Underneath the Autocrats: First IFJ South East Asia Media Report launched

Today, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the South East Asia Journalist Unions (SEAJU) launch the first ever IFJ Media Freedom Report for South East Asia. Underneath the Autocrats: A Report into Impunity, Journalist Safety and Working Conditions is the first major collaboration by IFJ and SEAJU in the region.

Reuters journalist Wa Lone outside court in Myanmar during his trial for breaching the Official Secrets Act. Credit: Steve Tickner

The IFJ Asia Pacific’s Acting Director said: “While recognising the differences between their countries, SEAJU has been united in a shared commitment to media freedom and advocacy, particularly the critical need for the protection of independent journalism and the fundamental right of media workers to be safe to do their jobs.”

The report, supported by UNESCO, is intended to be an annual advocacy tool that holds governments and media to account on efforts to protect journalists.

The IFJ’s major research into South East Asia’s media canvassed the views of nearly 1000 journalists and media workers across the region in 2018 and included extensive research into legislative controls hampering independent journalism, as well as asking questions of governments, media owners and other key players on journalist safety and working conditions.

“While there are some bright spots from the past year, such as the ousting of the long-running Najib Razak regime in Malaysia and positive progress on media development in Timor Leste, there is little doubt that media freedom in South East Asia is consistently being challenged by the overriding influence of a well-entrenched authoritarianism, sometimes resulting in a deferential press,” the IFJ’s Worthington said.

“The outcomes, while decidedly grim, establish a benchmark – albeit a low one - by which we can hold government and media houses to account going forward year on year.”

The IFJ-SEAJU survey found an overriding consensus on “poor wages and working conditions” as the dominant threat to journalists in the region.  This was followed by “censorship” and “targeted attacks”, while “legal issues” was the top safety concern for journalists, followed by “cyber-attack” and “threats”.

The IFJ and SEAJU also established a country ranking system for both impunity and justice. As a whole the region scored 7 out of a total possible low score of 10, for both impunity efforts by South East Asian governments and the efficacy of their justice systems to deal with attacks and threats to journalists.

The Philippines was the worst offender on impunity, followed by Myanmar. While Timor Leste ranked as positive by journalists in terms of government efforts on journalist safety.

“These results clearly explain that the biggest challenges for journalists start from within the media houses and outlets they work for, particularly in terms of media ownership; as well as targeted prosecutions of media worker as well as ruling party positions that took an aggressive stance to a free media,” the IFJ said.

“Sadly too many governments in the South East Asian region take an authoritarian approach to controlling media and freedom of expression to suit political purpose.”

As the report is published, Rappler CEO, Maria Ressa, is facing the wrath of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. She and Rappler are facing charges of tax evaision and several years in jail. The story is similar for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, two Reuters’ journalists who just marked one year in jail in Myanmar for allegedly breaching the draconian Offical Secrets Act for obtaining information that was already in the public domain.

The key story for the region is the inability of governments to take meaningful action to support and foster media freedom and to seek solutions to improve working conditions and safety for media workers.

Nonoy Espina, on behalf of SEAJU said: “Working on the survey and this report has revealed the extent and gravity of the attacks and threats - mostly by increasingly repressive governments - to freedom of the press and of expression in the region. But the realization that many of the problems and challenges they face are similar, and that they can work together and help each other seek solutions has strengthened the solidarity among SEAJU member-unions. This can only bode well for the future of freedom of the press and of expression in Southeast Asia.”

The IFJ said: “This report is an important step for sub-regional advocacy for the SEAJU network, which was born out of a shared vision for a strong regional network of journalists. SEAJU canvassed the views of nearly 1000 journalists, and, this report brings to you the pressures, both new and old, that are confronting media workers today. Underneath the Autocrats is intended to be the first step to hold those in power to account.”

Download the full report from the IFJ website here.

For media inquiries please contact Alex Hearne (alex.hearne[at]ifj-asia.org).

For further information contact IFJ Asia - Pacific on [email protected]

The IFJ represents more than 600,000 journalists in 140 countries

Twitter: @ifjasiapacific, on Facebook: IFJAsiaPacific and Instagram