The news isn’t great for journalists and democracy in the Asia-Pacific region right now, with existing pressures on media freedom amplified as the COVID-19 pandemic rages and coinciding with government attempts to stifle critical voices. While parliaments are partially suspended due to the coronavirus, laws have been introduced not just to lockdown populations to prevent infection but also on the pretext of state security. The role of the media to independently inform citizens and hold governments to account is now more critical than ever before. 

The 2020 Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index is just the latest to highlight “converging crises affecting the future of journalism”, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region “that saw the greatest rise in press freedom violations”. 

In “Holding the Line: A Report into Impunity, Journalist Safety and Working Conditions”, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) reported media workers were increasingly being targeted by authorities and enmeshed in “debilitating legal maelstroms” with one objective: to “silence the media and shut down the truth”.

For the Griffith Asia Institute (GAI)’s next Perspectives Asia event, three eminent journalists from the region – Philippines, Papua New Guinea and Australia – will discuss the “Role of press freedom as a pillar of democracy”.  

Director of GAI Professor Caitlin Byrne invites you to join a forthright discussion by these brave and respected champions of press freedom in the Asia-Pacific region on the right to speak truth to power.

“A free press plays an essential role in our democratic societies – holding governments to account, highlighting corruption, injustice and abuse of power while enabling societies to be more informed and engaged in the decisions and policies that affect them. The World Press Freedom Index 2020 reports a fairly gloomy picture of press freedom worldwide, but makes particular note of the worrying trends at play in the Asia Pacific. Increasing forms of government intimidation, censorship and oppression of journalists and media outlets in Australia and across the region threaten to undermining the very nature and resilience of our democracies. How we address this issue in the next decade will be decisive.”

The conviction of Maria Ressa, CEO of Philippines website Rappler , and former researcher Reynaldo Santos for “cyber libel” is the first of a string of charges the Philippines authorities brought against this independent news organisation that has been successfully prosecuted. Current editor-at-large Marites Vitug warns her country is “losing its grip on democracy, courtesy of an autocratic president who is using state agencies to weaken the media”. Ms Vitug joins the panel as international condemnation grows of what the European Parliament’s Media Working Group this month described as an “orchestrated campaign of legal harassment.”

President Duterte came to power in 2016 with a blood-curdling warning: “Just because you’re a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a bitch.” Ten years on from the Ampatuan massacre that claimed the lives of 32 media workers, the Philippines is still considered one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist.

“The Philippine media are under siege and the greatest threat to media freedom is President Duterte himself. He has broken the rule of law in the country, he doesn’t brook dissent. His rule is vengeful and punitive,” Ms Vutig comments.

“The recent passage of the Anti-Terror Act (during the pandemic) opens the floodgates for law enforcement authorities to tag perceived enemies of the state as ‘terrorists’ including journalists,” she added.

In Australia too, new national security laws are before parliament and come as a chill was sent through the media community by federal police raids targeting colleagues over public interest reportage that embarrassed the government. Search and seizure operations against the national broadcaster the ABC and the home of a major newspaper’s journalist saw charges recommended against one reporter. RSF reports Australia “used to be the regional model but is now characterised by its threats to the confidentiality of sources and to investigative journalism”. 

On the panel is Professor Peter Greste, a foreign correspondent for 25 years with Reuters, CNN, BBC and Al-Jazeera and co-founder of the Alliance for Journalists Freedom. His reportage in Egypt saw him spend 400 days in jail and face court on terrorism charges in a case that was internationally condemned as a politically motivated show trial.

“In Australia, we have seen more than 80 separate pieces of national security legislation pass through the Commonwealth  many of which seriously limit press freedom,” he said.

“The War on Terror has given governments the freedom to draft loosely-framed national security legislation and related technologies that they have then used to spy on journalists and their sources.

“The effect is to expose journalists to overbearing investigations, criminalising otherwise legitimate inquiries, and silencing their work.”

In Papua New Guinea last year there was a glimmer of hope with the installation of Prime Minister James Marape for greater media freedom after what RSF describes as almost a decade of “dictatorial tendencies marked by press freedom violations, including intimidation, direct threats, censorship, prosecutions and attempts to bribe journalists”. 

However, Transparency International PNG (TIPNG) in its forthcoming Media Trends report, the “first to provide an objective basis to evaluate claims of whether the media in PNG are fair”, suggests little has changed. 

Joining the panel is Scott Waide who is a PNG investigative journalist and Lae Bureau chief at commercial broadcaster EMTV. He has repeatedly stared down attempts to stifle his reporting. As a member of the Melanesia Media Freedom Forum (MMFF) he warns of a “dangerous downward trend” in PNG and the region.

“Corruption is normalised and legalised, politicians feel that government policy should not be questioned, and critical thinking is largely absent in public debate,” he said. 

“Journalists are threatened, abused and ridiculed, editors, CEOs and board members are put under pressure, you are excluded from events or deliberately not informed. Politicians feel invincible. They want us to report the facts but not report the why and how.”

“As well as the steady exit of senior journalists, taking with them years of accumulated institutional knowledge, younger journalists leave after an average of five years, there is always a constant void that needs filling in newsrooms and (results in) the absence of critical debate driven by the media.”

Join us on July 16 (5 pm AEST) to hear more from our panel members and be part of this critical and very timely conversation. Register for the next Perspectives Asia Event.

AUTHOR

Stefan Armbruster is SBS correspondent for Queensland and the Pacific. He is an Industry Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute