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Media Freedom: Much More Than Just the Media’s Problem

BANGKOK, May 8– As the ‘illness’ of undermining media freedom catches on in Southeast Asia, the diagnosis of its various strains – be it traditional or new threats, overt or hidden, subtle or in-your-face – is far simpler than prescribing the possible cures to it.

Identifying these cures, not to mention implementing them, are experiments that require going into new territory or changing traditional forms of self-regulation, if the media are to head off a further shrinking of their space in a functioning society.

The media landscape has changed drastically – 48% of the world’s population has Internet access today – so it follows that the responses to this need to change as well. But how? This is not an easy prescription for a region that has different media cultures, political and economic environments.

From Cambodia and Myanmar to the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia, countries are facing challenges that are a mix of the usual ones such as hostile action from governments and the use of laws and the courts to limit space for media, as well as newer forms that digital spaces have brought with them. These include fake news, disinformation, and online harassment.

In the Philippines, no less than President Rodrigo Duterte has belittled professional media outlets and called them fake news outlets.

These are ominous trends because they chip away at the respect for, and social value of, professional journalism by making it acceptable to undermine the media’s role.

What has become clear is that threats to media freedom are problems not only of the media profession and industry, but of the whole societies they function in. The responsibility of defending the media’s right to exist in the public sphere – and setting norms of professionalism and responsibility that strengthen the foundations on which the industry stands – lies as much with sectors outside media circles as well as those inside them.


“We have to work in a network to make media accountability instruments reinforce each other, to make this work best,” said Pirongrong Ramasoota, a communications professor who is vice president of Chulalongkorn University here in Bangkok. “Other sectors should be involved and not just the media industry, not just the media professionals or just journalists. But other sectors have to join in this mutual responsibility if we want to have an accountable media system.”

These sectors ought to include media monitoring groups, civil society, academia, media consumers and just about all groups outside the government that use and engage with in media, to set standards on reliability, professionalism as well as help weed out misinformation and disinformation in online spaces.

This type of “media accountability” would cast the social monitoring net far beyond the traditional modes of media self-regulation, which typically include press councils, journalist associations, media ombudsmen, codes of conduct set by newsrooms and journalists, Pirongrong said at a discussion marking World Press Freedom Day here on May 3.

This may be more effective in Southeast Asia given that unlike other regions of the world, mechanisms such as encouraging the public to file complaints with press councils or holding journalists to ethical codes has not always developed very deep roots.

For instance, while Sweden’s media ombudsman gets 700 complaints a year, Thailand has gotten from six to over 20 complaints a year from 2009 to 2015, Pirongrong reports.

Thailand’s deep political divisions have also spilled over into media, making unrealistic any high expectations of self-regulation.

“Since our people are divided into at least two sides based on their political standpoints. . .  .Some people hate some media and some media hate other media,” said Yingcheep Atchanont of Internet Dialogue on Law Reform (iLaw), a Thai non-government group that works on freedom of expression issues under the military-led government. “So it is quite difficult to have an association of professional media who can regulate the content on some media. They will have a fight and it will (be) impossible.”


Other characteristics of media cultures that tend to weaken media self-regulation in Southeast Asia include the fact that media outlets tend to shy away from criticizing other media and that fierce competition can overtake respect for ethical standards, Pirongrong adds. It is not uncommon to find competing journalist associations in one country, for instance.

“(But) our media watchdogs are budding and playing more of a potent role than the traditional (media self-regulation) ones,” she said. She cited groups in Thailand such as popular website pantip.com, and groups like Media Inside Out and Deep South Watch that monitor and give feedback on the quality of media reports, or work on news and digital literacy campaigns.

Some groups, both in and out of the news sector, are working on improving media accountability in the region. So far, they are focused locally and often aim to curb the nastier side of online news spaces, including fake news and disinformation.

In Indonesia, the non-government group Masyarakat Anti-Fitnah Indonesia provides an online venue to report misinformation, which are called “hoax” locally.

In Singapore, where the state has tight control over media, the government has an initiative to promote fact-checking through a website called Factually.

In April, two Philippine-based news organizations, Vera Files and Rappler, announced partnerships with Facebook that involve being third-party fact-checkers to counter false information in that social media space.

Even if insufficient, keeping open the lines of discussion with corporate giants like Facebook is necessary –lest governments use the deficiencies of online spaces to enact laws that restrict media space and undercut media credibility further.


In Myanmar and Cambodia, media freedom groups worry that governments will use the problem of fake news and hate posts to throw restrictive clauses into draft laws on information and communication.

“We don’t want the government to regulate us, to monitor us, to monitor our flow of information. It should be totally free. So we want some kind of self-regulation process,” Yin Yadanar Thein, co-founder of Free Expression Myanmar said at last week’s discussion on media freedom here. “We want a quality (in) mediation process from Facebook too, because in that way we can tackle the government not to regulate our free speech.”

Sheen Handoo, public policy manager for Asia-Pacific of Facebook Singapore, said that “free expression is core to our mission”.

But Yin Yadanar Thein pointed out that a commitment to freedom of expression goes beyond having Burmese speakers review Facebook content or algorithms delete content taken to constitute hate and dangerous speech. Facebook needs to have independent experts who understand international standards of freedom of expression as well local usage and language, she added.

For instance, Facebook at one point was removing posts that had the word ‘kala’, which in Burmese refers to people of Indian or South Asian origin. While ‘kala’ can be used as a slur against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar, it is also a term used in daily language, so that the word by itself does not constitute hate speech, Yin Yadanar Thein explained.

In fact, Facebook’s automatic deletion of posts that used ‘kala’ was what went against freedom of expression, she said.

Over in Cambodia, “(media) self-regulation is very important to prevent actions from the government,” Vicheika Kann of Voice of America’s Khmer Service pointed out. She added that Cambodians need to know better how to use the Internet and develop better digital literacy.

Already, the fake news problem has spurred Malaysia to enact a law to curb it. Singapore is drafting such legislation, amid worries that these could and would be used to curtail media freedom and independence.

In late April, the company that runs the independent Malaysiakini news site filed a lawsuit seeking to have the law on fake news declared unconstitutional on the grounds that it violates civil liberties and freedom of speech.


Beyond Southeast Asia, there are initiatives to improve the media’s accountability – and thus strengthen their ability to shake off attempts to be lumped with or confused with disinformation – that are worth watching.

By mid-2018, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization expects to release a set of “Internet universality indicators” that can be used to assess national Internet environments across the globe. These standards aim to help ensure that the world has “an Internet that works for everybody”, said UNESCO regional adviser for communication Misako Ito.

In Europe, Reporters Without Borders has launched a self-regulation initiative that aims to set norms for reliable journalism with its partners Agence France-Presse, the European Broadcasting Union and the Global Editors’ Network. The Journalism Trust Initiative aims to set up a certification system for news outlets, one that would involve disclosures about ownership, revenue streams, journalistic methods and compliance with ethical norms and independence.

“In the new public arena system, in which false information circulates faster than real news, the defence of journalism requires reversing this trend by giving a real advantage to all those who reliably produce news and information, whatever their status,” RSF chief Christophe Deloire said at the April launch of the initiative in Paris.

This voluntary certification would be useful for audiences that are looking for trustworthy news sources, for social media platforms that rely too much on algorithms to filter news and for advertising firms looking to make “ethical choices”, Cedric Alvani, director of Reporters Without Borders bureau for East Asia, said at the same press freedom discussion here. He added: “The only regulation is regulation done by the media itself.”

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