“Spies.” An “iceberg of misinformation,” and “a media that acts as a mafia.”
And, of course, “fake news.”
These are some of the terms leaders across Southeast Asia are using to discredit journalists and media outlets – and the rhetoric is morphing into action, with arrests of journalists and the shuttering of news sites across the region.
In the Philippines, an independent news site, which has been accused of being “fake news” by the country’s leader, Rodrigo Duterte, faces closure after the country’s SEC pulled its license.
Elsewhere, two journalists in Myanmar are facing charges filed while they were reporting on the Rohingya crisis for Reuters. In nearby Cambodia, a US-funded news organization shut its local bureau down; shortly after, two of its former reporters were arrested.
Analysts and observers say Asia’s strongman leaders have been emboldened by the lack of criticism of their heavy-handed tactics from Washington and the administration of President Donald Trump, himself a fierce and persistent critic of the press.
“It’s a worrying trend,” says Shawn Crispin, Senior Southeast Asia Representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). “It looks as though they’re taking cues from one of the countries that (traditionally) protected press freedom, the United States.”
Last week, the Philippines Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) – ostensibly an independent, non-political organization – announced that it would be rescinding the license for the online news site Rappler.
At the heart of the issue was a claim by the SEC that Rappler, an upstart online news portal in the Philippines, had violated the country’s constitution and that its registration would be revoked over foreign ownership rules. Rappler has strongly denied the claims.
The news organization, which was founded in 2012, has in recent years reported extensively on the Duterte administration’s bloody, controversial war on drugs.
“Why were we given such a harsh penalty? It seems linked directly to the criticism, the questions we continue to ask in holding the government accountable,” Rappler founder and CEO Maria Ressa said.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque told CNN affiliate CNN Philippines that the office of the president had “nothing to do with the SEC decision.”
Following the threat of closure, Rappler reported that the Department of Justice and its National Bureau of Investigation had summoned Ressa – who is a former CNN reporter – in a subpoena for a libel case for a story written in 2012.
She says that the SEC and DOJ actions are attempts to intimidate her outlet, and has vowed to explore every available legal avenue.
Duterte has been disparaging of the media – taking his cues, some analysts say, from Trump’s own playbook.
“What we’re seeing now is, again, the term ‘fake news’ cropping up and that’s what Duterte’s used against Rappler,” says Peter Greste, Professor of Journalism at Queensland University.
“(That) follows President Trump’s lead, in branding any news organization that he doesn’t like, or any news organization which will publish a story that is uncomfortable to his government, as fake news.”
Greste, a former Al Jazeera journalist, spent more than 400 days in captivity in Egypt on charges that included conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood, spreading false news and endangering national security.
Trump has “shown no inclination to criticize or oppose (authoritarian) regimes,” he says.
Indeed, the Philippines is not alone in its leaders aping the US leader’s “fake news” catch-all.
“Trump’s use of the phrase ‘fake news’ to diminish criticism has traveled far, it’s not only Duterte in the region – other leaders take their cue from Trump as well,” says John Nery, an associate editor at the Philippine Daily Inquirer, another publication to have been the focus of Duterte’s ire – he has called it “bullshit,” alongside another Philippine outlet, ABS-CBN.
“You put out garbage. Somebody should tell you now, you sons of bitches, you engaged in too much foolishness,” he reportedly said in a March 2017 speech at the presidential palace.
Among those leaders is Myanmar’s de facto ruler, Aung San Suu Kyi, who, amid criticism of her country’s military, dismissed reports of mistreatment of ethnic Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine State as a “huge iceberg of misinformation.”
The country is now seeking to charge two Reuters journalists covering the crisis, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, under the Official Secrets Act, a colonial-era law which carries a maximum 14-year jail sentence.
In a statement sent to CNN, Reuters editor-in-chief Steve Adler called the detentions “a wholly unwarranted, blatant attack on press freedom. Our colleagues should be allowed to return to their jobs reporting on events in Myanmar.”
In Cambodia, two journalists who had worked for the US Congress-funded outlet Radio Free Asia, Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, were detained on espionage charges, RFA reported late last year.
Criticizing a hearing decision to deny the two men bail, their lawyer, Keo Vanny, said that his “clients have not committed any offenses related to the charges against them.”
RFA closed its country bureau amid what it calls “a relentless crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s authoritarian regime on independent media ahead of critical polls next year,” the Washington, D.C.-based outlet quoted its president, Libby Liu, as saying last September.
Reuters reported that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen alluded to the newspaper’s closure at a correspondent’s dinner earlier this week in Phnom Penh, saying some outlets acted like “mafia” and “don’t respect laws, they are not registered by law and they avoid paying taxes.”
The paper denies the allegations.
Also in late 2017, this time in Vietnam, Reporters Without Borders reported that Nguyen Van Hoa, a 22-year-old blogger and citizen-journalist, was jailed for seven years for “disseminating propaganda” against the state.
‘Army of trolls’
Supporters of Duterte and other authoritarian leaders in the region have embraced the new atmosphere of hostility towards the media, particularly on social networks.
In the Philippines, activists and media groups have long suspected that the administration has a hand in guiding what Carlos Conde, a Philippines researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW) researcher calls Duterte’s “army of trolls.”
Conde says that the administration’s attempts to undermine the press is aided by Duterte’s supporters’ use of social media – mostly Facebook and Twitter. “(When) we talk about weaponizing the internet, they’re the ones pulling the trigger.”
Nery, the Inquirer editor, says that the climate online for journalists is aggressive and vicious. “On Facebook the air is thick with hostility.”
In response to a CNN response for comment, Facebook said: “We want Facebook to be a safe place for people, especially journalists, to express themselves politically. We have strong policies against hate speech and threats, and we enforce them aggressively.”
Conde says the journalists he’s spoken to say that when a story critical of the president publishes online “almost immediately the trolls descend and just keep coming.”
He says the posters flood Facebook pages with negative comments, and in at least one casea denial of service (DDoS) attack on a news site was launched.
He says that HRW haven’t been able to definitively tie the administration to the trolling, but says “it’s clear that someone is ordering this army to attack. Who could that be? This president has made no secret of his contempt for the press, or anybody who questions the way he does things.”
CNN has contacted the Philippines government for comment, but has yet to receive a response.
CPJ’s Crispin says that social media offered many journalists and new media outlets a brave new world, spaces free of government censorship. It is a bitter irony, he says, that these same spaces are now being flooded with anti-media posts.
“(They) offered a chance for a new brand of independent journalism, and these spaces are being taken back by governments that have launched assaults on these spaces through laws, intimidation and even the jailing of these journalists. It’s a dramatic reversal of what was a pretty positive trend.”
Even before the clampdown on Rappler and the wider threats against journalists who report critically on the government, the Philippines was already one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist, CPJ’s Crispin says.
“It just got more dangerous. A lot of that danger now is emanating from online – journalists who report on Duterte’s lethal and controversial drug war have been assaulted online as soon as their critical reports come out.”
Crispin points to CPJ research that shows, the world over, attacks on journalists are preceded by threats.
“So the fact that these threats are being made, if not yet necessarily being realized, as physical violence doesn’t discount the threats to press freedom,” says Crispin.
The effects of the attacks online are manifold, says Conde, the HRW researcher. “A lot of journalists in the Philippines will tell you that it’s not just adding to the stress, (the attacks) make you feel vulnerable … The logical end is that they might start censoring themselves, although I have faith in their ethics and professionalism to keep continuing to do their jobs.”
Despite the attacks on their news organizations, both Ressa and Nery say their colleagues continue to publish.
Long road back
Rappler CEO Ressa says it is nascent democracies like the Philippines that are particularly susceptible to attacks on the media. It was only three decades ago, in 1986, her countrymen overthrew longtime dictator Ferdinand Marcos in what came to be known as the “people power revolution.”
“It’s been 32 years since the sudden euphoria of 1986 and the fragility of our democracy. To be back in the same place, now, to have to protect freedoms from potential state abuse, I have no words for it.”
During her time at CNN Ressa worked in countries with oppressive regimes across Asia, and says she decided to return to the country of her birth to help grow and build on the post-Marcos sense of hope – which the constant attacks on Rappler and media colleagues throughout the industry are eroding.
“Here it’s emotional for me. I chose to come to the Philippines. I felt like the Philippines was a democracy that I would help grow and strengthen. And I continue to do that by standing my ground but the fact that we’re here again (fighting oppression) should be of concern to Filipinos.”