over state and privately owned media, Beijing has taken additional steps to export its media model across the region by buying up outlets and training foreign journalists to “tell China’s story well.” This effort can be seen closer to home, in Hong Kong, which until recently had a more freewheeling media environment. In 2015, Alibaba, the Chinese internet giant, purchased the South China Morning Post newspaper in what was widely regarded as an attempt to soften China’s image. Concerns about Beijing asserting further control over Hong Kong’s media were heightened further with the expulsion of Victor Mallet, the Asia news editor of the Financial Times, in October.
With at least 47 journalists currently behind bars, China has one of the highest numbers of journalists in its prisons in the world (second only to Turkey).
In the nearly five years since a military coup, online censorship and prosecution of media outlets have become the norm. Ranked 136 on the World Press Freedom Index, the Thai government has overseen a media environment defined by intimidation and censorship. Strict rules, such as the broad lèse-majesté law outlawing insults of the Thai monarchy, have been used by the junta to clamp down on freedom of speech.
“First, it starts with a call, and then it’s a call to your editor, and then it’s a ban of your TV station,” Crispin, who is based in Bangkok, told me. “It’s just a steady, relentless campaign that has inevitably stifled a lot of the public discussion that Thailand needs to have about military rule and its future as a democracy.”
The Philippines was considered a dangerous place to be a journalist, but that danger has only been amplified in the Duterte era. The country ranks 134 on the index. President Rodrigo Duterte, who is known for his foulmouthed tirades, has openly threatened to kill journalists who are regarded as corrupt or guilty of defamation. His government has also attacked media outlets deemed critical of his “war on drugs” that has resulted in the deaths, some extrajudicial, of more than 5,000 people. The independent news organization Rappler is perhaps the most emblematic example of this: Its editor, Maria Ressa, has been arrested twice on allegations ranging from “cyber libel” to tax evasion—charges the news site says have cost it 2 million pesos ($38,445) in bail and travel bonds since 2018.