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Southeast Asia’s media suppression hiding in plain sight

In parallel signals that press freedom remains under duress in parts of Southeast Asia, courts in Cambodia and Myanmar recently ordered reruns of cases against prominent journalists.

The decisions, announced within days of each other in late September and early October, came as other countries in the region weighed up new laws concerning freedom of speech.

On Sept. 30, a court in the central Myanmar city of Mandalay ordered a re-hearing in a lawsuit against Swe Win, the editor of local news publication Myanmar Now, who was accused of defaming a prominent Buddhist monk. Then on Oct. 2 a judge in Phnom Penh ordered a reinvestigation of former Radio Free Asia journalists Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin, who are facing between seven and 15 years in jail over charges of espionage and the production of pornography.

On the day of the Cambodia announcement, Sothearin told reporters outside the court that he was “very disappointed” with the prospect of reinvestigation, which local civil society groups said showed that the charges were politically-motivated in the first place.

Both the Cambodian and Myanmar decisions mean a double prolongation of cases that otherwise had looked to have run aground, and Rohit Mahajan, RFA’s vice president of communications and external relations said that the Cambodian case decision was “an admission of there being no real evidence to convict.”

“The charges should be dropped immediately,” Mahajan said, in comments to LICAS News. “Rather than just acquit these individuals for no wrongdoing after they’ve suffered a two-year ordeal, the court is dragging out an unjust prosecution.”

The Myanmar ruling came after the court earlier this year threw out the case against Swe Win, after witnesses repeatedly failed to show up in court.

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When the prospect of reviving the seemingly-defunct case re-emerged, the Committee to Protect Journalists, a non-governmental organisation that pushes for press freedom, stated that “Myanmar’s courts should stop hearing frivolous cases that aim only to threaten, harass, and silence journalists.”

A file image of Swe Win, the editor of Myanmar Now, being escorted to a court by police in Mandalay on July 31, 2017 because of a controversial law often wielded against the press in Myanmar. (AFP photo)

Swe Win, an award-winning journalist who was a political prisoner during Myanmar’s junta era, was accused of defaming Wirathu, a Buddhist monk now on the run after being charged with sedition and insulting Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s effective leader.

Wirathu has long fomented anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar — a toxic groundswell that arguably culminated in the military driving hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingya into Bangladesh in 2016 and 2017. The accusations against Swe Win stem from his posting on Facebook of a Myanmar Now news report about Wirathu’s gloating reaction to the early 2017 assassination at Yangon’s airport of Ko Ni, a prominent Muslim lawyer.

The former RFA pair were arrested during the Cambodian government’s 2017 crackdown on media and on the parliamentary opposition, a tumultuous few weeks in which RFA closed its Phnom Penh bureau and the long-running English-language newspaper The Cambodia Daily did likewise after being hit with a hefty tax bill.

In September that year, Kem Sokha, one of two opposition leaders, was arrested on charges of treason, accused of colluding with the U.S. to oust the pro-China Cambodian People’s Party government. In 2018 the long-ruling CPP won all 125 seats in parliamentary elections, effectively returning Cambodia to single-party rule.

In the meantime, Sam Rainsy, the other main opposition leader, has said he will return to Cambodia next month in defiance of a conviction for defamation. Hun Sen has said he will use the army to prevent Rainsy from carrying out his promised “popular uprising,” with recent weeks seeing the arrest of dozens of Cambodians linked to the now-dismantled opposition group, the Cambodian National Rescue Party.

The latest RFA court ruling came also as Cambodia awaits the European Union’s verdict on whether to revoke trade privileges that allow unfettered access to the 28-country market, vital to Cambodia’s multibillion-dollar garment and footwear sector, which employs hundreds of thousands of the country’s 16.2 million people.

Meanwhile on Oct. 2 a “fake news” law came into force in Singapore, where de facto restrictions on freedom of the press have long been applied by a litigious leadership and where international media — many of which have long favored the city-state as a location for regional headquarters — have been cowed by lawsuits over articles about the country’s rulers.

Singapore is using the new law to force the likes of Facebook and Twitter, two crucial gateways to news stories published online, to flag content deemed as false by Singaporean officials. The Asia Internet Coalition, an industry body made up of giants such as Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, stated it hopes the law “will be enforced with transparency and fairness” but pledged “to reduce [misinformation’s] prevalence and harmful impact, to jointly address risks, while protecting meaningful public discourse.”

Thailand retains possibly the world’s most restrictive and punitive lèse-majesté laws, which prohibit criticism of the monarch and can result in offending social media users being punished with up to 15 years in jail which creates usually fawning press coverage of the country’s royals.

Vietnamese activist La Viet Dung holds up a phone with the screen displaying an open letter to Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg in Hanoi on April 10, 2018. A group of 50 Vietnamese activists and rights organizations wrote an open letter to Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg suggesting his company may be colluding with communist authorities to scrub out online dissent. (AFP photo)

In Vietnam, as in Myanmar, charges have been made against dozens of people over Facebook posts — with the Sept. 23 arrest of activist Nguyen Quoc Duc Vuong the latest in the ongoing crackdown.

“In many of Radio Free Asia’s broadcast countries, we have seen the use of media laws as a tool of the state to silence a free press and legitimate independent voices,” said RFA’s Mahajan, looking at the regional picture.

And in the region’s two biggest countries and arguably liveliest democracies, there are worrying signs for press freedom. Indonesian lawmakers sparked protests last month with a proposed revision to the criminal code which would curb perceived criticism of the president, while the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines has been at odds with the country’s news media since before his inauguration in 2016 — a face-off that echoes the bitter “fake news” Punch and Judy show that has characterized the relationship between U.S. President Donald Trump and American media.

Going against the regional grain, on Oct. 9 Malaysian lawmakers revoked a so-called “anti-fake news” law drawn up under the ousted administration of former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is now facing multiple charges of corruption and abuse of power. The fake news law was widely seen as an attempt by Najib to stymie reporting of corruption and to effectively cash in on rhetoric popularized by President Trump.

The revocation has been widely welcomed though with caveats that Malaysia nonetheless retains laws that restrict the press, such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, which came into force — with its unwittingly-evocative titling — during current Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s first spell as head of government.

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