What is the state of the news in Asia? Through one lens, it has never been better. Through another, it is immensely challenged – and getting worse.
It is tempting, especially for journalists embroiled in the day-to-day trials of reporting and publishing, to see their world as a glass half-empty. But on balance, there is still much to be optimistic about in reporting about, and from within, the region.
Four decades ago the press in much of the region was muzzled, held in check by stern laws or controlled by interests close to the ruling elites. Few independent voices existed, and even fewer catered to marginalised and minority communities. Authoritarian, undemocratic governments were the norm, not the exception. And while a corps of foreign correspondents roamed across Asia, familiar frames of war, disasters, great power struggles and political intrigue abounded in their coverage.
In the decades since, much has changed, and for the better.
Democracy – or at least political liberalisation – took root, and in many cases, flowered. In Myanmar, the Philippines, Indonesia, Korea, Taiwan – even China – the space for a freer press cracked open, and gutsy journalists poured in. Established news services were forced to adapt to the growing appetite for accurate, independent reporting, and fresh organisations sprung up to challenge them. A new generation of Asian journalists – often more cosmopolitan, better educated and trained – were the leaders of this change.
A scrappy Malaysian startup, Malaysiakini, took advantage of the government opening up online space and rocketed to success, drawing in an audience tired of party- and government-controlled organs. In Manila, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) would become one of the world’s first independent non-profits devoted to investigative journalism. In 2001, it would gain fame for a series exposing then-President Joseph Estrada’s corruption that ultimately led to a popular uprising and his ouster. In China, the financial news organisation Caijing – and later Caixin – tested the boundaries of what was permissible to report in the country with deeply reported stories about the SARS epidemic. Even in isolated Bhutan, a dozen newspapers were founded in the wake of media liberalisation.
More importantly, the shift meant that Asian journalists were much more empowered to tell their own stories – to delve into the issues that mattered to their communities, to speak to audiences that had been for so long denied the information they wanted and needed, and to offer the rest of the world a view of the region more informed by those who live the story.
True, foreign news organisations, many now struggling with financial woes at home, began to pare back their footprint in the region. But in many cases, local reporters stepped in to serve as ‘foreign’ correspondents, bringing more local knowledge to the reporting, and in some cases, first-hand experience of the foreign audiences they were serving. The internet also allowed distant audiences to access news and information from across the world – and while those stories may have required more knowledge and context to follow, there was certainly no shortage of news to be found.
But those heady days of ever-growing space have since ended.
Commercially driven news organisations in the region, once buoyed by Asia’s breakneck growth, have now had to grapple with economic gravity, exacerbated by the recession brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. Authoritarian and populist governments are on the rise again, and are wielding tough media and ‘fake news’ laws to curb independent reporting. As Cherian George astutely notes in his chapter, populism also means that independent journalists, once seen as allies of the people against repressive regimes, are now arrayed against both an intolerant populace and intolerant governments.
Threats against journalists, which had never truly abated, continue to increase. Social media, originally embraced as a path around printing and broadcasting restrictions, has become fertile ground for troll armies and online harassment of journalists. Such attacks have translated offline as well. Rappler, the Philippine digital news startup born on Facebook, has faced unrelenting attacks from both President Rodrigo Duterte and a legion of his rabid supporters online. Its founder, former CNN correspondent and Philippine TV news executive Maria Ressa, faces multiple charges of tax evasion. She has been barred from leaving the country.
In Myanmar, at one point the poster child in the region for democratic opening, Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were convicted of breaching national security laws and spent more than 500 days in jail for reporting a story that ultimately won the Pulitzer Prize. As Gwen Robinson’s chapter illustrates, the February 2021 coup has exasperated pressures on journalists operating in the country. China continues to lead the world in jailing journalists. And killings of journalists around the region continue, often with impunity.
Foreign coverage of the region continues, but often – and somewhat understandably – through frames that matter to those audiences: the rise of China, economic competition, political dissidents, disasters, and so on. Those frames, while important, do not capture the full scope of the stories in Asia.
Yet there are many reasons to still see the glass as half-full.
Even in these challenged times, the environment is immeasurably better than it was in the 1970s and early 1980s. Journalists continue to manoeuvre and find open spaces, even in closed societies such as China.
Startups have flourished, and in many cases have found eager audiences. Newstapa, an investigative video news organisation in Korea, boasts a business model almost entirely funded by individual memberships. Malaysiakini continues to innovate, including through a bold – and successful – fundraising exercise to build a new office building through donations for individual bricks. Katadata, in Indonesia, is building a business collecting, providing and analysing data. Independent non-profit news sites, learning from PCIJ’s example, have abounded – from Nepal to Japan to Indonesia. Cross-border collaborations – not just on stories, but in exchanges of experience, expertise and skills – have exploded, thanks in large part to organisations such as the Global Investigative Journalism Network, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.
A new generation of journalists, steeped in this culture of collaboration and an ethos of public service, is stepping forward. A small group of photographers in the Philippines, fearful that the brutal drug war there was not being fully documented, has taken it upon themselves to independently archive and catalogue the horrific images they have captured. Chinese journalists overseas have volunteered time to translate data journalism training manuals for their colleagues back home who might otherwise not have access to such materials. New community news organisations are taking root in India, often serving their audiences via audio rather than text to overcome issues of illiteracy.
Which path – half-full or half-empty, more open or more closed – dominates the future depends on many factors, not least the economy, platforms and governments. But much also depends on journalists – Asians and non-Asians – themselves. Their track record of ingenuity and persistence, courage and drive, has kept spaces open and communities informed in the face of tremendous challenges.
That is cause for optimism.