Reporters Without Borders Brands Philippine, Thai, Bangladeshi Leaders as ‘Press Predators’

Marielle Lucenio and Ahammed Foyez
Manila and Dhaka
2021-07-06
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Reporters Without Borders Brands Philippine, Thai, Bangladeshi Leaders as ‘Press Predators’ Rappler executive editor Maria Ressa (center) talks to reporters after the Manila Regional Trial Court found her guilty of cyber libel, June 15, 2020.
[Basilio Sepe/BenarNews]

Reporters Without Borders has included the leaders of the Philippines, Thailand and Bangladesh on its updated list of “predators of press freedom,” with Manila and Dhaka pushing back on Tuesday by dismissing the Paris-based advocacy group’s criticism as baseless.

The names of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, and Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina are part of a gallery of leaders from across the globe who, in the eyes of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), have trampled on press freedom in some way or another.

“The 2021 edition of the ‘predators of press freedom’ gallery has 37 heads of state and government, nearly half (17) of whom are on it for the first time, five years after the previous list published in 2016,” RSF said in a statement.

“All are heads of state or government who impose a massive repression, through the establishment of censorship apparatus, arbitrary imprisonment of journalists, incitement to violence against them, when they do not have journalists' blood on their hands to have directly or indirectly pushed to their assassination.”

For the first time, the list included two women – Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh and Carrie Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong. Seven of the 37 leaders on the latest list have retained their places since RSF first published the list in 2001.

The Philippines’ Duterte has an “arsenal” that he uses to wage “total war” against the country’s journalists, RSF said.

The arsenal includes “spurious charges of defamation, tax evasion or violation of capital legislation; rescinding broadcast licenses; getting accomplices to buy up media outlets and bring their journalists into line; and using an army of trolls to subject journalists to online harassment,” RSF said.

Duterte’s spokesman shot back, saying the accusation was “absolutely bereft of merit.”

Spokesman Harry Roque said Duterte did not file a single libel case against anyone, and “no journalist has been sent to jail by the president.”

However, Maria Ressa, the editor of popular online news site Rappler, which has been highly critical of Duterte, was convicted last year of cyber libel. Duterte allies in Congress also voted to shut down ABS-CBN Corp., a network that has questioned the president’s bloody drug war.

Roque defended the congressional decision on ABS-CBN and the ruling on Rappler, saying Duterte had nothing to do with them.

RSF “really have no basis that the president is a media predator,” Roque said.

Thailand’s Lese-Majeste

In Thailand, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha’s arsenal includes a “tailor-made weapon for cracking down on independent media,” RSF said.

That weapon, RSF said, is Lese-Majeste, the country’s draconian law that guards against royal defamation and which carries a maximum prison sentence of 15 years per count.

“After seizing power, Prayuth extended the law’s applicability to ‘national security,’ which is tried by military court,” RSF said, referring to the 2014 coup d’état led by Prayuth, the army chief at the time.

“The law no longer concerns just criticism of Thailand’s absolute monarchy but also comments about the armed forces, the government ... or even the king’s dog.”

This has led to self-censorship “reigning” in Thailand, because “recalcitrant journalists know they could be fired if they fail to toe the government line,” RSF said.

Beginning in November 2020, at least 97 people have been charged with Lese-Majeste after Prayuth vowed to exercise all “pertaining laws” against youth-led anti-government demonstrations.

Since July 2020, protesters have been demanding that Prayuth resign, the military-backed constitution be rewritten and the monarchy be reformed.

On Tuesday, a spokesman for the Thai government declined to comment on Prayuth’s RSF listing.

Bangladesh: ‘Totally false’

In Bangladesh, Prime Minister Hasina’s tool of choice in going after the press is the Digital Security Act (DSA), which has led to the prosecution of more than 70 journalists and bloggers since it was passed in 2018, RSF said.

“Packed with deliberately vague wording, it is the ultimate weapon for getting journalists to censor themselves,” the watchdog group said.

“Online content ‘liable to disturb public order’ is punishable by seven years in prison while ‘negative propaganda against (...) the Father of the Nation’ – Sheikh Hasina’s own father – is punishable by 14 years in prison.”

The government has used the act to target its critics, RSF said.

It noted the case of businessman and writer Mushtaq Ahmed who was arrested under the Digital Security Act and died in February following 10 months in jail for “anti-government remarks.”

Ahmed had been refused bail six times following his arrest – the last time two days before his death.

He was arrested after he published an article on Facebook criticizing a shortage of personal- protective equipment for health care workers amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Mustafa Jabbar, minister of Post and Telecommunication, rejected RSF’s listing of Hasina as a leader preying on the press. He denied that her government was abusing the Digital Security Act.

“It is totally false. I do not recall any incident of misuse of the Digital Security Act. Rather, the government is facing trouble for misuse of the online platforms by anti-state and radical groups,” he told BenarNews.

“On the contrary, anti-state, anarchist, communal and extremist people are using online platforms to carry out heinous propaganda,” Jabbar said.

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