A change of governments last year dramatically improved the journalism climate in Malaysia, which stood out as a bright spot in the Asia-Pacific, watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said Thursday in releasing its worldwide press freedom rankings for 2019.
The Paris-based group also criticized Thailand’s military government for “a very indulgent manner towards certain regimes,” alleging that Vietnam and China were allowed to extradite exiled dissident journalists and bloggers who were nationals of those countries hiding out on Thai soil.
Elsewhere in the region, press freedom continued to erode in Bangladesh and the Philippines in 2018, RSF reported.
“With totalitarian propaganda, censorship, intimidation, physical violence and cyber-harassment, a lot of courage is needed nowadays to work independently as a journalist in the Asia-Pacific countries, where democracies are struggling to resist various forms of disinformation,” RSF said in publishing its latest annual World Press Freedom Index rankings.
The report pointed to last year’s political transition in Malaysia as an example of the degree to which “a country’s political ecosystem impacts the freedom to reform.”
Freedom for reporting improved so much in Malaysia in 2018, in the wake of the electoral defeat of a ruling party that had governed the country since its founding in 1957, that Malaysia jumped 22 places on the index to rank as No. 123 out of 180 surveyed countries.
On this year’s index, Turkmenistan finished dead last – right behind North Korea for the worst record for press freedom. Norway ranked No. 1 for the third straight year.
In Malaysia, the May 2018 ouster of the United Malays National Organization party, which anchored the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, “blew fresh air through the ossified media and transformed the environment for journalists, propelling Malaysia to 123rd place,” Reporters Without Borders said.
“Journalists and media outlets that had been blacklisted, such as the cartoonist Zunar and the Sarawak Report investigative news website, have been able to resume working without fear of harassment,” RSF said, alluding to the case of satirical cartoonist Zunar, a BenarNews contributor whose real name is Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque.
The previous government had targeted him on multiple charges of sedition for sketches that lampooned then-Prime Minister Najib Razak. The charges were dropped after the new government took over.
“The general environment for journalists is much more relaxed, self-censorship has declined dramatically and the print media are now offering a fuller and more balanced range of viewpoints …,” RSF reported.
However, it noted its concern that the new government of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad could still draw on an arsenal of draconian laws, including the 1948 Sedition Act and the 1972 Official Secrets Act, to suppress media in the country.
The Thai press under junta rule
In neighboring Thailand, which rose four notches in the rankings to No. 136, the country ruled by a junta since May 2015 remained unfriendly to journalists, the RSF report said. The section on Thailand did not explain what accounted for the country’s four-point increase on the index, which reflected a relative improvement in the climate for press freedom.
“This ubiquitous and all-powerful junta has constantly hounded outspoken journalists, summoning them for questioning, detaining them arbitrarily and driving at least ten of them to flee the country. Any criticism of the junta is liable to lead to violent reprisals made possible by draconian legislation and a justice system that follows orders. The long-promised elections held in March 2019 made no difference,” RSF said.
Without naming him the report’s section on Thailand touched apparently on the case of Truong Duy Nhat, a Vietnamese blogger working for Radio Free Asia (RFA), which is affiliated with BenarNews, who disappeared in Bangkok in January 2019. Last month, Nhat’s daughter confirmed to RFA’s Vietnamese Service that he had been brought back to his home country and put in jail.
“The authorities … behave in a very indulgent manner towards certain regimes: Chinese and Vietnamese operatives have been allowed to arrest dissident exile journalists or bloggers from their country in order to ‘repatriate’ and then jail them,” RSF said.
Philippines, Indonesia and Bangladesh
In the Philippines, which dropped one place in the rankings to No. 134, RSF highlighted what it described as the government’s “judicial harassment campaign” against Maria Ressa, the chief of the Rappler news website that has consistently done critical reporting about a deadly drug war carried out by the Duterte administration.
Indonesia, meanwhile, held steady with a No. 124 index ranking. The reported faulted President Joko Widodo for not keeping campaign promises related to media freedom from when he was first elected in 2014. Joko just claimed victory in his bid for re-election this week.
“His presidency was marked by serious media freedom violations, including drastic restrictions on media access to West Papua (the Indonesian half of the island of New Guinea), where violence against local journalists keeps on growing,” the report said, referring to the insurgency-stricken far eastern Indonesian region of Papua.
And in Bangladesh, the climate for journalists grew more hostile under the rule of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party, the watchdog reported.
In 2018, her government’s “latest weapon” against journalists was a digital security law enacted in October, under which “negative propaganda” is punishable by up to 14 years in prison, RSF said, citing the case of the arrest of photojournalist Shahidul Alam, who was jailed for 107 days without charge before being released on bail in November 2018.
Bangladesh dropped four places in the index, to the No. 150 ranking.
“Bangladeshi journalists have been among the leading collateral victims of the tough methods adopted by the ruling Awami League and its boss, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina,” the report said.
“The campaign leading up to her reelection in late 2018 was accompanied by a disturbing increase in press freedom violations, including violence by political activists against reporters in the field, the arbitrary blocking of news websites, and arbitrary arrests of journalists.”