As a region, Asia contains a mix of political systems, from hardline authoritarian regimes to well-established democracies. For that reason, the pressure on media freedom varies greatly across different countries and different political system. Over the last 12–18 months authoritarian regimes across the region have capitalised on pandemic-related social distancing measures and vague or expansive laws to quell the rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. In some jurisdictions, reporting on the pandemic has been deemed a threat to national security. In others, it is punished using civil law measures such as fines for gathering in groups. But even regional democracies have seen significant challenges to press freedom.
Individual threats to journalists and general dangers associated with the job of reporting have increased. Most acts of physical violence against journalists have been committed by authorities policing social movements. Journalists have been blinded by non-lethal weapons, tear gassed and sprayed with pepper spray repeatedly across the region. The confluence of mass demonstrations and the global pandemic have presented significant health risks.
There is a general trend towards expanding legal mechanisms to regulate free expression that will negatively affect press freedom in the region. Fake-news laws, privacy laws, anti-doxxing laws and the question of intermediary liability on social media platforms are areas that have drawn the interest of regional authorities and where they might take swift regulatory action.
2020 also marked the first use of full internet suppression in the region: Myanmar mandated the longest internet shut down in history. The junta turned to extrajudicial methods to achieve the result, using combinations of mobile data and wireless broadband outages.
This chapter highlights select issues of relevance to media freedom across 14 Asian jurisdictions, with a particular focus on legislative developments. Given the stark economic, social and cultural differences between each jurisdiction, there is no common set of characteristics against which progress or setbacks in media freedom can be measured. This chapter therefore offers snapshots of developments with a view to establishing greater understanding between jurisdictions, rather than attempting to provide a comprehensive or detailed review of developments in each place.
Print and broadcast media in Australia has traditionally seen a concentrated ownership. Leading conglomerates include News Corp Australia, Seven West Media and the merged Fairfax Media-Nine Entertainment group. However the last decade has also seen an uptick in new online news outlets; new entrants from overseas, such as The Guardian Australia and The New York Times; and a growing hyper-local industry that is starting to reshape the Australian media landscape.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) runs national and local public radio and TV. It is funded by direct grants from the Australian federal government, but is independent of government and partisan politics. The other main broadcaster is the multilingual Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), a hybrid-funded Australian public service broadcaster. Like the ABC, SBS is funded by the Australian government as part of its annual budget. Funding covers normal operations, capital works and special projects.
The ABC and SBS are required to develop codes of practice relating to programming matters and lodge the codes with the Australian Communications and Media Authority. In addition, the ABC and SBS are accountable to Parliament through annual reports, corporate plans, financial and performance audits, and appearances before parliamentary committees.
There are 2 national and 10 state daily newspapers. The two national daily newspapers are The Australian (owned by News Corp Australia) and The Australian Financial Review (owned by Nine Entertainment). Other notable newspapers include The Sydney Morning Herald (owned by Nine Entertainment), The Canberra Times (owned by Australian Community Media), The Daily Telegraph (owned by News Corp Australia) and The Age (owned by Nine Entertainment).
In recent years, Australian media witnessed several high-profile raids on newsrooms doing sensitive investigative journalism. In one example, the Australian Federal Police searched News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst’s home, office and electronics in June 2019 to identify the source of a 2018 story detailing the government’s plans to grant far-reaching surveillance powers to the Australian Signals Directorate, a key government intelligence agency.
The High Court of Australia later quashed the search warrant the police had used, as it failed to specify the offence to a sufficient degree. However, the court did not order the police to destroy or return the seized material on grounds that the plaintiff had failed to identify their right or interest to an extent that would justify an injunction. It was decided in May 2020 that Smethurst would not be charged over the stories she had published. 1Fergus Hunter, ‘Police rule out charging News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 27 May 2020, Open.
In a second raid in June 2019, the ABC’s headquarters in Sydney was searched by the Australian Federal Police in relation to the 2017 reports known as ‘The Afghan Files’, which alleged unlawful killings and misconduct by Australian special forces in Afghanistan. Article drafts, graphics, digital notes, visuals, raw television footage and all versions of scripts related to the stories were searched.
In January 2020, the ABC challenged the legality of the search warrant, arguing that it breached an implied constitutional right of free speech on political matters. However, the court ruled that the searches were legal as police had been investigating valid national security offences.
In October 2020 the Australian Federal Police announced it would not be prosecuting the journalists behind the story. 2Anthony Galloway, ‘Police won’t charge ABC journalist over “Afghan Files” stories’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 October 2020, Open.
Australia’s defamation laws have traditionally made it easier for journalists and newsrooms to be taken to court by a range of claimants from governments and politicians to corporate entities and private individuals. Australian journalists have regularly argued that these laws constitute a serious limit on media freedom, making it an ongoing topic of public debate.
Recent high-profile cases have included a claim brought by Ben Roberts-Smith, the country’s most decorated living soldier. He sued The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Canberra Times in 2018 for defamation in federal court over a series of articles about his actions in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2012 that included allegations of war crimes. Nick McKenzie and Chris Masters, two of Australia’s most prominent investigative journalists, were sued by Roberts-Smith to reveal their sources to the court, including the names of witnesses and 49 privileged documents. Masters responded by saying that ‘protecting the identity of a source who wishes for their identity to remain confidential is a vital component of investigative journalism’. 3Bianca Hall, ‘Journalists fight attempt by Ben Roberts-Smith to expose their sources’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 December 2019, Open. The case has also drawn attention because Roberts-Smith’s defence is being funded by Kerry Stokes, a key competitor in Australia’s media market.
The use of social media by journalists has become topical in relation to Australia’s defamation laws. In August 2021 the national broadcaster, the ABC, agreed to settle a defamation action, reportedly for up to AUD 130,000, brought by a Member of Parliament against a tweet posted in a private capacity by a prominent ABC journalist.
Australia has a patchwork of defamation laws across different states. In July 2020, New South Wales (NSW) announced an overhaul of the state’s defamation law, raising the prospect of further national reform across Australia’s other jurisdictions. New South Wales Attorney General Mark Speakman said he would be pushing for ‘a clear defence for public interest journalism’. 4Michaela Whitbourn, ‘Defamation law set for overhaul to protect public interest journalism’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 24 July 2020, Open. The defence will ‘require a defendant to prove both that the statement was on a matter of public interest and the defendant reasonably believed that its publication was in the public interest’.
In July 2021, former Sydney Morning Herald Editor Milton Cockburn, in a wide-ranging lecture defending the late NSW Premier Neville Wran (for whom he once worked) against what he says was defamatory reporting by three journalists, argued there should be a ‘quid pro quo’ for this concession to defendants. In Cockburn’s view, the law should be further amended so that the spouse or a child of a deceased person has a right to sue for defamation on behalf of the deceased. This would overturn the long-standing legal premise that ‘you can’t defame the dead’.
Now undergoing public consultation, some of the key changes to the NSW law will include clarification of the cap on damages for non-economic loss and the introduction of a new public interest defence, a serious harm threshold, a single publication rule, and a mandatory concerns notice procedure (whereby a publisher can be informed of the demands of a potential plaintiff and take appropriate action to settle the matter).
Importantly, the reforms will seek to clarify the matter of internet intermediary liability in defamation for the publication of third-party content. In the 2020 case Fairfax v Voller, the court held that providers of internet fora and social networking sites will normally be considered to be ‘publishers’ and that the defence of innocent dissemination did not apply since the content that each defendant posted invited and encouraged third parties to ‘Like’ or ‘Comment’.
It remains an evolving matter as media companies can now look to other available defences as they continue to litigate the matter. But until and unless there is intervention from legislation or the High Court, the courts have taken a strong stance on the liability of media organisations for defamation committed by third parties.
Media ownership in Cambodia is highly concentrated among political and business elites. Data collected in 2015 in a partnership between Reporters Without Borders and the Cambodian Center for Independent Media revealed that nearly 80% of cross-media audience share is concentrated among just four companies operated by establishment figures. 5Reporters Without Borders, ‘Concentration of ownership puts Cambodian media at risk’, updated 8 March 2016, Open.
An ongoing crackdown on dissenting voices in the press has resulted in the silencing of independent media organisations. Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power for over 30 years, instigated the crackdown in the lead up to the 2018 general elections. The Cambodia Daily, a prominent daily newspaper, was shut down in September 2017. It faced allegations of having failed to pay millions of dollars in taxes. Another prominent independent paper, The Phnom Penh Post, faced similar accusations and was eventually sold to a public relations agency with strong ties to the prime minister. 6Reporters Without Borders, ‘Hun Sen-linked PR firm buys Cambodia’s last independent newspaper’, 7 May 2018, Open.
Repression continued in 2020, with the arrests of the director of online news platform TVFB Sovann Rithy in April, broadcast journalist Sok Oudom in May, and newspaper publisher Ros Sokhet in June. All three journalists were charged with ‘incitement to commit felony’, a criminal charge under Article 495 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code.
The threat of an incitement charge means Cambodian journalists consider not only the accuracy of their reporting, but also the nature and gravity of the information they are covering and posting on social media. Recent arrests have been made over reporting about the Prime Minister’s succession plans and Cambodia’s micro-loan debt crisis, raising the prevalence of self-censorship.
Violence and intimidation
In late 2020, two groups of Cambodian journalists were attacked by suspected timber traders after covering forestry crimes. On one occasion, reporters from broadcast and print media outlets were beaten with sticks and axes. On the other occasion, two reporters were ambushed by men in pick-up trucks loaded with timber.
Both events followed the release of damning reports on the forestry industry, known for its strong links to Cambodia’s ruling elite. In a 2019 survey, 31% of journalists identified arrest or detention by the authorities as the biggest threat to press freedom. The same survey saw 81% of respondents agree they had experienced security concerns as a result of their work. 7International Federation of Journalists, Charting Cambodia’s Declining Press Freedom: An IFJ Monitoring and Advocacy Campaign, Open. (accessed 28 July 2021).
2020 saw the introduction of new legislation that has the potential to threaten the independence and safety of journalists. In April, the Law on Governing the Country in a State of Emergency was passed in the Cambodian legislature, with observers raising concerns that authorities may use the law to target journalists. Voice of Democracy editor-in-chief Min Pov told Radio Free Asia that the law is worded vaguely and journalists may be accused of ‘violating national security or public order, and disseminating disinformation’. 8Radio Free Asia, ‘Journalists fear tougher restrictions as Cambodia enacts new law on state of emergency’, 1 May 2020, Open.
A current draft of a new public order law was denounced by Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists (among others) in August 2020 for posing a threat to free expression by banning ‘cursing words on social media’ and the public display of content that affects ‘public order’ and ‘aesthetic value’. 9Amnesty International, ‘Cambodia: CSOs call for the draft law on public order to be immediately discarded: joint statement’, 13 August 2020, Open.
Another draft law related to cybersecurity further threatens freedom of expression by introducing fines and prison sentences for spreading false information that could be detrimental to ‘public safety,’ ‘national security’ and ‘friendly relations of Cambodia and other countries’. 10Sun Narin, ‘Activists: Cambodia’s draft cybercrime law imperils free expression, privacy’, Voice of America, 11 October 2020, Open. It is unclear what changes will be made to the draft, which has been circulating since October 2020.
Mass media ownership in China is obscured by the opaque ties between commercial interests and the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Traditional media channels are dominated by state or CCP-owned entities. China Media Group (more commonly known as the Voice of China) is the largest broadcast media company, employing over 14,000 people. 11Steven Jiang, ‘Beijing has a new propaganda weapons: Voice of China’, CNN, 21 March 2018, Open. It was founded in 2018 as a holding group for China National Radio, China Radio International and China Central Television. The latter includes China Global Television Network, an important soft power instrument for the CCP.
China Media Group is wholly owned by the CCP and operates under the auspices of the CCP Publicity Department, more commonly known as the propaganda department. The group is headed by Shen Haixiong, who also serves as propaganda chief for Guangdong province.
The largest print media companies are People’s Daily and Xinhua. People’s Daily is the largest newspaper group and is owned and published by the CCP. Xinhua is state-owned through the government’s State Council. It is a publisher and wire service, with a large overseas representation (as many as 170 bureaus worldwide), as well as a separate branch for internal distribution among state and party officials. 12Kelsey Ables, ‘What happens when China’s state-run media embraces AI?’, Columbia Journalism Review, 21 June 2018, Open.
Smaller media organisations are privately funded, but the state will often maintain control through shareholdings. In the case of Caixin, an influential financial publication with an independent streak, major stockholders are Zhejiang Daily (a state-owned organisation) and Tencent (an internet firm with close ties to the government and the CCP).
Similarly, Southern Press Group, a state-owned – though liberal-leaning – media group, owns 41% of leading business publication 21st Century Business Herald.
Censorship is a defining issue for Chinese media and foreign journalists operating in the country. In the early 2000s, press and public opinion tested the boundaries of President Hu Jintao’s moderate approach to state censorship. With the advent of the internet, online publications and blogs thrived. Xi Jinping has since consolidated power over the party and government, starting with his appointment to party general secretary in 2012, ending Beijing’s brief experiment with greater civil liberties. Observers tell of Xi’s administration overseeing one of the most restrictive and repressive decades in modern Chinese history.
Restrictive censorship – pre-emptive instructions on what can and cannot be published – is in the hands of three separate institutions. Foremost among them is the CCP’s Publicity Department. Local journalists often receive text messages from this department with guidelines for reporting about sensitive news, or about banned topics and vocabulary.
A second censorship body is the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA), the agency administering state-owned radio and television. The NRTA is a 2018 creation following an earlier merger of the General Administration of Press and Publication with the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television. The NRTA mainly exercises censorship through licencing requirements.
Finally, internet regulation and censorship is the domain of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), which supervises digital platforms such as Sina Weibo and WeChat. The CAC operates through directives it sends to media organisations, as well as by designing artificial intelligence algorithms that automatically scan digital publications for sensitive content.
While the Chinese state has developed an extensive complex of agencies codifying and enforcing restrictive censorship, much of the work is achieved through intimidation and deliberately vague instructions, resulting in self-censorship.
By leaving journalists uncertain of the boundaries of free speech, media executives tend to err on the side of caution. Many content providers employ their own censorship regulators, avoiding topics or specific vocabulary that may trigger CAC algorithms or alarm government supervisors.
Media professionals who risk crossing these vague boundaries may be ‘invited for tea’, a euphemism for a visit with local authorities that is used to intimidate journalists. These meetings give state security operatives the opportunity to question, issue warnings to, harass or even detain individuals – ranging from celebrities to critics. In one high-profile case from 2013, Southern Weekly magazine staff were ‘invited for tea’ after going on strike in response to government interference in their New Year editorial column. 13‘China newspaper journalists stage rare strike’, BBC News, 7 January 2013, Open.
After former US President Donald Trump’s administration designated several Chinese media organisations in the United States as ‘foreign missions’, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs countered by revoking the press credentials of reporters from three US newspapers, and limiting the credentials of others in time and scope.
One prominent tactic of press intimidation used by local authorities is arbitrary detention. According to Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, arbitrary detention has the following characteristics:
- The grounds for the arrest are illegal.
- The victim was not informed of the reasons for the arrest.
- The procedural rights of the victim were not respected.
- The victim was not brought before a judge within a reasonable amount of time. 14United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 23 March 1976, Open.
Thirteen citizen journalists were detained by Chinese authorities in 2020 for their coverage of the outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan. Of those 13 individuals, some faced criminal charges and imprisonment of up to four years. Others remain under house detention and surveillance. The whereabouts of some remain unknown.
For eight citizen journalists, their arrests were a direct consequence of their coverage of the Covid-19 health crisis. High-profile cases include that of former China Central Television presenter Li Zehua, who documented the developing crisis from the epicentre of Wuhan, and prominent journalist Jiang Xue, who wrote an essay criticising the government’s handling of the pandemic. While Jiang was released within a few hours of her arrest, Li was held in mandatory quarantine for over two months. He returned home after releasing a video that praised the police.
Of the 13 journalists confirmed as detained in China between January 2020 and May 2021, 6 were held on suspicion of, or charged with, ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’, a vague charge referring to Criminal Law Article 293(4) or Public Security Administration Punishments Law Article 26(4), depending on whether the offence amounts to a criminal conviction or an administrative punishment.
While a binding interpretation of the relevant Criminal Law Article 293 was released by the Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People’s Procuratorate in 2013, the charge is applied as a catch-all for individuals, including journalists, who may cause embarrassment to local authorities.
Of the 13 cases, 8 journalists were detained under ‘residential surveillance at a designated location’ (RSDL). Under this type of detention, agents of a public security bureau can hold a suspect for up to six months in a location other than a prison or the suspect’s home. According to China’s Criminal Procedure Law Article 79, RSDL can only be used when the crime endangers national security. However, the law has been loosely applied, as seen with the cases of #MeToo activist Huang Xueqin and filmmaker Chen Jiaping.
Former detainees speak of RSDL as a lawless environment. Torture in different forms commonly occurs, including ‘long periods of sleep deprivation, beatings, electrocution, […] denial of food and water, […] extensive and continuous interrogation sessions, threats of violence, or threats to family. Everyone placed in RSDL is kept in solitary confinement’. 15Teng Biao ‘Foreword’ in Michael Caster (ed) (2017), The People’s Republic of the Disappeared: Stories from Inside China’s System for Enforced Disappearances (United States: Safeguard Defenders).
According to Article 79 of China’s Criminal Procedure Law, family should be notified of the suspect’s detention within 24 hours from the time of arrest. In reality, many cases resemble those of Li Zehua and Chen Qiushi, who were not reported missing until they resurfaced months later.
Harassment and violence
In a 2019 survey conducted by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC), 114 members attested to an increase in harassment and violence towards foreign journalists and their Chinese colleagues. Four in five respondents ‘experienced interference, harassment or violence while reporting’, with half of respondents stating ‘they were obstructed at least once by police or other officials’. 16Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, ‘“Control, halt, delete: Reporting in China under threat of expulsion,”: An in-depth examination of media freedoms in china in 2019’, 2 March 2020, Open. Given the many cases of harassment documented by observers in 2020, this trend has more than likely continued.
Journalists often fall victim to cyberbullying by the so-called ‘50-Cent Army’ named after the fee allegedly paid by the CCP to online trolls for each pro-government post or message. While this fee is likely an urban myth, a 2015 study conducted by Harvard University Professor Gary King into leaked emails revealed coordination between provincial authorities and government employees to generate nearly 44,000 pro-government posts on digital platforms. 17Gary King, Jennifer Pan and Margaret E. Roberts, ‘How the Chinese government fabricates social media posts for strategic distraction, not engaged argument’, American Political Science Review, vol. 111, no. 3 (2017), pp. 484–501, Open.
Hong Kong is home to many media entities and is a major centre for television broadcasting and publishing of print journalism. It has often been regarded as the Asian hub for global media.
Free-to-air television is dominated by private station Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB). Radio Television Hong Kong is the city’s public broadcasting service.
Local papers are known for their political leanings, with most being either pro-Beijing or pro-democracy. Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po are both owned by the Central Government Liaison Office, an organ of the State Council of the government. Prominent English-language newspaper South China Morning Post was acquired by Chinese multinational technology company Alibaba Group in 2015 with the aim to correct the ‘bias’ in Western reporting on China. 18Javier Hernandez, ‘A Hong Kong newspaper on a mission to promote China’s soft power’, The New York Times, 31 March 2018, Open.
Apple Daily, one of the best-selling newspapers in Hong Kong before it was closed in June 2021, was known for its pro-democracy political position and sensationalised news reports. Independent online news outlets such as Hong Kong01, Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) and Stand News have pro-democracy leanings and are censored in mainland China.
Many international media such as Agence France-Presse, CNN, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and Financial Times set up regional offices in Hong Kong. But since the enactment of the National Security Law in June 2020, Hong Kong’s place as a global media hub has been cast into uncertainty. In July 2020, The New York Times announced plans to relocate one-third of its staff to Seoul due to the ‘uncertainty about what the new rules will mean to [their] operation and [their] journalism’. 19Michael Grynbaum, ‘New York Times will move part of Hong Kong office to Seoul’, New York Times, 14 July 2020, Open. Other outlets have announced they are contemplating similar moves, and in August 2021 Initium became the first Hong Kong registered media outlet to announce its plans to move to Singapore. 20Selina Cheng, ‘In media first, Hong Kong news outlet Initium quits city for Singapore’, Hong Kong Free Press, 3 August 2021, Open.
Large-scale suppression of media freedom in Hong Kong is specifically marked by two related events over the course of 2019 and 2020: the ongoing pro-democracy protests that started in June 2019, and the implementation of Hong Kong’s new national-security law, the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in June 2020.
The protests were triggered by the introduction of the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019 – more commonly known as the extradition bill – by the Hong Kong government. Protestors pushed for the complete withdrawal of the bill and condemned the excessive use of force by the police.
The national-security law’s key provisions relate to crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, which are punishable by a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Violence and intimidation
During the pro-democracy protests, physical attacks against journalists were documented on video or live-streamed. Journalists reported being hit by police water cannons, tear gas grenades and pepper spray. There were incidences of police officers deliberately exposing press workers’ identification cards in the videos.
One of the most notable attacks took place in September 2019. Veby Mega Indah, an Indonesian journalist with Suara Hong Kong News, was struck in the right eye by a projectile fired by riot police during a protest. Indah, like other members of the press at the protest, was wearing a bright yellow vest, as well as a helmet with stickers and a press card around her neck, to clearly identify herself as a member of the press. She has since filed a complaint and asked for the name of the officer who fired the projectile, but at the time of writing no investigation had been undertaken.
Indiscriminate arrest of journalists
During anti-government protests, journalists have been arrested for possessing offensive weapons, 21Yujing Liu, ‘Baptist University raises concerns over student reporter arrested for allegedly carrying a knife while covering Hong Kong unrest’, South China Morning Post, 16 September 2019, Open. wearing masks, 22Jennifer Creery, ‘Photojournalist May James released on bail without charge as press freedom watchdogs condemn arrest’, Hong Kong Free Press, 28 October 2019, Open. aiding and abetting public disorder, 23Reporters Without Borders, ‘Hong Kong Department of Justice must drop charges against Swiss photographer’, 21 September 2020, Open. rioting, 24Holmes Chan, ‘Hong Kong police arrest 51 who “claimed to be medics or journalists” near besieged PolyU campus’, Hong Kong Free Press, 18 November 2019, Open. obstructing police and resisting arrests. 25Kelly Ho, ‘Student journalist charged with obstructing Hong Kong police and resisting arrest during mall demo’, Hong Kong Free Press, 4 November 2020, Open; Rhoda Kwan, ‘Hong Kong police arrest journalist for “obstruction” after she filmed arrests’, Hong Kong Free Press, 6 November 2020, Open.
Other times, reporters have been arrested for producing news relating to police misconduct. Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) producer Bao Choy was the subject of a dawn raid on her home on the grounds that she had breached the Road Traffic Ordinance by using false information to gain access to a public database. Although Hong Kong journalists claim this is a usual practice while conducting investigations, Choy was found guilty and ordered to pay a fine of HKD 6,000 (USD 770).
Apple Daily raid and forced closure
The raid on the Hong Kong offices of Apple Daily was widely publicised and condemned by international governments and human rights groups. In August 2020, over 100 police officers entered the headquarters of the pro-democracy newspaper with a court warrant to investigate crimes endangering national security. The raid lasted 9 hours as officers went through items on reporters’ desks and took possession of 25 boxes of evidence. The Hong Kong Journalists Association described the raid as ‘horrendous’ and unprecedented in Hong Kong. 26‘Prepare for more threats like this, warns HKJA head’, Radio Television Hong Kong, 10 August 2020, Open.
While carrying out the operations, the police only granted certain media access to the cordoned-off crime scene, based on the police’s judgment of professionalism and objectivity. Numerous reporters were barred from entering, including foreign news outlets like Reuters, the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse, along with local news sources like RTHK and Stand News. This set a precedent of police limiting access to journalists from news outlets recognised by the government, a guideline that was issued in September 2020. 27Christy Leung and Tony Cheung, ‘Hong Kong police limit access to press briefings to news outlets recognised by government, sparking concern and criticism from media’, South China Morning Post, 22 September 2020, Open.
In a second raid conducted in June 2021, five more senior staff were arrested for ‘conspiracy to collude with foreign forces’. Assets valued at HKD 18 million (USD 2.3 million) were frozen and trades in Apple Daily‘s shares were halted. Unable to pay its staff, the company printed its last edition on 24 June 2021. Its digital version was taken offline at the same time.
National security arrests
As of May 2021, over 100 people have been arrested, and 57 charged under the national-security law. 28Jennifer Jett and Austin Ramzy, ‘From protester to prisoner: How Hong Kong is stifling dissent’, The New York Times, 28 May 2021, Open.
Jimmy Lai, the founder of Next Digital Ltd and prominent critic of the Hong Kong and Chinese governments, was arrested in August 2020 and charged in December 2020 on suspicion of colluding with foreign forces on the basis of his articles published in Apple Daily, interviews with foreign media and posts on Twitter. In May 2021, Lai was sentenced again to 14 months in prison for participating in an unauthorised assembly in 2019. 29‘Hong Kong: Jimmy Lai jailed again for pro-democracy protests’, BBC News, 28 May 2021, Open.
Wilson Li, a freelance journalist reporting for the British ITV News, was arrested in August 2020 because of his ties to a pro-democracy non-governmental organisation. D100 radio host Wan Yiu-sing, who is connected to a funding campaign for young protesters to leave Hong Kong and study in Taiwan, was arrested in November 2020.
Censorship and content regulation
Government authorities closely monitored media content in 2020, and made complaints about content they considered ‘insulting’ to the police. This was particularly true for the public broadcasting service RTHK. It received multiple complaints from the Communications Authority for its programs criticising the police force.
Headliner, an RTHK show that satirises current affairs in Hong Kong and had been running for 31 years, was suspended indefinitely in May 2020 after the Communications Authority complained that an episode insulted the police force.
Pentaprism, another RTHK news commentary show, has removed four episodes from its website after the Communications Authority determined that the programs presented ‘one-sided’ and biased’ views against the police. The authorities say the episodes failed to give the police force a suitable opportunity to respond to guests.
Working visas were used to prevent foreign reporters and journalism professors from entering Hong Kong for reporting and journalism training. Incoming Hong Kong Free Press editor Aaron Mc Nicholas’s working visa was rejected by the Immigration Department without an official explanation. 30Helen Davidson, ‘Hong Kong Free Press journalist denied visa amid fears for media freedom’, The Guardian, 27 August 2020, Open. Meanwhile, a journalism lecturer hired by the University of Hong Kong was deterred from completing his work visa application by a list of ‘incredibly long and detailed questions’ put forward by the Immigration Department. 31Kelly Ho, ‘University of Hong Kong visa application for Pulitzer-winner journalist prompts long list of “unusual” questions from gov’t’, Hong Kong Free Press, 2 September 2020, Open.
With no special permission needed to establish a media outlet, there are as many as 47,000 media outlets in Indonesia. However, according to the Indonesian Press Council, only around 16% of them can be considered professional media companies – companies that publish regularly and have the financial capital to support their employees and their business. 32Dawan Pers (2019), ‘Sertifikasi Wartawan’ Volume 1, Open (accessed 27 April 2021).
State-owned and private corporations are evenly matched in influence and distribution. There are signs of an emerging media conglomeration of 12 major media groups in the private sector, which among them own 60 television channels, 317 print media outlets, 66 radio channels and 9 online media outlets. 33Ibid. See references. Television remains the most popular medium for entertainment and news consumption. Private companies tend to compete with state-owned and operated Televisi Republik Indonesia in terms of ratings. Radio also remains one of the most popular methods of news consumption, especially in rural areas. The main regulator for broadcasting is the privately owned Komisi Penyiaran Indonesia (KPI).
Print publications are falling out of favour as more than 50% of the population has access to the internet. With at least 321 print media outlets regularly publishing, the competition in print journalism is fierce. Many companies have opted to move all of their content online, or to maintain both print and digital outlets. 34Ibid. See references. Coupled with media sites that have always been digital-only, the total number of verified online media outlets stands at 234 – only 5% of all outlets available for consumption.
Although Indonesia’s media landscape is reasonably diverse, laws like the defamation clauses in the Electronic Transactions and Communications Law and blasphemy laws in the Criminal Code tend to hamper certain aspects of press freedom. Reporting on the environment is also considered a sensitive topic. While sites dedicated to environmental coverage such as Mongabay exist, they routinely experience setbacks to their work.
Violence perpetrated by the police or citizens against journalists is also commonplace. There is an expected degree of self-censorship, as journalists do not wish to be formally charged while covering a controversial topic.
In some instances the Indonesian government has been linked to cases of press intimidation, as seen with a high-profile example from January 2020. In December 2019, Philip Jacobsen, editor for conservationist website Mongabay, was placed under arrest for ‘visa issues’. 35‘Mongabay editor arrested in Indonesia’, Mongabay, 21 January 2020, Open. Many believed that his work writing about ecological damage in Indonesia may have been the driving force behind his initial detention.
With his passport seized, Jacobsen was placed under city arrest until January 2020, when he was formally arrested for allegedly violating the terms of his business visa. He was told that he was facing up to five years in prison for allegedly violating the 2011 Immigration Law. Three days later, he was released from a prison in the city of Palangkaraya and placed under city arrest again until he was deported the following month.
A few months later, Diananta Putra Sumedi, chief editor of news site banjarhits.id and correspondent for investigative outlet Tempo, was arrested for defamation after he published an article in November 2019 stating palm oil company Jhonlin Agro Raya (JAR) was involved in land grabbing. An interviewee alleged that Diananta had misquoted him in the article. The article and other related coverage of the conflict was removed. 36Committee to Protect Journalists, ‘Indonesian journalist held since early May on criminal defamation charge’, 9 June 2020, Open.
However, the police did not release Diananta on the grounds that he might destroy incriminating evidence upon his release. There were rumours that he might be charged under Indonesia’s vague internet defamation laws. The last journalist to be sued under defamation charges for published content about Jhonlin and its subsidiaries was Muhammad Yusuf in 2018. Yusuf died in custody, reportedly from a heart attack.
In August 2020, Diananta was sentenced to three and a half months in prison under Article 28 of the Electronic Transaction and Communications Law for inciting hatred and violating journalistic ethics. 37Tunggul Wirajuda, ‘Indonesian journalist in South Kalimantan gets jail time for divisive article’, Go by Kompas, 12 August 2020, Open.
Violence and intimidation
In the second half of 2020, 12 instances of violence against journalists were recorded. 38Dawan Pers, ‘Sertifikasi Wartawan’ Volume 1. Most occurred during the protests against the controversial Job Creation Law in October 2020. For critics and unionists, the law would undermine workers’ rights and weaken environmental protection in Indonesia.
Of the 12 recorded cases of violence, the first case resulted in the death of West Sulawesi journalist Demas Laira. He was found stabbed to death after publishing a series of articles about corruption in infrastructure development and Covid-19 pandemic responses in the Central Mamuju district. As of June 2021, no one had been charged with the murder.
The other 11 cases took place within hours of each other during the October protests and resulted from police brutality. Seven journalists in Jakarta, including CNN Indonesia’s Tohirin and Suara.com’s Peter Rotti, were beaten during a police crackdown on protestors. According to the Alliance of Independent Journalists Indonesia, the police ignored or did not believe media professionals who identified themselves as press. An unknown number of student reporters and journalists were also arrested during the same protests, but were later released. Journalist Ponco Solaksono from merahputih.com went missing in October 2020 while covering the protests in Jakarta.
In Palu, South Sulawesi, three more journalists were assaulted by police during protests. They reported the incident to the police’s internal affairs division. A representative from the National Police stated that the actions taken by the police happened due to the chaotic nature of the protests.
There are five major broadcasting firms that control a majority of mass media outlets in Japan: NHK News (the only public broadcaster), Nippon TV News, Asahi TV News, Fuji TV News and TBS News. News aggregators have emerged as the main source of news for citizens, while print media and television are declining as sources of news. 39Nic Newman, et al (2020), Digital News Report 2020 (Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism), pp. 138–139, Open Open. Online media outlets, like Yahoo! News appear to be taking over as one of the primary news sources for the public. As of 2020, Yahoo! News held 58% of market share. Second-ranked outlet NHK News, by comparison, had only 11%. 40Ibid. See references. The print sector has stagnated in the last 50 years: no new newspapers have emerged and circulation rates have remained stable.
Telecommunications firm Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT), although privatised in the 1980s, still has ties to the government, which holds a controlling stake in the company. The Broadcast Act of 1950 explicitly prohibits the centralisation of media. However, while the state may not have direct control of other media companies, it appears that press culture in Japan has evolved such that the government and reporters try to remain on cordial terms. This can create conflicts of interest when reporting, and the government’s influence is implicitly acknowledged.
Self-censorship and systemic barriers
Current press culture appears to embrace self-censorship. Former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s rule saw journalists and media companies align their reporting with government-endorsed narratives. Reporters that refused or were seen as problematic were sent coded or explicit messages to refrain from ‘bias’ in their work. 41Reporters Without Borders, ‘Japan: Tradition and business interests’, Open (accessed 11 July 2021).
This has resulted in reporters like Isoko Mochizuki from the Tokyo Shimbun being labelled ‘troublesome’ for asking too many – or too-critical – questions at press briefings. 42Justin McCurry, ‘Isoko Mochizuki, the “troublesome’ thorn in Shinzo Abe’s side’, The Guardian, 27 December 2019, Open. Given the media industry’s history with the government, journalists in Japan commonly refrain from being seen as confrontational, opting to avoid aggressive lines of questioning when it comes to politics or state decisions. The ideological divide between the press and the government on the media’s role as a watchdog can be seen in the decline of Japan in Reporters Without Borders’s World Press Freedom Index rankings, which fell from 53rd place in 2013 to 67th in 2021. 43Reporters Without Borders, 2021 World Press Freedom Index, Open.
At the same time, traditional barriers in the form of the kisha club system, which effectively bars freelancers and foreign journalists from engaging in meaningful reporting, remain. Kisha are associations of print and broadcast journalists with exclusive access to press conferences and high-level anonymous sources. They dominate Japanese media and are, for the most part, restricted to employees of mainstream media outlets. This arrangement ‘creates a norm of access and exclusion typically limited to specific organisations of the media to the detriment of freelance and online journalism and foreign journalists’. 44United Nations Human Rights Council, ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression on his mission to Japan’, United Nations Digital Library, 29 May 2017, Open.
Online defamation and copyright: The Twitter cases
In a historic decision for online defamation in Japan in late 2019, the Osaka High Court ruled that the act of retweeting a statement that was defamatory could be actionable under the country’s defamation laws. The case between former Osaka governor Toru Hashimoto and journalist Yasumi Iwakami drew headlines when the presiding judge declared retweeting ‘was an expression indicating agreement with the original post’. Many considered this an attack on freedom of speech in the country.
The same month, journalist Ito Shiori sued a cartoonist over defamatory content he made regarding her 2019 rape case against a former reporter. She is currently engaged in a defamation case that seeks to force the courts to specify the difference between ‘liking’ a post and ‘retweeting’ a post, with retweeting not being seen as an endorsement or show of appreciation, although still actionable because it can amplify libellous statements made on the platform. Ito later also sued Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Mio Sugita for liking tweets that, again, implied that Ito’s accusations were false.
Twitter made headlines in Japan again in September 2020 when a judge ruled that retweeting a photo that is not one’s own can infringe on copyright in Japan. The way images are displayed on the site means that unless a user clicks into the image to enlarge it, they will see a cropped version. According to Japanese courts, if the name of the original owner of the image is also cropped as a result of the default view, the user that retweeted will be infringing on Japan’s copyright law, a conclusion that has been met with criticism from the public.
With the same party in government for 61 years, traditional media in Malaysia came to be tightly controlled by the Barisan Nasional (BN) political coalition and its affiliated conglomerates. Malaysia’s online media then thrived after Pakatan Harapan (PH) defeated BN and pledged to curtail censorship on the internet. Even so, BN still owns significant media outlets and dominates the traditional market.
The broadcasting industry in Malaysia is dominated by state-owned Radio Televisyen Malaysia (RTM), which operates 5 free-to-air terrestrial local television channels and 33 radio channels. 45Eli M Noam (ed) (2016), Who Owns the World’s Media?: Media Concentration and Ownership Around the World (Oxford: Oxford Scholarship Online). Another media corporate, Media Prima, owns all four of Malaysia’s free-to-air commercial TV stations. The dominant political party in the BN coalition, the United Malays National Organisation, owns Media Prima.
The BN coalition also largely controls the print media. Besides its commercial TV stations, Media Prima also runs Malaysia’ oldest newspaper, the New Straits Times. Another key BN coalition member, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), owns English-language The Star newspaper. The Star has the largest circulation in the country.
When BN returned to power in March 2020, it revived its efforts to suppress press freedom.
Criminalisation and intimidation
Although the PH coalition brought a brief reprieve to Malaysia’s press freedom situation, in March 2020 the reformist government was replaced by its more conservative rival due to an ongoing political crisis. The former Minister of Home Affairs, Muhyiddin Yassin, became Prime Minister.
With these changes, any plans to protect press freedom by the previous PH administration were put aside, including moves to abolish or revise repressive laws. Laws that are commonly used to obstruct journalists’ daily reporting remain in force, notably the Sedition Act 1948 and the contempt of court provisions in the Penal Code.
The Sedition Act bans any act, speech or publication that ‘would bring into hatred or contempt’ against the government or Malaysia’s nine royal sultans. 46The Commissioner of Law Revision, Malaysia, Sedition Act 1948 (Revised 1969), Commonwealth Legal Information Institute, Open. As the definition of ‘contempt’ is vague, the BN administration often invoked the Sedition Act to charge journalists for reports that criticised the government. With BN’s return to government, the act is again likely to be invoked frequently. In 2020, the Malaysian authorities initiated a sedition investigation of foreign news agency Al Jazeera over a documentary about Malaysia’s treatment of undocumented migrants during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Meanwhile the Penal Code, which codifies all criminal offences in Malaysia, was used against Malaysiakini journalists in June 2020. The online publisher was charged with contempt of court for comments in an article reporting on the chief justice’s order to make all courts fully operational by July 2020 amid the ongoing pandemic. The Penal Code was also used against journalists who reported on Covid-19, with the justification that the reports created intentional insult with the intent to breach peace. 47Committee to Protect Journalists, ‘Malaysian journalist charged over coronavirus Facebook posts’, 6 February 2020, Open.
According to the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, the government has the right to revoke the media passes of foreign reporters in Malaysia. Besides the sedition investigation against Al Jazeera, the Malaysian authorities refused to renew the work visas of two Australian Al Jazeera journalists. Both were among the seven journalists investigated by the authorities for sedition. The government also expelled the Bangladeshi ‘whistleblower’ who featured in the Al Jazeera report.
The government of Myanmar maintains a monopoly when it comes to television and radio news content and has a formidable presence in print and online media. Myanmar Radio Television (MRT), a state-controlled company, owns all broadcast channels and adheres to the explicit and implicit guidelines regarding coverage of the military, religion, ethnic conflicts and other sensitive topics. 48United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, ‘Creating a legal environment for the growth of community radio in Myanmar’, 5 August 2020, Open. This means state-owned media is still the most widely consumed by Myanmar’s population.
Foreign media companies like the BBC, Reuters and Radio Free Asia are consumed among the highly educated public, however this remains a small portion of Burmese news consumers.
Since the Broadcasting Law was introduced in 2015, foreign news organisations have attempted to break into the market and there has been an increase in local private or independent media companies like The Irrawaddy and Mizzima. 49United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (2016), Assessment of Media Development in Myanmar (Bangkok: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)Bangkok Office), Open. However, these new players face significant state content regulation restrictions, especially when it comes to reporting about the ongoing conflict in Rakhine State between the military and the Arakan Army – an armed militia deemed a terrorist organisation by the state.
Myanmar’s military deposed the democratically elected members of the National League for Democracy in a coup on 1 February 2021. After 11 years of slow but steady gains in global press freedom rankings, the media again finds itself operating in a climate of censorship, intimidation, arrest campaigns and suppression.
Before the coup, the civilian government had enacted multiple laws directly relating to the media, including the 2013 Telecommunications Law and the 2014 Printing and Publishing Law. Official censorship laws were abolished in 2014 and the news media was referred to as the ‘Fourth Estate’ in legal documents. The watchdog responsibilities of journalists and reporters were acknowledged, with the 2014 Media Law stating: ‘The News Media workers shall have the right to freely criticize, point out or recommend operating procedures of the legislative, the executive and judiciary in conformity with the constitution’ (Chapter 3, Article 4 (a)). 50International Labour Organization, Database of National Labour, Social Security and Related Human Rights Legislation, Myanmar Media Law 2014, Open (accessed 25 July 2021).
On paper, these developments provided journalists more freedom in their reporting. But options remained for the government (civilian or otherwise) to oust publishers using corporate tax laws, as happened in the case of the Cambodia Daily. 51Richard Paddock, ‘The Cambodia Daily to close (after chasing one last big story)’, The New York Times, 3 September 2017, Open. In the lead up to the 2018 elections, Radio Free Asia and the Voice of America were among several media outlets forced to close under the pretext of tax and administrative violations. 52‘RFA closes Phnom Penh bureau amid crackdown by Hun Sen’, Radio Free Asia, Open. Espionage charges under Section 445 of the Criminal Code were also weaponised against two journalists. 53Human Rights Watch, ‘Cambodia: Drop Radio Free Asia case’, 19 June 2019, Open.
In December 2017, Myanmar also saw the high-profile arrest of two Reuters journalists for their investigation into the deaths of Rohingya people by security forces and Buddhist civilians. They were sentenced to seven years in prison for breaching the Official Secrets Act but released after more than 500 days of detention in May 2019. 54Simon Lewis and Shoon Naing, ‘Two Reuters reporters freed in Myanmar after more than 500 days in jail’, Reuters, 7 May 2019, Open.
The general climate of systemic government harassment of journalists in recent years being well established, the military coup of early 2021 also demonstrated another powerful weapon available to the coup leaders: the complete shutdown of the internet. Media workers continue to be arrested, with approximately 50 journalists imprisoned by mid-2021. 55Reporters Without Borders, ‘End “business as usual” with Myanmar’s military torturers, RSF tells 12 multinationals’, 1 July 2021, Open
In February 2021, Telenor, one of the most used mobile telecommunications companies in the country, reported that the government had asked it to temporarily suspend internet services for three months in five Chin and Rakhine townships, citing security reasons and public interest.
The law cited as justification for these restrictions is Article 77 of the Telecommunications Law, which provides that:
The Ministry (of Information) may, when an emergency situation arises to operate for public interest, direct the licensee to suspend a Telecommunications Service, to intercept, not to operate any specific form of communication, to obtain necessary information and communications, and to temporarily control the Telecommunications Service and Telecommunications Equipments. 56Online Burma/Myanmar Library, Myanmar Media Law 2014, Open (accessed 25 July 2021).
On the eve of the coup, the junta imposed a series of internet ‘curfews’, shutting down mobile access for short periods. The crackdown on internet access later progressed to extended shutdowns, then nightly shutdowns. Denial of access to social media platforms escalated in tandem with the expansion of the disabling of mobile networks. In a sign of the government’s methodical increase in control of the digital sphere, the junta recently ordered internet service providers to shut down all wireless broadband services until further notice.
Physical intimidation of journalists had already ramped up in the year before the February 2021 coup. In 2020 there were at least eight recorded instances of journalists being physically intimidated by the armed forces and police. The first occurred in March 2020 when journalists Naw Betty Han of Frontier Myanmar and Ko Mar Naw of Myanmar Times were detained by the Karen Border Guard Force near the Thai–Myanmar border. According to reports, Naw Betty Han had previously reported on the military-backed Karen Border Guard Force. She was in the area working on a land development story with photojournalist Ko Mar Naw when they were arrested by junior members of the Force. Upon their release the next day, both recounted their experiences of physical violence. Two days later, the Force stated that the five soldiers involved had been sanctioned, with one sent to prison for six months.
Later in March 2020, the government declared the Arakan Army a terrorist organisation. Shortly after this announcement, the offices of publications Voice of Myanmar (VOM), Khit Thit News and Narinjara News were raided in relation to their coverage of the announcement because they interviewed members of the Arakan Army. Their journalists’ homes were also raided. Editor in chief of Narinjara News, U Khaing Myat Kyaw, and editor Ko Nay Lin from VOM were charged under the Counter Terrorism Law and faced between 17 years and life in prison if convicted. Charges were dropped against Ko Nay Lin in April 2020 and he was released following intervention by the Myanmar Press Council.
Arrests have proliferated in the six months since the coup, with reports indicating at least 98 journalists have been arrested, with over 40 of those arrested detained in prisons pending trial (most will be prosecuted under Article 505 (a) of the Criminal Code, the ‘fake news’ proviso). 57Reporters Without Borders, ‘The story of how press freedom was crushed in six months in Myanmar,’ 1 July 2021, Open (accessed 7 August 2021). Detained individuals have been held incommunicado for weeks prior to being charged, with military courts adjudicating the criminal charges. The junta has also published and circulated a blacklist of journalists wanted for ‘spreading misinformation’ and has urged the public to inform on the location of the blacklisted. The sheer number of media worker detainees has earned Myanmar the accolade of ‘one of the world’s worst jailers’, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. 58Committee to Protect Journalists, ‘Graphic: Journalists jailed in Myanmar’, 1 July 2021, Open (accessed 7 August 2021).
2020 also saw the repeated use of Article 66 (d) of the Telecommunications Law by the armed forces to curtail coverage of the Rakhine conflict. This article criminalises defamation and can be used to imprison journalists for up to three years. The law permits anyone who was offended by a statement to initiate legal proceedings, rather than just those claiming to be defamed, resulting in frequent use of the article by military actors.
Additionally, authorities have made use of Section 505 A of the Penal Code 59Online Burma/Myanmar Library, Myanmar Penal Code, Open (accessed 25 July 2021). for disseminating information contrary to the interests of the armed forces to suppress views critical of or dissenting from the new regime.
Most media organisations in the Philippines, including print, broadcasting and online media, are privately owned. Many are controlled by prominent families and businesses. Some media outlets, such as RPN/IBC (television) and the Philippine Broadcasting Service (radio), are government-run.
Broadcast media, including television and radio, are the most accessible and popular in the Philippines. In the TV business, two family-owned private companies, ABS-CBN and GMA Network, have had a duopoly for many years. Between them they account for more than 80% of total audience share. 60Reporters Without Borders, ‘Television’, Media Ownership Monitor: Philippines, last updated 18 January 2017, Open. However, the government refused to renew ABS-CBN’s broadcasting licence and the company stopped broadcasting in May 2020. GMA Network’s TV viewership now accounts for more than 50% of audience share. 61Camille Elemia, ‘Fewer viewers, ad options: How ABS-CBN shutdown alters PH media landscape’, Rappler, 26 July 2020, Open.
The Philippines government requires yearly renewal of licences for newspapers. The annual renewal system gives the government the power to act swiftly against organisations perceived as critical of their policy or rule. In terms of daily readership across the nation, The Philippine Daily Inquirer leads the newspaper business. It has more than 2.7 million daily readers nationwide and a market share of over 50%. 62‘About us’, Philippine Daily Inquirer, Open (accessed 25 July 2021). ABS-CBN (prior to its shutdown) and GMA Network are the dominant providers of online news, followed by Yahoo! News and Philippine Daily Inquirer Online. 63Yvonne T. Chua, ‘Philippines’ in Nic Newman, et al (2020), Digital News Report 2020 (Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism), Open.
Among the major media outlets, some are owned by influential religious institutions that are actively expanding their media networks. Three high-profile religious leaders are also owners of influential media outlets: Christian pastor Eduardo Villanueva owns Zoe Broadcasting Network; Pastor Apollo Quiboloy owns Sonshine Media Network International; and Iglesia ni Cristo’s Executive Minister Eduardo Manalo owns INC TV.
In addition to these established media houses, Maria Ressa’s online outfit Rappler has also been a significant new entrant to the news media sector since its establishment in 2012.
While most media organisations in the Philippines are privately owned, the number of TV and radio channels is ultimately limited by the government in each metropolitan area. To broadcast in the Philippines, a media company needs a primary franchise from Congress. Each franchise has a term of 25 years and is subject to renewal.
Formerly a leading media network in the Philippines, ABS-CBN was refused a new broadcasting franchise in July 2020 after its licence expired in May. Founded in 1953, ABS-CBN reached more than 15 million homes on TV, radio and online. It had been actively reporting on the executions without trial that have marked President Rodrigo Duterte’s rule. The president had publicly remarked that the licence would not be renewed, and had accused the media outlet of holding biased views against him.
In 2020, the Duterte administration was criticised for abusing a series of emergency laws, the Resolutions Relative to the Management of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Covid-19) Situation. The laws aimed to prevent reporters from practising journalism. In a resolution released in March 2020, the number of media establishment employees able to work under Covid-19 restrictions was limited to 50% of total staff, including reporters.
In Luzon, the Philippines’ most populous island, reporters are further required to obtain a special press pass from the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) to report during the Covid-19 lockdown. Like many governments worldwide, lockdowns and work from home orders issued to administrative staff meant that all freedom of information requests were suspended during critical stages of the pandemic. Staff in these government offices lacked internet connections, laptops and scanners, and could not perform their roles.
Judicial harassment against journalists in the Philippines has been one of the most prominent threats against press freedom. The Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 is one of the most influential laws that criminalises libel on the internet, including online media outlets and social media. Rappler, one of the few Filipino news websites that openly criticises President Duterte and his ‘war on drugs’, was targeted in 2020. In June, Maria Ressa, CEO and co-founder of Rappler, was found guilty of cyber libel for a story published eight years earlier that alleged businessman Wilfredo Keng had links to illegal drugs and human trafficking. Although the article was first published four months before the law had come into force, the prosecutor argued that a correction of the article in 2014 meant the law could be applied to it.
In addition to the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, a new law called the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act was enacted in March 2020. The act grants President Duterte special powers under the ‘national emergency’ of Covid-19 to penalise ‘individuals or groups creating, perpetuating, or spreading false information regarding the Covid-19 crisis’ on social media and other public platforms with up to two months of prison time and a maximum fine of 1 million pesos (approximately USD 20,000). Radyo Natin Guimba, a local FM radio station that belongs to the Radyo Natin radio network, has been continuously harassed and intimidated by local authorities since April 2020 on the grounds of violating the new law.
Violence and intimidation
Four journalists were killed in the Philippines in 2020, with two deaths occurring in November alone. Three of the victims were shot dead by gunmen on motorcycles. The fourth journalist was shot following an alleged ‘encounter’ with a soldier on an island in the Masbate province, where three other journalists have been killed since 2003.
During Duterte’s time in power, a total of 19 journalists have been murdered. 64‘19 journos killed in 4 years of Duterte admin – watchdog’, ABS-CBN News, 23 November 2020, Open. When Duterte was sworn in as president in 2016, he gave an infamous warning to journalists that they were a legitimate target of assassination if they ‘have done something wrong’. 65Curt Mills, ‘New Filipino president: Shoot corrupt journalists’, U.S. News & World Report, 1 June 2016, Open.
Intimidation is common for journalists working in the Philippines. Of 36 cases being monitored by CIVICUS, a South African civil society group, in 2020, half involved intimidation against journalists in the form of unwarranted arrests, police raids on media offices or journalists’ homes, or death threats sent directly to journalists from unknown sources. These intimidations were rarely resolved – more than half of the journalists murdered during Duterte’s rule had received threats or survived prior assassination attempts before they were killed.
Media ownership in Singapore is strictly regulated by the People’s Action Party (PAP) government. There are two media conglomerates in Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) dominates the print industry and MediaCorp dominates broadcasting.
All the major newspapers in Singapore belong to SPH. Although the company is not state-owned, it was traditionally closely tied to the government. The government had the power to select who obtained management shares, including who would be president of SPH. In May 2021, SPH announced that it would restructure its media business into a company limited by guarantee, a not-for-profit status. The change, driven by an inability to offset advertising and print circulation losses as consumers moved to digital access, will also remove restrictions imposed by the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act. Previous limits on shareholder ownership, which required that the aggregation of more than 5% ownership be approved by the Minister for Communications and Information, will no longer apply.
All the radio and TV channels in Singapore are either wholly or partially owned by the government. Singapore’s major broadcasting programs are owned by MediaCorp, which is 100% owned by Temasek, a state-owned investment agency. There are also a handful of independent news outlets like New Naratif, an online news site established in 2017.
Contempt laws have been used by the Singaporean government to curtail reporting about the judicial system and about politically sensitive matters. The Administration of Justice (Protection) Act 2016 (AJPA) is the primary legislation involving allegations of contempt of court. The act is applied to various contempt of court cases (wrongful interference in the administration of justice, scandalising the judiciary, contempt in the face of the court) while the level of risks of actual prejudice to court proceedings may be underappreciated by individuals later charged with the offence.
In March 2020, Terry Xu, editor of independent online news website The Online Citizen (TOC), and another TOC writer were investigated for contempt of court under AJPA for publishing part of the affidavit of Mohan Rajangam, a Singaporean who challenged the legality of his extradition from Malaysia in 2015. The police also raided Xu’s home and confiscated his electronics.
In addition to the contempt investigation, the government ordered an injunction targeting TOC in April 2020 for breaching the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulations Act (POFMA). Quoting POFMA, a fake news law passed in 2019, the authorities demanded TOC issue a correction notice for falsely reporting the salary of Ho Ching, chief executive of Temasek Holdings and the wife of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. POFMA has also been used against bloggers, as well as YouTube and Facebook users.
POFMA came into effect in October 2019. Ostensibly a law to address the communication of falsehoods, the act forces media platforms and digital platforms to post corrections to any content deemed incorrect by the relevant minister. The act also empowers the government to impose blocking orders, which force internet service providers to disable access to declared online locations in Singapore where a deemed falsehood is being communicated.
Recent actions under POFMA have included posting a clarification about alleged police bullying, and accusations against a member of the political opposition who had questioned investments made by two Singaporean sovereign wealth funds.
The Media Development Authority is responsible for the development and regulation of all media content in the island state. They have carte blanche to censor content related to ‘out of bounds’ topics that journalists are forbidden from covering under threat of a variety of legal mechanisms. The two most common legal mechanisms used for this are defamation suits and sedition charges where public figures are involved.
Market competition within the South Korean media industry has grown since the nation’s democratisation in the late 1980s. Nevertheless, the sector remains dominated by vertically integrated oligopolistic media groups, a result of the 2010 amendment to the Broadcasting Act that deregulated media cross-ownership.
In the newspaper market, there were 147 daily newspapers in the country in 2015 (a reduction of about 50% from 2009 levels). 66Eli M Noam (ed), Who Owns the World’s Media?: Media Concentration and Ownership Around the World. The three largest publishers, collectively known as the ‘Chojoongdong’ – The Chosun Daily, JoongAng Daily and The Dong-A Ilbo – account for 64% of market share. 67Ibid. See references. As with many other industries in South Korea, the three newspapers are controlled by politically conservative, family-owned business groups. The more prominent progressive papers are Hankyoreh and Kyunghyang Shinmun, each accounting for around 5% of market circulation. Both are cooperatives fully or partially owned by their employees.
The broadcast media market is highly concentrated. The non-profit Foundation of Broadcast Culture owns Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation and the government owns the Korean Broadcasting System. Together they have 56% of the radio market and 68% of the broadcast TV market. Seoul Broadcasting System, owned by SBS Media Holdings, has 18% of the broadcast TV market and 10% of the radio market. Tboard (26% market share) and CJ Hellovision (22%) 68CJ Hellovision has since been purchased by LG Uplus and rebranded as LG Hellovision. See Yeo Jun-suk, ‘LG Uplus to acquire CJ Hellovision for W800b’, The Korea Herald, 14 February 2019, Open. lead in the cable TV market. CJ Hellovision also owns CJ Entertainment, which had 36% of film market revenue in 2011. This illustrates the vertical integration of Korean media. 69Eli M Noam (ed), Who Owns the World’s Media?: Media Concentration and Ownership Around the World. Another example is that JTBC, a cable TV channel owned by JoongAng Daily, was the second most used traditional news source in 2020. 70Nic Newman, et al, Digital News Report 2020, p. 102.
Traditional publishers have been challenged by online media outlets in the last decade. Chief among them have been two privately owned domestic internet portals, Naver and Daum. In 2020, 66% of South Koreans accessed news from Naver; for Daum, the figure was 34%. Daum’s owner, Kakao Corporation, also owns Kakao Talk, the top instant messaging app in the country. Nearly half of South Koreans (44%) also use YouTube to follow the news. 71Ibid, p. 147.
Media ownership by religious institutes is not uncommon in South Korea. Yoido Full Gospel Church owns Kookmin Ilbo and the Unification Church owns Segye Times. Christian Broadcasting System, which had a 14% market share in 2010, is a Protestant channel. 72Eli M Noam (ed), Who Owns the World’s Media?: Media Concentration and Ownership Around the World.
The South Korean government has been known to use defamation and insult laws to silence dissenting voices at times. Despite President Moon Jae-in’s earlier career in human rights law, nearly one-fifth of civil libel suits against media outlets in 2019 involved senior officials, more than with the disgraced former administration. 73‘South Korea’s liberal rulers unleash their inner authoritarians’, The Economist, 20 August 2020, Open. In August 2019, the president’s office lodged a complaint against a JoongAng Ilbo columnist for accusing the President and First Lady of frequently using official overseas tours for tourist sightseeing. It then appealed the journalist’s acquittal in July 2020. 74Kim Chae-rin, ‘Can a newspaper column cause great harm to the national interest?’, KBS News, 17 July 2020, Open [Korean-language site].
Defamation remains both a civil and criminal offence in South Korea. Conviction can result in up to seven years imprisonment. 75Korean Law Information Center, Open (accessed 25 July 2021). The South Korean defamation regime is also unique in that an individual may be found guilty of libel or slander even if what is exposed to the public is unequivocally true. Article 307(1) of the Criminal Code threatens anyone who defames another by publicly alleging facts with two years of prison. While there is a truth defence under Article 310, the allegation must also be solely motivated by public interest. This discourages whistleblowing and reports of corruption because the press bears the burden of proof when the very nature of corruption renders collection and public disclosure of sufficient evidence difficult.
In July 2020, journalist Woo Jong-chang was sentenced to eight months’ imprisonment for defamation. 76Reporters Without Borders, ‘RSF calls for the release of South Korean journalist jailed for defamation’, 18 August 2020, Open. He had implied in a YouTube video that the corruption trial of former President Park Geun-hye could have been influenced by a dinner between Cho Kuk, the former Minister of Justice in President Moon’s cabinet, and one of the trial judges. He could not prove his allegations and was convicted.
The National Security Act (NSA) continues to encroach upon coverage and public discussion of inter-Korean relations and policies. Article 7(1) outlaws praise, incitement or propagation of the activities of an anti-government organisation. 77Korean Law Information Center, Open (accessed 25 July 2021). The wide scope discourages press coverage that may appear sympathetic or favourable to North Korea. For example, in March 2019 a Bloomberg journalist was accused of treason by the ruling Minjoo Party for reporting about an opposing congresswoman’s remarks suggesting President Moon was a spokesperson for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. 78Seoul Foreign Correspondents’ Club, ‘Statement’, Facebook, 16 March 2019, Open.
Yet with President Moon’s conciliatory stance towards North Korea, the authorities have demonstrated greater restraint in invoking the NSA. The rate of national security cases resulting in prosecution has substantially dropped, falling from 43% in 2014 to just 1% in 2018. 79Lee Jeong-bok, ‘Wen government’s prosecution rate for violating the National Security Act is only 1%’, Daejeon Today, 21 October 2019 Open [Korean-language site].
This shift away from using legal sanctions to enforce national security, coupled with the new political climate, has raised questions over whether the law should remain in effect. Top officials have openly commended Kim Jong-un and the North Korea regime during official visits, which in principle violates the NSA. The severe penalties prescribed under the NSA, including possible capital punishment, only strengthens resistance to the law, which is seen by critics as the product of a bygone era when inter-Korean relations were more volatile.
On the other hand, the administration’s decision to placate Pyongyang has resulted in cross-border dissemination of anti-North Korean press being suppressed. In June 2020, the Unification Ministry filed a criminal complaint against two non-governmental organisations over leaflet drops, citing violations of aviation safety and public waters management. 80Tae-jun Kang, ‘South Korea faces domestic, international criticism over anti-Pyongyang leaflet crackdown’, The Diplomat, 12 June 2020, Open. In December 2020, the South Korean parliament passed an amendment to the Development of Inter-Korean Relations Act to forbid the delivery of printed materials across the border, subject to a maximum fine of 30 million won (approximately USD 26,000) and three years imprisonment. 81Hyonhee Shin, ‘South Korea bans anti-North leaflets; defector says he won’t stop’, Reuters, 15 December 2020, Open. The bill attracted both domestic and international censure, 82For example, see ‘Government says the Korean people are the world’s worst dictator’s brother and sister’, Chosun Ilbo, 11 June 2020, Open [Korean-language site]. but the government maintained the amendment was necessary for the safety of residents near the border. 83Kang Seung-woo, ‘Foreign minister defends law banning propaganda leaflets’, The Korea Times, 17 December 2020, Open.
Despite retaining the ability to jail journalists under existing defamation laws, South Korea has topped Asia in Reporters Without Borders’s World Press Freedom Index ranking for the past three years (2019–2021 inclusive).
A traumatic past of repression under martial law has left subsequent Taiwanese administrations unwilling to intervene in the free workings of the press. The press freedom Taiwan enjoys today has a direct relationship with the end of the propaganda days of ‘White Terror’ and the implementation of democratic rule. However, business and partisan interests have filled this vacuum and taken ownership of nearly all media organisations, often putting a heavy emphasis on commercial viability and propaganda over principled, independent journalism.
Taiwan has multiple 24-hour news broadcasters, more than 10 printed daily newspapers, and countless competitive media outlets. Legislation prohibits direct ownership of media properties by mainland Chinese entities or individuals without the government’s approval. As such, Taiwan consistently ranks favourably in regional press-freedom rankings.
Due to the government’s reluctance to intervene in the organisation of media platforms, there is a lack of separation between corporate boardrooms and editorial newsrooms. Business and partisan politics are given free rein to influence media coverage, leading to polarisation and commercial incentives that threaten the public perception of the press as independent and trustworthy.
Public mistrust of the press opens opportunities for bad-faith actors to spread disinformation. Mainland Chinese influence on information streams is noticeable. While the Taiwanese public’s unfavourable opinion of China can limit this influence, restoring trust in the media is necessary to prevent disinformation campaigns from causing further harm. But business owners with interests in China remain vulnerable. Although Taiwan bans state advertising in local media, it permits commercial advertising by China-based non-state entities. Criticism of China in this regard can be costly.
In May 2019, the country’s National Security Bureau (NSB) confirmed through a report to the legislature that one of the sources of fake news and disinformation in Taiwan’s information space is local media co-opted by China. This marked the first confirmation by an official intelligence source in Taiwan that China had co-opted some local media and had spread fake news concerning political candidates, among other things.
In Thailand, the state owns the largest television networks. 84Eli M Noam (ed), Who Owns the World’s Media?: Media Concentration and Ownership Around the World. Thai TV3 and ModerNine (Channel 9) are operated by the Mass Communications Organization of Thailand (MCOT), a public agency. TV5 and BBTV Channel 7 are owned by the Royal Thai Army.
Radio ownership, particularly in Bangkok, is diversified. There are more than 60 stations in and around the capital, and more than 500 nationally. Nevertheless, the state maintains control over some major stations. Radio Thailand is a national network and external service operated by the National Broadcasting Services of Thailand (NBT), a government department. MCOT and the army also operate their own radio stations. Community radio stations exist, but the state may cite interference with existing frequencies as justification to shut down community stations that criticise the junta.
By comparison, print media is largely owned by private interests. Mainstream newspapers, including Kom Chad Luek, Khaosod, Daily News and Thai Rath, are all privately owned. Thai Rath and Daily News together account for half of Thailand’s newspaper sales. 85Ibid. See references.
The digital media landscape is mainly populated by privately owned traditional media migrating online, such as Khaosod English, owned by the Matichon Publishing Group. Also notable among them is the Bangkok Post, which has the Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post as one of its major shareholders. Prachatai English is an outlier as a non-profit, daily web newspaper. Facebook and YouTube remain the most popular social media platforms in Thailand, with approximately 94% of citizens identifying them as their most visited platforms. 86Hootsuite & We Are Social, ‘Digital 2021: Thailand’, Datareportal, 11 February 2021 Open.
Article 326 of the Thai Criminal Code forbids communication to a third party in a manner likely to harm the reputation of a person or to expose such person to being hated or scorned. Sentences for conviction range from imprisonment not exceeding one year and/or a fine not exceeding TBH 20,000 (approximately USD 600) up to two years imprisonment and/or a fine of TBH 200,000 (USD 6,000).
Powerful firms in Thailand have frequently invoked criminal defamation to silence reporters and rights activists. In December 2019, Suchanee Cloitre, a Voice TV reporter, was sentenced to two years of imprisonment for libel by describing the work conditions of 14 migrant Myanmar workers as ‘slave labour’ in a tweet. The workers won a court case in 2016 after having been forced to work 20 hours a day for at least 40 consecutive days for less than the minimum wage and no overtime compensation. Their employer Thammakaset, a supplier of poultry to Thai agri-business giant Betagro, filed the criminal complaint against Suchanee and 19 other workers, activists and journalists. 87Jack Burton, ‘Thai reporter sentenced to 2 years jail over Twitter comment’, The Thaiger, 26 December 2019, Open.
In these cases, the verdict or penalty is rarely the point. Rather, complainants are typically looking to harass journalists with criminal procedures. Foreign correspondents are especially vulnerable. Once they have been charged, they have to surrender their passports and are stripped of their work visas. They have to renew their temporary visas every 60 days and retrieve their passports from the police every time. Court proceedings can last for years and legal costs are often prohibitive.
Andy Hall, a British rights activist, alleged abuse of migrant workers in Thai pineapple exporter Natural Fruit’s factory and has faced criminal defamation charges since 2013. When Hall was finally acquitted of criminal defamation by the Supreme Court in June 2020, he said, ‘After years of ongoing judicial harassment that has taken a heavy toll on me, my family and my colleagues, the verdict does not feel like a victory.’ 88‘Supreme Court acquits activist in defamation case’, Bangkok Post, 30 June 2020, Open.
Journalists publishing reports online are also susceptible to being found liable under the Computer Crime Act. Article 14 criminalises the uploading of forged or false data that may cause damage to third parties; may endanger national security, public security, economic stability or public services; or may cause public panic. Article 20 empowers the authorities to remove data that constitutes a criminal offence or threatens national security.
While Article 14 was intended to prosecute online scammers, the vague provisions have opened the door for the authorities to punish dissidents and government critics. Article 14 is wide in scope, allowing it to catch private correspondence and unpublished materials once they are digitised. In 2016, administrators of a Facebook group in which the prime minister was mocked were abducted by soldiers and charged under Article 14. Incriminating materials included their private Facebook messages. 89Sasiwan Mokkhasen, ‘Why Thailand should worry about an improved (?) Computer Crime Act’, Khaosod English, 17 November 2016, Open.
Infection control and emergency measures meet Computer Crimes Act
In 2020, the Thai government employed infection control as a pretext to keep a tight rein on the media. A state of emergency was declared in March 2020. The state of emergency barred reporting false information and empowered authorities to order media outlets to correct reports and to pursue charges against journalists under the Computer Crime Act. 90‘Thailand declares state of emergency, imposes press restrictions’, Committee to Protect Journalists, 26 March 2020, Open.
The emergency decree has been used beyond its ostensible purpose of infection control to suppress coverage of anti-government assemblies. In October, the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society ordered Voice TV to be shut down for broadcasting false information in its live coverage of the student-led protests. The ministry also ordered the shutdown of a Facebook page run by pro-democracy activists. 91‘Court orders ban on some VoiceTV content’, Bangkok Post, 20 October 2020, Open. The police also investigated The Reporter, The Standard and Prachathai for their protest coverage on the suspicion of breaking emergency measures. 92‘Police in Thailand to investigate media over protests coverage’, Al Jazeera, 19 October 2020, Open. The Criminal Court repealed the order one day later, citing the constitutional protection of media freedom. 93‘Court overturns order to shut down 4 online media sites’, Khaosod English, 21 October 2020, Open.
Reporters have also been arrested on protest sites. Kitti Pantapak, a Prachatai correspondent, was reportedly arrested while covering the police crackdown in Bangkok in October while wearing a press armband from the Thai Journalists Association. The police also confiscated his camera. 94‘Prachatai reporter arrested while covering police crackdown’, Prachatai English, 16 October 2020, Open.
Meanwhile in March 2020, street artist Danai Ussama was arrested for causing panic with a Facebook post that expressed a concern that Thailand’s largest airport lacked Covid-19 screening measures for arriving passengers beyond a ceiling-mounted infrared camera. 95‘Traveler arrested for saying BKK airport didn’t screen for Covid-19’, Coconuts Bangkok, 24 March 2020, Open.
Lèse majesté laws
Thailand’s lèse majesté law is wide in scope. Sections 107–112 of the Criminal Code, B.E. 2499 (1956) specifies offences against the King, Queen, Heir-apparent and Regent. In particular, Section 112 applies to whoever ‘defames, insults or threatens’ the royal family with imprisonment up to 15 years. The equivocal description of the offending acts and the severe penalty have chilled criticism of the royal family and reinforced the long-standing taboo of speaking out against the monarchy.
Problems also lie in its enforcement. According to Lawyers for Human Rights, the law was only invoked sparingly before the 2014 coup, and the then-monarch Bhumibol readily pardoned the majority of defendants. According to Thai non-governmental organisation Internet for People Law Project, since the ultra-royalist junta seized power at least 70 people have been prosecuted under Article 112. 96iLaw, Open (accessed 25 July 2021). Perhaps the most unusual of charges involved the online sharing of a satirical image of the late monarch’s dog in 2015. Coverage of the incident was so sensitive that the local printer of the New York Times blocked publication of the article. 97Andrew Buncombe, ‘Thai printers withhold New York Times edition because of “sensitive” article about King Bhumibol’s health and succession’, The Independent, 22 September 2015, Open.
In June 2020, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha claimed that King Vajiralongkorn had instructed the government not to use article 112 to prosecute civilians. 98Erich Parpart and Cod Satrusayang, ‘Prayut said HM King told him not to use lese majeste laws against civilians; opposition calls for its abolishing’, Thai Enquirer, 15 June 2020, Open. This claim did little to ease people’s fears, as the administration continued to disregard petitions to abolish the lèse majesté law. In a November statement, Prayut threatened to use ‘all laws, all articles’ to take action against pro-democracy protesters, prompting speculation that the lèse majesté laws may be revived. 99Rebecca Ratcliffe, ‘Thai PM threatens to use “all laws” against pro-democracy protesters’, The Guardian, 19 November 2020, Open. In the meantime, mainstream Thai media is reported to have self-censored any reference to reforming the monarchy during the unrest in 2020.
With the Computer Crimes Act 100Marwaan Macan-Markar, ‘Thai pullback from lese-majeste leaves censorship in another guise’, Nikkei Asia, 19 June 2020, Open. at its disposal, any suspended enforcement of the lèse majesté law is of limited practical significance. Article 15 imposes criminal liability on ‘service providers’, which was widely interpreted to include any services that enable any communication violating Article 14 via a computer system. As such, social media companies can be compelled to cooperate with the authorities under threat of criminal sanction.
In August 2020, the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society ordered Facebook to shut down the group ‘Royalist Marketplace’, which had more than one million users routinely sharing grievances against the monarchy, along with 660 other accounts. When Facebook lambasted the demand as a violation of international human rights law, the ministry began court proceedings against the platform and Twitter for failing to fully comply with the order, the first such instance between a Southeast Asian nation and social media giants.
With the Communist Party of Vietnam’s ban on all private media, local media is strictly controlled by the state. According to Article 6 of the 1990 Press Law (updated most recently in 2016), the state grants permits to all press organisations and can revoke those permits. Independent media in Vietnam is therefore limited to independent journalists, bloggers and citizen journalists.
Supervised by the Ministry of Culture and Information, all the broadcasting media outlets in Vietnam are state-owned. The national TV network, Vietnam Television, runs nine channels in the country. Another five channels are run by Vietnam Multimedia Corporation, or Vietnam Television Corporation, which is a state enterprise owned by the Vietnam Ministry of Post and Telematics. With almost all cities and provinces having their own radio stations, Vietnam’s radio network is more established than its television sector. Voice of Vietnam is the state-run national radio broadcaster.
Almost all newspapers in Vietnam are owned or controlled by the Communist Party of Vietnam, government authorities or the army. The government considers newspapers to be a key instrument for disseminating state policies. Among the hundreds of newspapers in the country, several have attempted to become financially independent. These include Thanh Niên (an official organ of the Vietnam United Youth League) and Tuoi Tre (owned by the Youth Union of the Communist Party of Vietnam).
Foreign journalists and media workers are allowed to work in Vietnam under restrictions on where and what they can report. Foreign journalists are required to obtain a non-resident journalist licence issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The licence is valid for a maximum of 12 months. 101The Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Press Law, Clause 6, Article 56, World Intellectual Property Organization, Open. However, the non-resident journalist licence does not guarantee free reporting on all topics. Journalists working for foreign media houses are required to send documents to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before interviewing senior leaders or carrying out press activities. 102Ibid, Clause 7, Article 56.
Criminalisation and detention
Article 15 of the 1992 Constitution recognised the right to free speech. However, criticism of the government can be labelled espionage and violators can face long jail terms according to the Constitution and the 2015 Criminal Code. There are multiple provisions in the code that criminalise sedition. Article 117, which criminalises critics against the government, is most commonly used to silence journalists. Article 118 criminalises incitements against government officials and agencies. It has been used to prosecute bloggers and citizen journalists.
Detention for arrested journalists can last for years, in disregard of fundamental human rights such as the presumption of innocence and fair trial rights, as well as the right to trial without undue delay. In 2020, Le Anh Hung, a Vietnamese blogger detained since 2018, was transferred to a psychiatric hospital where he has faced physical abuse while awaiting trial. 103US Agency for Global Media, ‘Le Anh Hung’, Open (accessed 25 July 2021).
Independent journalists in Vietnam are most vulnerable to judicial harassment. At least 15 independent journalists were arrested or detained in 2020, 104Committee to Protect Journalists, ‘15 Journalists Imprisoned in Vietnam’, Open (accessed 25 July 2021). including four leading members of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam, the country’s first social organisation to promote press freedom. 105The 88 Project For Free Speech in Vietnam, Open (accessed 25 July 2021).
Vietnam passed the Law on Cybersecurity in 2019. The law allows the state to force private companies to disclose users’ personal information and to censor online information at the government’s request. Aside from posing huge risks for independent journalists and bloggers, the law also applied to international companies operating in the country.
According to a series of exclusive reports from Reuters, Facebook was one of the companies forced to take down ‘anti-state’ content posted by users in Vietnam. In April 2020, Facebook’s local server in Vietnam was taken down until the company reached an agreement with the government to increase censorship on politically sensitive content. The social media platform – with about 60 million users in Vietnam – faces ongoing threats from the government to completely shut down its services in the country.
The government has also used the law to crack down on alleged ‘fake news’ in the country. In March 2020, the authorities summoned 654 Facebook users and imposed fines on 146 of them for posts relating to Covid-19.
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Eli M Noam (ed), Who Owns the World’s Media?: Media Concentration and Ownership Around the World.
Nic Newman, et al, Digital News Report 2020, p. 102.
Ibid, p. 147.
Eli M Noam (ed), Who Owns the World’s Media?: Media Concentration and Ownership Around the World.
‘South Korea’s liberal rulers unleash their inner authoritarians’, The Economist, 20 August 2020, https://www.economist.com/asia/2020/08/20/south-koreas-liberal-rulers-unleash-their-inner-authoritarians.
Kim Chae-rin, ‘Can a newspaper column cause great harm to the national interest?’, KBS News, 17 July 2020, https://news.kbs.co.kr/news/view.do?ncd=4496629 [Korean-language site].
Korean Law Information Center, https://www.law.go.kr/LSW/eng/engLsSc.do?menuId=2§ion=bdyText&query=defames+another&x=36&y=27#EJ307:0 (accessed 25 July 2021).
Reporters Without Borders, ‘RSF calls for the release of South Korean journalist jailed for defamation’, 18 August 2020, https://rsf.org/en/news/rsf-calls-release-south-korean-journalist-jailed-defamation.
Korean Law Information Center, https://www.law.go.kr/LSW/eng/engLsSc.do?menuId=2§ion=lawNm&query=national+security&x=0&y=0#EJ7:0 (accessed 25 July 2021).
Seoul Foreign Correspondents’ Club, ‘Statement’, Facebook, 16 March 2019, https://www.facebook.com/SeoulFCC/posts/1967598083362107.
Lee Jeong-bok, ‘Wen government’s prosecution rate for violating the National Security Act is only 1%’, Daejeon Today, 21 October 2019 http://www.daejeontoday.com/news/articleView.html?idxno=573617 [Korean-language site].
Tae-jun Kang, ‘South Korea faces domestic, international criticism over anti-Pyongyang leaflet crackdown’, The Diplomat, 12 June 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/06/south-korea-faces-domestic-international-criticism-over-anti-pyongyang-leaflet-crackdown/.
Hyonhee Shin, ‘South Korea bans anti-North leaflets; defector says he won’t stop’, Reuters, 15 December 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-southkorea-idUSKBN28O1OI.
For example, see ‘Government says the Korean people are the world’s worst dictator’s brother and sister’, Chosun Ilbo, 11 June 2020, http://news.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2020/06/10/2020061004676.html [Korean-language site].
Kang Seung-woo, ‘Foreign minister defends law banning propaganda leaflets’, The Korea Times, 17 December 2020, http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2020/12/103_301047.html.
Eli M Noam (ed), Who Owns the World’s Media?: Media Concentration and Ownership Around the World.
Hootsuite & We Are Social, ‘Digital 2021: Thailand’, Datareportal, 11 February 2021 https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2021-thailand.
Jack Burton, ‘Thai reporter sentenced to 2 years jail over Twitter comment’, The Thaiger, 26 December 2019, https://thethaiger.com/news/national/thai-reporter-sentenced-to-2-years-jail-over-twitter-comment.
‘Supreme Court acquits activist in defamation case’, Bangkok Post, 30 June 2020, https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/general/1943516/supreme-court-acquits-activist-in-defamation-case.
Sasiwan Mokkhasen, ‘Why Thailand should worry about an improved (?) Computer Crime Act’, Khaosod English, 17 November 2016, https://www.khaosodenglish.com/politics/2016/11/17/thailand-worry-improved-computer-crime-act/.
‘Thailand declares state of emergency, imposes press restrictions’, Committee to Protect Journalists, 26 March 2020, https://cpj.org/2020/03/thailand-declares-state-of-emergency-imposes-press/.
‘Court orders ban on some VoiceTV content’, Bangkok Post, 20 October 2020, https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/politics/2005251/court-orders-ban-on-some-voicetv-content.
‘Police in Thailand to investigate media over protests coverage’, Al Jazeera, 19 October 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/19/police-in-thailand-to-investigate-media-over-protests-coverage.
‘Court overturns order to shut down 4 online media sites’, Khaosod English, 21 October 2020, https://www.khaosodenglish.com/news/crimecourtscalamity/2020/10/21/court-overturns-order-to-shut-down-4-online-media-sites/.
‘Prachatai reporter arrested while covering police crackdown’, Prachatai English, 16 October 2020, https://prachatai.com/english/node/8848.
‘Traveler arrested for saying BKK airport didn’t screen for Covid-19’, Coconuts Bangkok, 24 March 2020, https://coconuts.co/bangkok/news/traveler-arrested-for-saying-bkk-airport-didnt-screen-for-covid-19/.
iLaw, https://freedom.ilaw.or.th/en/node/815 (accessed 25 July 2021).
Andrew Buncombe, ‘Thai printers withhold New York Times edition because of “sensitive” article about King Bhumibol’s health and succession’, The Independent, 22 September 2015, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/thai-printers-withhold-new-york-times-edition-because-sensitive-article-about-king-bhumibol-s-health-and-succession-10512781.html.
Erich Parpart and Cod Satrusayang, ‘Prayut said HM King told him not to use lese majeste laws against civilians; opposition calls for its abolishing’, Thai Enquirer, 15 June 2020, https://www.thaienquirer.com/14457/prayut-said-hm-king-told-him-not-to-use-lese-majeste-laws-against-civilians-opposition-calls-for-its-abolishing/.
Rebecca Ratcliffe, ‘Thai PM threatens to use “all laws” against pro-democracy protesters’, The Guardian, 19 November 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/nov/19/thai-pm-threatens-to-use-all-laws-against-pro-democracy-protesters.
Marwaan Macan-Markar, ‘Thai pullback from lese-majeste leaves censorship in another guise’, Nikkei Asia, 19 June 2020, https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/Turbulent-Thailand/Thai-pullback-from-lese-majeste-leaves-censorship-in-another-guise.
The Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Press Law, Clause 6, Article 56, World Intellectual Property Organization, https://www.wipo.int/edocs/lexdocs/laws/en/vn/vn111en.pdf.
Ibid, Clause 7, Article 56.
US Agency for Global Media, ‘Le Anh Hung’, https://www.usagm.gov/news-and-information/threats-to-press/le-anh-hung/ (accessed 25 July 2021).
Committee to Protect Journalists, ‘15 Journalists Imprisoned in Vietnam’, https://cpj.org/data/imprisoned/2020/?status=Imprisoned&cc_fips%5B%5D=VM&start_year=2020&end_year=2020&group_by=location (accessed 25 July 2021).
The 88 Project For Free Speech in Vietnam, https://the88project.org/incident-group/30/crackdown-against-members-of--the-independent-journalists-association-of-vietnam/ (accessed 25 July 2021).