Southeast Asian media groups cite need for press freedom in dealing with extreme weather events

WPFD2024 Manila

Filipino journalists call for the release of a detained community journalist as they marked World Press Freedom Day on May 3, 2024. Photo from the Facebook page of Altermidya, used with permission

Media groups across Southeast Asia marked World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) on May 3 by organizing and releasing statements highlighting the various challenges and difficulties journalists face in fulfilling their work.

Reflecting on the theme of WPFD this year, “A Press for the Planet: Journalism in the Face of the Environmental Crisis,” the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) expressed concern about attacks targeting journalists who report on the destructive impact of large-scale extractive projects.

Alternative and community journalists who cover issues like mining, logging and land reclamation are already at risk by covering far from urban centers and are at further risk of being labeled as “anti-development” or of being red tagged outright.

With extreme weather events expected to become more frequent and more destructive, every story is potentially an environmental story and the government and the community must do more to protect journalists who cover climate change as well as the development aggression that contributes to it and further destroys the environment.

Despite the change in the Philippine government in July 2022, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility noted the continuing harassment faced by the media. It recorded around 135 incidents of attacks and threats against media workers between July 1, 2022, and April 30, 2024.

Despite the change in style and outlook of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the current president has yet to act on his words upholding the place of the press as a pillar of democracy.

So far there has been no dramatic change in actual conduct. The offensive operations remain; the official mechanisms are as they were, and the proper decorum and conduct of President Marcos can be a distraction, making us feel and believe that we are not as vulnerable under his watch.

In Myanmar, the military junta which grabbed power in February 2021 has systematically eroded free speech by violently suppressing independent media and all forms of dissent.

Writing for the banned media outlet The Irrawaddy, Nyein Nyein pointed out that reports about environmental destruction are also covered by censorship: “Also being strangled is people’s ability to speak out on projects that are affecting their environment, including resource extraction and the loss of forest and water resources.” The writer emphasized the important link between upholding the right to information (RTI) and environmental protection.

Those preservation efforts can only be successful if journalists have the right to access information for timely and comprehensive coverage of environmental issues and their consequences. Without this crucial oversight, resource plunder will continue unabated under junta rule, bringing a higher and higher toll from climate change impacts.

In an editorial, independent news platform Mizzima reminded the international community about local and exiled media's mission to amplify their coverage of the ongoing resistance against the junta:

Myanmar can indeed play its part in a sustainable future for the world, as can the independent media outlets whose personnel currently put their lives on the line to report. But at this point in time, the Myanmar crisis and civil war to a large extent drown out the calls for sustainability.

Until peace descends on Myanmar, the environment and sustainability are likely to play second fiddle to the media’s journalistic coverage of the Myanmar people’s desperate needs as they are hammered by the junta.

In Malaysia, the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) cited the Cabinet approval of the Malaysian Media Council and the move to enact RTI legislation as positive developments resulting from collaboration between media stakeholders. However, it bemoaned the continuing online censorship and the “culture of threat and fear” that restrict the work of journalists.

CIJ has found the government backtracking and making very little progress on repealing and amending the laws that restrict media freedom despite promises made by the incumbent Pakatan Harapan government during their electoral campaign. The government continues to suppress journalists from critical and unbiased reporting as archaic values remain true in political institutions.

CIJ and other human rights groups have been urging the repeal of “draconian laws” such as the Sedition Act, Official Secrets Act, and Printing Presses and Publications Act

In Cambodia, civil society groups mentioned the report of the Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association which documented 32 cases of harassment against journalists in 2023, including 15 cases of legal intimidation. Seven out of these 32 cases were related to reporting on environmental issues. In a joint statement, human rights groups have made the following recommendations to the government which assumed power in 2023:

- Ensure an environment, both online and offline, that is free, safe, and secure for journalists and news outlets to fulfill their professional duties without constraints or apprehension, particularly when it comes to reporting on environmental issues;

- Stop all forms of harassment against media houses and journalists who report on “sensitive” social issues;

- Stop employing restrictive criminal provisions to unfairly prosecute journalists for carrying out their legitimate duties;

- Expedite the adoption of a draft Law on Access to Information that aligns with international standards, and ensure its rigorous implementation;

- Engage in open consultations with relevant stakeholders to discuss amendments to the Law on the Press;

- Combat gender-based violence targeting female journalists and take the necessary measures to increase female representation within the journalism sector.

The Cambodian Center for Human Rights organized a forum about the role of the youth in upholding freedom of expression. It also posted a summary of its report about the state of media freedom in the country.

In Thailand, Global Voices media partner Prachatai and UNESCO organized a panel discussion on the country’s media situation, especially on the impact of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP suits) against journalists and state critics. Jo Hiranaka of UNESCO Bangkok mentioned that over 749 journalists were assaulted during the last 15 years, with 44 of them being murdered. Anna Lawattanatrakul, Prachatai English’s editor and Press Freedom Monitoring in Southeast Asia project coordinator said that aside from preventing the filing of SLAPP cases, authorities should abolish criminal defamation.

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