By Mark Z. Saludes / Contributor
Many governments in Asia have used the COVID-19 pandemic to control the flow of information and suppress press freedom, according to a report released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
The 2021 World Press Freedom Index revealed that the region’s authoritarian regimes have taken advantage of the global health crisis “to perfect their methods of totalitarian control of information.”
The report also said that some “dictatorial democracies” have used it “as a pretext for imposing especially repressive legislation with provisions combining propaganda and suppression of dissent.”
For instance, China, which ranked 177th, has taken advantage of the health crisis take control over online information even more. Since President Xi Jinping became its leader in 2013, China has taken online censorship, surveillance, and propaganda to unprecedented levels.
It described the country as the world’s undisputed specialist in spreading the “censorship virus.”
“The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), an agency personally supervised by Xi, has deployed a wide range of measures aimed at controlling the information accessible to China’s 989 million Internet users,” the report read.
“[China] is also expanding its influence abroad with the aim of imposing its narrative on international audiences and promoting its perverse equation of journalism with state propaganda,” it added.
Vietnam at 175th also tightened its control of social media content, while conducting a wave of arrests of leading independent journalists, including Pham Doan Trang, who was awarded RSF’s Press Freedom Prize for Impact in 2019.
At least 10 Asian countries, including Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Myanmar have also been marked red or black on the World Press Freedom map, classifying them as “bad or very bad” that “used the pandemic to reinforce obstacles to the free flow of information.”
The report said these countries adopted extremely draconian laws or decrees that criminalize any criticism of government’s actions.
Malaysia, which fell to 119th from 101st, “embodies the desire for absolute control over information,” according to the report. Malaysia’s 18-place fall, “the biggest of any country in the Index,” is attributed to the newly-formed coalition government in March 2020, which implemented a so-called “anti-fake news” decree. According to RSF, authorities used the decree to impose “their own version of the truth.”
This is similar to Myanmar that ranked 140th, after Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government used the pretext of combatting “fake news” during the pandemic to suddenly block 221 websites, including many leading news sites.
“The military’s constant harassment of journalists trying to cover the various ethnic conflicts also contributed to the country’s fall in the Index. The press freedom situation has worsened dramatically since the military coup in February 2021,” the report read.
In the Philippines, the government “has developed several ways to pressure journalists who dare to be overly critical of the summary methods adopted by “Punisher” Duterte and his war on drugs,” the RSF report said.
“The persecution of the media has been accompanied by online harassment campaigns orchestrated by pro-Duterte troll armies, which also launched cyber-attacks on alternative news websites and the site of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, in order to block them,” the report furthered.
RSF also stressed that “red-tagging” has “returned in force” in the Philippines in 2020. It called red-tagging a “typical practice” in the country wherein critics, journalists and media outlets are identified to state agents as “legitimate targets for arbitrary arrest or, worse still, summary execution.”
In fact in 2020, two journalists from the Altermidya Network, Frenchie Mae Cumpio and Lady Ann Salem, were arrested after they and their media outlets were red-tagged. Frenchie Mae has remained in jail for over a year now, while Lady Ann was released in March after the court dismissed charges against her.
The Altermidya network itself was red-tagged in a Senate committee hearing last December, where the government’s anti-communist task force presented the network and its members as part of the so-called communist party propaganda bureau.
2020 was also the year the country’s largest broadcasting network, ABS-CBN, shut down. The RSF likewise cited the “grotesque judicial harassment campaign” against Rappler and its CEO Maria Ressa that continued throughout the year. In a statement, the country’s Commission on Human Rights (CHR) said that the 2021 World Press Freedom Index “suggests that the Philippines is facing a worse state of press freedom.”
Lawyer Jacqueline Ann de Guia, CHR spokesperson, said the recent report is “concretely reflected in a wave of persecutions directed towards journalists and media institutions, as a recurring theme in the current administration’s actions and pronouncements.”
De Guia expressed grave concern over the worsening state of media freedom, which she said is “critical in holding power to account.”
“Journalists and other media practitioners are holding the line to defend accountability in a democracy, most especially in an environment that tends to tolerate impunity,” she said.
The lawyer said the commission is alarmed over some laws enacted, such as the Cybercrime Prevention Law and the Anti-Terrorism Act, which “pose legitimate threats to further threaten freedoms of speech and expression, particularly in articulating political sentiments or dissent.”
“This is an overt way of silencing criticisms toward government actions, or the lack thereof, in matters affecting the public interest,” she said.
De Guia noted that while the country was battling the coronavirus pandemic, the Philippine government “has afforded to shut down a major broadcasting network last year… depriving people access to timely and relevant information.”
She said the Commission wishes to highlight Filipino journalists’ work as indeed a “vaccine to disinformation and misinformation.”
“In a time of the global pandemic, their job has never been more important to tackle the science surrounding the public health crisis, and in ensuring fair and honest inquiry about issues concerning the health and safety of the people,” she said.
De Guia added that the 2021 Index sends a firm message that the current political climate in the country “exacerbates the danger and fears over the erosion of democratic and press freedom during these uncertain times.”
The commissioner urged the Philippine government “to provide legal protection” to media workers and “to expedite the investigation of media-related killings and attacks.”
Globally, the Press Freedom Index showed that journalism, “the main vaccine against disinformation, is completely or partially blocked in 73 percent of the 180 countries” ranked by RSF.