Despite journalism’s pivotal role in reducing the risks of a global public health crisis, Southeast Asia’s news media industry faced heightened official intimidation, new legal barriers to reporting and a collapse in editorial budgets due to the pandemic. In Myanmar, the coup set new lows in the destruction of media freedom in the region and in threats to independent media.
Yet the pandemic has brought improbable benefits, with cuts in editorial spending that loosened the hold of mainstream media organisations and gave rise to new opportunities for startups, local journalists and unconventional approaches to reporting.
There were also unlikely upsides to the Myanmar crisis for media: it gave rise to ingenious methods of disseminating news and images, and drove citizen journalism to higher levels. It also saw a new sense of solidarity and sympathy among regional media associations, leading to unprecedented cooperation in joint support efforts for Myanmar’s media.
The pandemic’s mixed effects on regional media
The fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the media industry politically, financially and professionally – upending established reporting practices, undermining existing freedoms and driving journalism job losses around the world. In Southeast Asia, well before the virus first broke out in early 2020, moves to curb independent media fed into harsh pandemic containment policies and the ‘weaponisation’ of media-related laws that restricted information flows and intimidated or even penalised journalists.
On a broader level, political unrest around the world was partly fuelled by popular dissatisfaction over hardships arising from pandemic management. In Southeast Asia, government responses and media resistance aggravated conflicts over information flows, compounding established media outlets’ financial and operational problems.
Further darkening any discussion about media freedom in the pandemic era, the February 2021 military coup in Myanmar marked a shocking new low as the world witnessed a savage assault on independent media and human rights. Although not directly related to Covid-19, fallout from the coup and the brutal crackdown by Myanmar’s security forces was sharpened by the bleak economic conditions caused by the pandemic.
Even in democratic – or ostensibly democratic – countries in the region, governments have used the spread of Covid-19 to justify curbs on critical reporting, introduce new regulations or toughen old ones, and restrict information flows.
For many mainstream media organisations, pandemic-related economic decline accelerated the erosion of advertising revenues and circulation, leading to editorial budget cuts and radical changes in reporting practices.
At the same time, there have been improbable benefits from such logistical and financial problems, as well as opportunities born of political repression. In various ways, responses to the pandemic helped transform established media practices, loosening the hold of mainstream organisations and accelerating a steady ‘localisation’ of journalism, particularly in developing Asia. Other trends highlighted the revolution in online information flows and the rise of citizen journalism and microsites on social media amid frenzied debate about fake news and disinformation.
The pandemic has undeniably delivered a boost to independent media outlets and opened the way for a new generation of young and savvy local journalists. The challenge to conventional journalistic practices has encouraged unprecedented flexibility in technologies and approaches that once reinforced the hold of established media organisations. The transformation of reporting practices due to lockdowns and social distancing requirements has even prompted some analysts to hail the ‘democratisation’ of media, with unprecedented access to news events, briefings and interviews via online platforms and other technologies. 1The Euromedia Research Group, ‘Covid-19 and the media: Devastation or renaissance?’, Media for Democracy Monitor 2020 press release, September 2020, Open.
News demand grows as editorial budgets shrink
The bottom line for many media organisations has been financial, particularly in Asia. A stark illustration came in May 2021 when Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), the publicly listed publisher of the once profitable The Straits Times, announced it would spin off its media business into a not-for-profit structure so it could raise public and private funding. That came after SPH recorded its first ever loss, SGD 11.4 million (USD 8.3 million), in the 2019–20 financial year, a figure that SPH’s chairman said would have been nearly four times greater had it not been for a state-backed jobs support scheme. The media industry had faced ‘unprecedented disruption’ in recent years, he added, noting that he saw ‘little scope for further cost cuts without impairing the ability to maintain quality journalism’. 2Grace Ho, ‘SPH to restructure media business into not-for-profit entity to support quality journalism’, The Straits Times, 5 May 2021, Open.
That view has resonated in newsrooms across the region, most of which slashed jobs amid budget cuts from mid-2020 onwards. By early 2021, media-related job losses in both the formal and informal sectors ran to many tens of thousands in Asia, according to independent estimates. 3International Labour Organization, ‘81 million jobs lost as Covid-19 creates turmoil in Asia-Pacific labour markets’, ILO, 15 December 2020, Open. In 2020 in Australia alone, newsrooms slashed more than 1,000 jobs, 4Christopher Warren, ‘2020 was a record year for job losses. What comes next?’, Crikey, 15 December 2020, Open. while at least 40,000 media-related jobs in the United States were lost in that year. 5Marc Tracy, ‘News media outlets have been ravaged by the pandemic’, New York Times, 4 April 2020, updated 10 December 2020, Open. The cuts sent a disturbing message to media consumers, noted Christopher Warren, former president of the International Federation of Journalists: ‘If the media doesn’t value journalism, why should you?’ he asked.
Thailand’s Nation Multimedia in April 2021 slashed salaries and permitted managers to lay off employees. Malaysia’s Media Prima in June laid off 300 employees. 6Syahira Sayid Jaffir, ‘Media Prima to lay off 300 staff in second retrenchment exercise’, The Edge Markets, 29 June 2020, Open. And SPH, as publisher of The Straits Times, announced in September it was laying off 140 employees due to the effects of the pandemic on advertising revenues. 7Aw Cheng Wei, ‘SPH retrenches 140 from sales and magazines units amid downturn’, The Straits Times, 19 August 2020, Open.
The greatest irony is that even as demand for news coverage soared amid fear and bewilderment about the pandemic, a collapse in editorial budgets threatened what philanthropic organisation Luminate called a ‘possible media extinction event’. 8Kaamil Ahmed, ‘Covid-19 could trigger “media extinction event” in developing countries’, The Guardian, 6 May 2020, Open.
‘Essentially, the importance of access to accurate information became all too apparent in the pandemic’, noted Anya Schiffrin, director of Technology, Media and Communications specialisation at Columbia University:
While even the World Health Organization mapped the subsequent ‘infodemic’ period of false, often dangerous, and inflammatory misinformation around the globe, journalists found themselves in a very strange position. They were essential workers but, around the world, they were being laid off and furloughed. 9Interview with author, 20 February 2021.
A new hybrid media landscape
In its mixed effects, the pandemic has also fuelled growth in low-budget online ‘microsite’ operations, ‘citizen journalism’ and social media usage. A growing number of independent and mostly young journalists emerged, particularly in developing Asia, either in their own right or acting to fill the gaps as local contributors, fixers and camera crews for international news organisations. Such developments hold both positive and negative implications for the future of media.
The role of social media dominates many debates about press freedom in Asia. To Maria Ressa, founder of the investigative news website Rappler in the Philippines and winner of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) 2021 press freedom prize, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are ‘behaviour-modification systems’ promoting division, disinformation and conspiracy theories. Ressa has spoken frequently of suffering hate campaigns on social media, and more broadly about the role of governments in muzzling or attacking independent media.
Yet under some repressive regimes, social media has also provided a crucial channel for individuals and groups defending human rights and freedom of expression. The most striking example is Myanmar, where social media played a key role in building opposition to the military regime, enabling opposition forces to organise protests and share information about events inside the country with each other and the world. 10International Crisis Group Asia, ‘Myanmar’s military struggles to control the virtual battlefield’, International Crisis Group, Report no. 314, 18 May 2021, Open.
More broadly, social media has helped transform traditional journalism. To the United States-based Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, social media forms a pillar of the emerging ‘hybrid media environments’ by hosting platforms that help make up ‘a variegated marketplace of information and ideas’. 11Tow Center for Digital Journalism, ‘Hybrid media systems and digital platforms: Journalists and writers on Substack’, Research Projects 2021, Open (accessed 25 July 2021).
Journalists who work in such hybrid media landscapes, it noted, must straddle norms and pressures from multiple professional and cultural fields, as well as incorporate new technologies, strategies and audiences into their practices. However, according to the Tow Center, a key question is ‘how audiences whose allegiances are to platforms and figures, more so than news institutions, understand their interactions with content creators, forms of information and technologies’.
On the political front, despite social media reforms, global research indicates that media organisations are facing an increasingly restrictive environment. Between February 2020 and July 2021, the International Press Institute’s Covid-19 Press Freedom Tracker recorded more than 645 Covid-19-related press freedom violations worldwide. Of those, Asia accounted for more media-related arrests/charges and restrictions on information access than any other region. 12International Press Institute, IPI COVID-19 Press Freedom Tracker, Open (accessed 1 May 2021).
Highlighting concerns about the effect of Covid-19 containment policies on the media, industry groups and United Nations agencies – including the US-based International Center for Journalists, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, the Public Media Alliance (a coalition of 107 media organisations) and UNESCO – have launched large-scale research projects into the effects of the pandemic on the industry. 13Public Media Alliance, ‘Project: The impact of Covid-19 on media freedom, media business viability and the safety of journalists in Southeast Asia’, 29 April 2021, Open. The first results, issued by the Tow Center in early 2021, reinforced this mixed picture of the weaponisation of laws and regulations, official intimidation, steadily shrinking editorial resources and the expanding hold of social media. 14Julie Posetti, Emily Bell and Pete Brown, ‘Journalism and pandemic: A global snapshot of impacts’, International Center for Journalists and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, January 2021, Open.
Southeast Asia, with its striking confluence of pandemic-related political and economic issues and its steady drift towards authoritarianism, offers a stark illustration of the remarkable changes in the industry triggered by both Covid-19 and political developments. The region’s experiences highlight the inherent contradiction between new opportunities for startups, local journalists and unconventional approaches, and negative developments such as official intimidation and legal barriers to reporting.
Some critics argue that Covid-19 simply reinforced trends that had taken root well before the pandemic struck. Many cite the Hong Kong protests from 2019, which saw moves to curb media through legal measures aimed at countering ‘fake news’ and social media. In other places, harsh penalties were imposed for so-called computer crimes and infringements of national security. High profile examples included those embroiling Rappler and TV station ABS-CBN in the Philippines, Malaysiakini and Al Jazeera in Malaysia, and various media organisations or individual journalists in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. They were preceded by the case against two Reuters journalists arrested in Myanmar in December 2017 15Poppy McPherson, ‘More than 500 days in prison: For journalists jailed in Myanmar, a long fight for freedom’, Reuters, 7 May 2021, Open. for alleged violations of the country’s Official Secrets Act. 16Keith B. Richburg, ‘Asia’s new normal: Curbing press freedom’, Asialink, 7 August 2020, Open.
In Myanmar, first Covid then a coup
These early examples appear to have spurred authorities in some countries to step up efforts to control information and journalistic activities. All that paled alongside the fallout from Myanmar’s coup, which saw the most savage assault on press freedom and general human rights in Asia in many decades.
Many detainees were charged under harsh new laws, including Section 505(A) of the Penal Code, which criminalises actions deemed to spread ‘fear’ and ‘instability’. Others have been arrested under laws that criminalise such mundane actions as distributing leaflets or using satellite dishes to view material critical of the junta.
Shortly after the coup, the junta blocked nightly access to the internet, suspended Wi-Fi services and added measures to the existing telecommunications law to ‘legalise’ military intercepts of communications, including text messages and social media. Before these moves, the junta had also begun implementing a new policy to control internet access by ‘whitelisting’ mainly commercial apps and websites while barring access to others – notably independent media. In effect, the military regime began building a strictly controlled ‘intranet’ in the country to resolve its dilemma over allowing online access to business and essential services while silencing anti-coup opposition. 17Gwen Robinson, ‘Myanmar junta plans restricted internet to silence opposition’, Nikkei Asia, 16 May 2021, Open.
Subsequently, the International Crisis Group urged foreign governments to expand any arms embargoes on Myanmar to include ‘dual use’ technology such as electronic intercept and surveillance systems. 18International Crisis Group Asia, ‘Myanmar’s military struggles to control the virtual battlefield’.
The internet restrictions, together with new requirements for telecommunications operators to cooperate with intercept and surveillance orders, added sinister new dimensions to the junta’s efforts to block access to information by outlawing or intimidating independent media outlets, arresting journalists and targeting coverage of protests.
For Norway’s Telenor Group, the sole Western telecommunications operator among four main service providers in Myanmar, such pressures were the final straw. The company in early July announced it had sold its entire Myanmar operation to Lebanese investment firm M1 Group. 19Rory Wallace and Gwen Robinson, ‘Telenor quits Myanmar as regime pressures telecom operators’, Nikkei Asia, 8 July 2021, Open.
In early May, James Rodehaver, chief of the Myanmar Team at the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, cited cases of media workers ‘singled out by police and beaten, arrested or harassed with the clear intent to deter them from reporting on the events they were covering’, 20United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, ‘We won’t give up or stop reporting until we have a real democracy’, 3 May 2021, Open. including an American senior editor at Frontier Myanmar, one of the last remaining independent media organisations. 21Rebecca Ratcliffe, ‘US journalist detained in Myanmar while boarding flight home’, The Guardian, 25 May 2021, Open.
There are lessons to be learned from the Myanmar crisis. Like developments elsewhere, they build on broader blows inflicted by Covid-19. For media worldwide, the changes brought by the coronavirus were the most profound and multidimensional in editorial, financial and technical terms of any development, possibly since the advent of computers.
Internationally, the junta’s violent suppression of protestors generated sympathy around the world. But it was the ruthless targeting of Myanmar’s independent media outlets that brought regional media organisations together in a striking display of solidarity. Building on earlier shows of support for Hong Kong media outlets and activists over China’s moves to suppress pro-democracy movements, regional associations and press clubs such as the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) and its counterparts in Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan and New Delhi banded together to issue joint statements condemning the violence and supporting Myanmar media.
Moves also included unprecedented regional donation drives launched by the FCCT and, for the first time, joint appeals with the FCCT and the Thai Journalists Association, supported by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan for used camera, computer and other equipment, as well as funds for Myanmar media outlets, including donations by the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, a network of press freedom advocates and journalist associations. 22Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, Facebook, Open (accessed 25 July 2021).
In Myanmar, the coup came after extended Covid-19 lockdowns implemented by the now-ousted National League for Democracy government, compounding the media’s own pandemic-related financial problems. As Covid-19 infections surged in the months following the coup, it became clearer how the pandemic had weakened media organisations, shrinking their own financial and human resources and tightening the official approach to information, even under the National League for Democracy government.
Yet, it also prepared the ground for a more robust approach to citizen journalism. Most of all, the harsh effects of the pandemic on livelihoods and personal freedoms created fertile ground for the public anger that erupted into popular protests and spurred independent media and citizen journalism in the aftermath of the coup. 23‘Myanmar sees record Covid-19 cases as junta continues assault on healthworkers’, Myanmar Now, 6 July 2021, Open.
Within weeks of the coup, five leading independent media organisations – Myanmar Now, Democratic Voice of Burma, Mizzima, 7Day News and Khit Thit (‘New Age’) Media – saw their licences revoked as security forces raided news outlets, sending many of their staff into hiding. Shortly before that, Khit Thit’s website was disabled by hackers, although it continued to publish news daily on Facebook, where it had nearly 1.4 million followers. In a bold move to circumvent internet censorship, Khit Thit Media in July launched a daily SMS Burmese-language news service reaching more than 1,000 mobile phones inside Myanmar. 24Khit Thit Media, Facebook, Open (accessed 12 July 2021).
The junta’s push against independent media, detailed in a July 2020 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, 25Shawn W. Crispin, ‘Bitter reversal: Myanmar military coup wipes out press freedom gains’, Committee to Protect Journalists, 28 July 2021, Open. continued with bans on several independent ethnic media outlets, including the Kachin-based Myitkyina News Journal in early May. Some organisations, including Kachin-based 74 Media and Shan State-based Tachileik News Agency, said they would continue producing coverage.
Scores of journalists continued to cover news about the junta’s actions, operating from hiding places with scant resources, often working for little or no pay, because they believe their work was more important than ever. ‘Otherwise … who will know what is going on in Myanmar?’ said a young female journalist in an interview for this chapter.
Their response may well serve as an inspiration for media outlets operating under repressive regimes elsewhere. Foremost has been the harnessing of social media and other communications platforms by both media and citizen journalists – witnessed in the explosion of posts, livestreaming and protest notifications that went viral. Despite earlier condemnation for their roles in conveying hate speech and fake news, platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook served as essential windows in exposing the junta’s excesses.
In its May 2021 report on Myanmar’s ‘virtual battleground’, International Crisis Group noted:
Having heeded lessons from the way its platform was used during the authorities’ anti-Rohingya campaign of 2017, Facebook removed all military and some Myanmar government pages following the coup, dealing a major blow to the Tatmadaw’s [military’s] ability to spread pro-regime messaging and leaving it reliant on less widely used websites and platforms. 26International Crisis Group Asia, ‘Myanmar’s military struggles to control the virtual battlefield’.
The junta’s concerted efforts to block internet access reduced the flow of social media coverage but by no means eliminated it. This was partly due to the continuation of fixed-line broadband despite the suspension of Wi-Fi services. This spurred the regime by late May to take steps to create a secure ‘intranet’ in the country to block anti-regime hackers.
The coup also led to unprecedented unity across a once vibrant and highly competitive media scene that reflected a wide range of ethnicities and viewpoints.
Perhaps the most striking and unintended consequence of Myanmar’s upheavals has been a marked swing back to old-fashioned forms of media communication, not least the appearance of photocopied or printed information sheets, styled as ‘mini-newspapers’, produced and distributed covertly. As of early May, at least 15 such news sheets were reaching many thousands of readers. While physically limited to major urban centres where they are produced, such ‘mini-journals’ were also reaching readers in more remote locations via online images on the internet, when available.
In electronic media, at least two pirate radio stations, with broadcasting relayed via covert FM transmitters, were launched after the coup, including one calling itself Federal FM Radio. By April, some groups were also planning to revive shortwave radio services. 27Peter Guest, ‘Young Burmese activists are broadcasting anti-coup messages on pirate radio’, Rest of the World, 13 April 2021, Open.
Among ‘analogue comebacks’, perhaps the most successful in post-coup Myanmar has been the revival of SMS – old-fashioned text messaging over mobile phones. Similar to earlier efforts in Syria and Afghanistan, some journalists began working to develop SMS news services through mass messaging in response to internet blackouts.
Some critics warned that the revival of SMS services would lead to ‘an avalanche of disinformation, misinformation and dangerous rumours’. 28‘Twitter and SMS: Myanmar’s new frontiers of fear’, Frontier Myanmar, 24 February 2021, Open. Frontier Myanmar, one of the few independent media operations remaining above ground as of July 2021, said SMS communication was ‘particularly ripe for disinformation when there’s no internet available, because messages can still be distributed widely but are difficult to fact check. It is also harder to track and moderate harmful content on the medium’. Even so, noted one Myanmar journalist whose media organisation was banned after the coup, SMS-relayed channels are ‘all we’ve got, we have to use it, we have to improve it’. 29Ibid. See references.
New agile players in Thailand
In the rest of Southeast Asia, Covid-19’s first wave (March to June 2020) created an unprecedented demand for independent journalism as people scrambled to make sense of the pandemic. Amid growing pressure to restructure or downsize, media organisations and newsrooms were forced to adopt new methods of newsgathering, editing and relaying information.
One trend that will likely endure is the growth of smaller, leaner online journals and websites – many operating on shoestring budgets and staffed with devoted teams of reporters who mostly work from home.
One example is Thai Enquirer, which was launched in early 2020. Beginning with just 3,000 readers and about 200 followers on social media, by July 2021 Thai Enquirer was drawing about 80,000–85,000 readers and had more than 68,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram. 30Thai Enquirer, Twitter, Open. Its editorial staff had doubled from four to eight, all working remotely. 31Umesh Pandey, interview, 5 May 2021.
Unlike many small, independent, online publications, advertising revenue so far has helped the Thai Enquirer break even. ‘We can say that we have achieved all this without spending a single penny on buying “likes” or followers,’ said Umesh Pandey, a former editor of the Bangkok Post and a co-founder of Thai Enquirer.
Unlike many ‘local’ news sites in Asia, Thai Enquirer publishes only in English – a factor that quite possibly keeps it from the frontline of official scrutiny, similar to the situation of Frontier Myanmar, one of few remaining media organisations that by July 2021 were still not banned by the junta. ‘Knowledge of English is growing among the younger population and it attracts advertisers who are seeking a more upscale and educated audience’, said Pandey.
He believes Thai Enquirer, like some counterparts in Thailand and throughout the region, is showing how online media can affect and even force changes to traditional media. ‘The concept is to be agile and small to keep costs low and stay nimble,’ he noted, adding, ‘We are bound to see even more new media outlets being formed as people are still tending to stay at home and want access to information.’ Although there is a risk of increased plagiarism or more aggregator sites that simply collate others’ work, Pandey said that is the cost of an increasingly varied media landscape.
The media environment in Thailand, however, has become more problematic in recent years. From 2004, when it ranked 59th among 167 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, Thailand fell in 2014, the year of its most recent coup, to 130th place among 180 countries. By 2017 it hit 142nd of 180, rising a few notches by 2021 to 137th. In the process, US-based Freedom House moved Thailand’s designation from ‘partly free’ to ‘not free’.
Covid-19 exacerbated the trends and, in early 2021, Human Rights Watch singled out Thailand in its annual World Report for misusing Covid-19 emergency measures to clamp down on freedom of expression and the media, especially in relation to criticism of the government response to the pandemic.
Whistle blowers in the public health sector were targeted by disciplinary actions and retaliatory lawsuits after they reported hoarding and black-market profiteering of surgical masks and medical supplies. Social distancing restrictions were enforced in a discriminatory manner, targeting activists …. 73 activists who took part in anti-government protests and democracy protests were charged with violating social distancing measures intended to control the spread of Covid-19. 32Human Rights Watch, ‘Thailand: Events of 2020’, World Report 2021, 13 January 2021, Open.
A unique issue facing media in Thailand arises from the reactivation in late 2020 of the kingdom’s draconian lèse majesté law. Under Article 112 of the Criminal Code, the law takes direct aim at the media – with penalties for carrying comments made by interviewees that are deemed insulting to the monarchy. The law has also been the primary cause of a more insidious form of media suppression: self-censorship.
As widely noted by human rights groups, the scale of self-censorship within the Thai media was confirmed in the coverage – or ‘non-coverage’ – of massive pro-democracy demonstrations throughout the country in 2020. ‘One of the key demands being made by the protesters – reform of the monarchy – was systematically erased from mainstream media coverage,’ noted Reporters Without Borders in its 2020 press freedom assessment. In addition, it noted, the government used Covid-19 that year to make dissemination of information deemed ‘false or capable of causing fear in the public’ punishable by up to five years in prison, and allowing the authorities to ‘correct’ any published information.
Such regulations took effect at a time when media were particularly vulnerable due to financial problems. Like other countries in the region, Thailand has seen a wave of layoffs and budget cuts in mainstream media. In a related development, media including Matichon Group and the English-language Bangkok Post have seen editors and journalists laden with extra roles and workloads as jobs are cut. Several news editors in Thai media groups said they had been given responsibilities previously covered by ‘more than three jobs’ since the pandemic hit.
Plunging resources for Indonesian media
Another stark illustration of the effects of pandemic-related financial problems is Indonesia. The Jakarta Post, the country’s leading English-language newspaper, announced in August 2020 that it was considering laying off two-thirds of its workforce, triggering the resignations of more than 20 journalists. Journalists at Tempo and Jawa Pos were also laid off over the course of the pandemic. And between March and December 2020, Indonesia’s Legal Aid Institute for the Press received 61 reports by journalists from 14 Jakarta-based media organisations who had been laid off, furloughed or received pay cuts. 33Andreyka Natalegawa and Kyra Jasper, ‘Newsrooms in crisis: Covid-19 and journalism in Indonesia’, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 20 December 2020, Open.
For many of these Indonesian outlets, financial difficulties began long before 2020 due to weakening economic conditions. Pandemic-related freefalls in both advertising and circulation revenues exacerbated the situation, noted researchers at the US-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. 34Ibid. See references.
A July 2020 survey of 140 Indonesian media companies found that respondents lost 40% to 80% of their advertising income during the pandemic. Such declines, reflected in similar plunges elsewhere in the region, have forced newspapers to seek other sources of revenue, including in some cases government funding and commercial sponsorship.
Mainstream electronic media, particularly television, have also faced challenges from Covid-19 due to physical restrictions placed on reporters and camera crews covering stories. Kann Vicheika, a Cambodian freelance journalist, highlighted a problem that has plagued media particularly in developing countries, noting she had to use her own money to buy hygiene items to protect herself from the virus. 35Interview by author with Kann Vicheika, 2 May 2021. Numerous other reporters elsewhere in the region have had the same experience, according to dozens of interviews for this chapter.
The outsized health risks posed by covering the spread of Covid-19 is a new phenomenon. The dangers are particularly high in developing countries because of lax occupational safety standards and minimal or non-existent worker insurance and compensation. This has increased the risks of contracting Covid-19 for journalists.
Dozens of journalists in Jakarta and Bogor, for example, were put under observation in March 2020 after coming into contact with government sources who later tested positive for Covid-19. Indonesian journalists in April 2020 accused local media companies of ignoring Covid-19 safety guidelines. And in November 2020, the Jakarta-based Alliance for Independent Journalists said that at least 242 journalists in the journalists in the country had contracted Covid-19 between March and September.’ 36Andreyka Natalegawa and Kyra Jasper, ‘Newsrooms in crisis: Covid-19 and journalism in Indonesia’.
Stifled Covid-19 coverage in Cambodia
Across the world, health risks and distancing restrictions forced many journalists to work from home and switch to interviewing sources using phone calls, SMS and video calls.
‘All of these changes are new to journalists, but as we all know, not interviewing the source directly makes the stories we write and publish less detailed than the stories where we interviewed them in person and saw their situation with our own eye’, said Kann Vicheika. This kind of change could be seen as ‘positive’, she added, ‘because I can learn new ways to get information, but I am worried that this habit may make some journalists lazy to cover the news in the field’.
Noting the mixed effects of pandemic-related issues, Gerry Flynn, a freelance journalist and board member of the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia, said growing media reliance on phone calls and online communications ‘removes much of the human element from interviews, restricts rapport-building among sources and requires sources having phone service/internet access, which is not always guaranteed in Cambodia’. Similarly, he added, poor quality connections hamper interviews. 37Interview by author with Gerry Flynn, 3 May 2021.
Meanwhile, governments in the region are clamping down on media outlets as a result of official sensitivity to criticism about their pandemic responses. This includes not only the authoritarian regimes in countries such as Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia, but also in ostensibly democratic societies such as the Philippines, Indonesia and even Australia. Curbs on the media have also come in response to growing political unrest as people feel the bite of economic deprivation.
The overall effect is a slow but fundamental shift in media structure, practices and attitudes, and the continuing rise of social media and citizen journalism.
In Cambodia, which has seen moves to curb the media under the autocratic regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen, a host of new issues has emerged since Covid-19. These were outlined by the Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association in a March 2021 report that highlighted a range of concerns about legal, physical and political intimidation, including 35 incidents where 72 journalists were harassed. 38Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association, ‘Cambodian Journalism Situation Report 2020’, 29 March 2021, Open.
In an account of new legal measures in Cambodia in response to the February 2021 Covid-19 wave, the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia noted that the country’s health ministry went from being ‘one of the most open and approachable government institutions to a black hole of one-way communication’. Health Ministry spokespersons have been known to block the phone numbers of journalists asking questions about Covid-19. Pro-government media appeared to have been granted some level of access, but are now encountering problems.
Kann Vicheika offered a stark description of the obstacles that reporters in Cambodia face:
Some journalists have been warned or charged with inciting the spread of Covid-19 news. The government also issued regulations and measures that undermine freedom of the press, [and] a call for no dissemination of attacks or criticism of the government regarding measures to curb the spread of Covid‑19.
Some citizens and journalists were arrested for spreading ‘fake news’ – a term lacking legal definition in Cambodia. Others have been charged with incitement for reporting critically on the government’s handling of the pandemic. Earlier this year the Chinese publisher of Angkor Today was deported for reporting on an alleged vaccine sale scam among the Chinese community in Sihanoukville. All of this has further contributed to a culture of self-censorship, noted the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia (OPCC).
The OPCC has also expressed concern about the Cambodian public’s dependence on Facebook and Telegram as their primary sources of news because, it said, these platforms often carry inaccurate stories or information that ‘creates confusion’, particularly in relation to the Covid-19 restrictions.
‘Micro-media outlets, often just a person armed with a smartphone and a selfie stick, have found a home on Facebook in Cambodia,’ the OPCC’s Flynn told this author. But ‘their overall ignorance of ethics or general professionalism poses the risk of reducing public trust in journalism, at a time when the profession is most needed to share accurate and trusted information’.
Interviews with media representatives throughout Southeast Asia between May and July 2021 suggest the relationship between journalism and social media urgently needs to be reassessed after the pandemic. Many noted that while the public’s appetite for instantaneous and breaking news coverage has grown, this plays into the hands of click-hungry outlets with fewer scruples about fact-checking.
Lydia Ruddy and Erica Paula Sioson, for example, cited a disturbing message relayed via social media last year as an example of the power of such communications to fuel popular fears: ‘In Indonesia, if your PCR test results [for Covid-19] are positive, you get a lethal injection’, said one post, citing a WhatsApp message. 39Lydia Ruddy and Erica Paula Sioson, ‘Overcoming the social media infodemic in ASEAN’, Bangkok Post, 12 March 2021, Open.
The growing risk of fake news and misinformation comes amid soaring access to internet and digital media among citizens of Southeast Asian countries, according to a report by Google, Temasek Holdings and Bain & Company. It found that in 2020, 40 million citizens in Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries went online for the first time. 40Stephanie Davis, et al, ‘e-Conomy SEA 2020: Resilient and racing ahead’, November 2020, Open. More significant is the report’s suggestion that this broad digital shift may outlast the pandemic, producing profound and permanent changes in how those in the region, let alone media outlets, live and work. 41Sebastian Strangio, ‘In Southeast Asia, Covid-19 speeds transition to digital technologies’, The Diplomat, 11 November 2020, Open.
According to We Are Social, 69% of ASEAN’s 672 million citizens are internet and social media users. With the region steadily pivoting towards digital transformation and with 208 million people still lacking digital access, these numbers are projected to increase. 42Lydia Ruddy and Erica Paula Sioson, ‘Overcoming the social media infodemic in ASEAN’.
The growing tide of internet usage comes just as fears about the effects of the pandemic on health and wellbeing grow. These circumstances are particularly conducive for the swift spread of misinformation and rumours, warned Ruddy and Sioson. They added that the power of digital technologies to influence the opinions and behaviours of users, and the speed at which societies change due to these technological disruptions, are outpacing the capacity of both public and private institutions to adapt.
At the policy level, the authors urge a ‘whole-of-society approach’ within ASEAN to countering fake news and misinformation. It should involve all stakeholders, including governments, academics, citizens and users, tech platforms and professional groups to create a safe space online. Foremost, they stressed, are suggestions to increase fact-checking initiatives, government laws and the regulation of disinformation, and official cross-border collaboration on efforts to curb the spread of fake news.
Such steps by governments should be balanced against concerns about free speech and democratic rights. Among 25 journalists interviewed for this essay, the overwhelming majority warned of the ‘weaponisation’ of information laws against media and the impact of government measures on journalism.
These sentiments were reflected in the findings of a survey of the pandemic’s fallout on the media by the International Center for Journalists and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism in 2020. 43Julie Posetti, Emily Bell and Pete Brown, ‘Journalism and pandemic: A global snapshot of impacts’. The researchers assessed the most critical needs facing journalists, both during the pandemic and as they navigate the post-pandemic recovery.
The report’s findings – based on responses from more than 1,400 English-speaking journalists from 125 countries – are both startling and disturbing. At a time when the public needs to rely on credible independent journalism to stay safe and informed, journalists and news organisations are grappling with a mental health crisis, financial peril, threats to their physical safety and attacks on press freedom while simultaneously battling pandemic levels of disinformation. Among the top findings:
- Politicians and elected officials were identified by 46% of respondents as a top source of disinformation.
- 81% said they encounter disinformation at least weekly, with more than one-quarter identifying false information many times a day.
- Facebook was identified as the most prolific spreader of disinformation.
- Nearly half of respondents said their sources had expressed fear of retaliation for speaking to journalists during the pandemic.
- 30% said that their news organisations had not supplied field reporters with a single piece of protective equipment during the first wave of the pandemic, and 70% identified the mental health effects of covering Covid-19 as the most difficult challenge.
Looking ahead, there is strong demand among respondents for training on new technologies to support remote reporting and publishing (67%), advanced verification and fact-checking (67%), and science and medical/health reporting (66%).
But the survey also revealed some encouraging findings. Nearly one-half of respondents (43%) said they felt audience trust in their journalism or that of their news organisation had increased during the first wave of the pandemic. More than one-half (61%) expressed an increased commitment to journalism as a result of the pandemic. And more than one-third (38%) said they had experienced increased audience engagement (which was also largely positive).
Driving home the post-pandemic challenges for media on World Press Freedom Day on 3 May 2021, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, highlighted the importance of independent media, saying that journalists will be crucial for the world to recover from the devastation of Covid-19. ‘Objective, trusted, fact-checked news will counter disinformation; help ensure resilient and sustainable solutions to current challenges; demand transparency and accountability; foster trust in institutions.’
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Interview with author, 20 February 2021.
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Interview by author with Gerry Flynn, 3 May 2021.
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Lydia Ruddy and Erica Paula Sioson, ‘Overcoming the social media infodemic in ASEAN’.
Julie Posetti, Emily Bell and Pete Brown, ‘Journalism and pandemic: A global snapshot of impacts’.