In its purest form journalism is a vessel through which citizens are made aware of pertinent information. Journalists act as pokers and prodders of government and, often, canaries in the coal mine.
Freedom of the press and free speech are widely considered to be one of the fundamental tenets of democracy in the modern age, but the public’s right to information is increasingly suppressed for political or commercial interest in certain parts of the world.
Pressing For Freedom
In a report for independent press watchdog Freedom House Jennifer Dunham found that in 2015 press freedom globally had dropped to its lowest point in 12 years, citing “political, criminal and terrorist” forces as the biggest influence on free speech in the media.
The annual report revealed that a free press existed in only 13 per cent of the worlds population, while 41 per cent of the world had partial freedom, and the remaining 46 per cent had none at all.
Even in parts of Europe, where the press is generally a much more open landscape, journalists have faced an unprecedented level of restriction from external influences such as terrorism and violence, as seen in Paris with the murders of cartoonists and editors at the offices of Charlie Hebdo last year.
The findings show that press freedom is being choked in an age where information is passed on faster and reaching further than ever before.
In the report, Dunham argued that the decline in press freedom and increase in limitations placed on journalists has been likely exacerbated by a “polarisation” within media organisations and spurred on by governments in certain parts of the globe, particularly in the Middle East and South-East Asia.
“Steep declines worldwide were linked to two factors,” wrote Dunham.
“Heightened partisanship and polarisation in a country’s media environment, and the degree of extra-legal intimidation and physical violence faced by journalists.”
Attacks on the Press
In the 2015 edition of Attacks on the Press: Journalism on the World’s Front Lines, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) stated that journalists are at great risk of imprisonment in countries under communist rule.
Countries such as China, North Korea and Vietnam place heavy restrictions on internet communication and the flow of information, and as such, journalists frequently find themselves as perpetrators of anti-state crimes.
In China and Vietnam especially, where internet censorship is among the highest in the world, there has been a significant rise in online blogs and citizen journalism. CPJ suggests that this rise is likely due to the fact that minority groups can have a voice while remaining mostly anonymous.
“In both countries, the internet provides a platform for reporting and documentation of vital issues such as land grabs and anti-China protests in Vietnam and minority rights and corruption in China, beyond what is issued by State-run outlets.”
Alan Morison & Chutima Sidasathian vs Thailand
In 2015, veteran Australian journalist Alan Morison and collaborator Chutima Sidasathian were facing charges and a possible seven-year jail sentence for defaming the Royal Thai Navy after they published information revealing that members of the Navy were involved with people smuggling and aware of refugees being sent across South-East Asia.
After moving to Phuket in 2002 Morison, former senior editor of The Age, started up the tourism news website Phuketwan with the help of Sidasathian.
The two were tipped off by the Thai Navy themselves about the increasing arrival of refugees from Myanmar (Rohingya) to Thailand, even sending them photographs showing hundreds of Rohingyas laying on the beach and guarded by heavily armed officers.
But after investigating the issue further, Morison and Sidasathian found that refugees were being sent back across international waters as part of an unspoken policy within the Royal Thai Navy.
The story quickly gained attention from media organisations around the world.
Then in 2013, international news agency Reuters published a report titled ‘The War on the Rohingyas’ claiming Thai military officials were directly involved in the smuggling and exploitation of Rohingyas.
Having a vested interest in the story, Morison and Sidasathian published a paragraph from the Reuters investigation in a story of their own and promptly found themselves on trial for attempting to defame the Royal Thai Navy.
Towards the end of 2015, both journalists were acquitted of all charges after the judge determined there was no intention to defame the Thailand’s Navy.
But the fact that charges were laid on Morison and Sidasathian in the first place raised serious questions about Thailand’s laws regarding free speech and free press.
When asked if a free press existed in Thailand shortly before the trial, Morison responded “No. That’s the problem.”
Report As We Say (Not As We Do)
Seasoned reporter and South-East Asia correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald Lindsay Murdoch knows all too well how difficult life can be for journalists working in countries with limited freedom.
In 2001, Indonesia refused to renew Murdoch’s 12-month journalist visa, instead issuing only a three month extension. Murdoch said that the problem stemmed from a disagreement between Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry and Fairfax Media because of stories he had written about the Indonesian military.
“I have faced many issues reporting from South-East Asia over more than 25 years,” said Murdoch.
“I was refused a journalist visa in Indonesia because of stories I wrote about military violence in Aceh (among other stories).”
Defamation has been a sore subject for countries like Indonesia and Thailand for many years, forcing journalists to walk a thin line between reporting the truth and avoiding persecution from the government.
But Murdoch believes, as a reporter, his loyalty should lie with who is working for, not where he is working from.
“As I work for Australian newspapers my job is to report for that audience. I look to create stories from an Australian perspective. This is often difficult given the laws and cultural sensitivities of countries from where I am reporting. Ultimately, I have to obey the laws of the country I am reporting from, including defamation laws.”
The Diplomat writer and policy manager at The McKell Institute Edward Acton Cavanough agrees that it is the responsibility of the journalist to be fully aware of the risks and legalities involved when reporting overseas, but believes exceptions could be made if the story became a human rights issue.
“Usually, if a journalist is skirting at the edge of legality when covering stories like a human rights abuse or gross political corruption, there are a set of international laws and norms that would suggest that the governments behaviour is in fact illegal,” said Cavanough.
“This therefore legitimises the methods of the journalist (particularly if the journalist has sufficiently examined the risks of their methods).”
For Cavanough, exceptions of this nature can only exist in a small grey area and are solely reliant on solid information.
“If the journalism is insubstantial, or pseudo-journalism that breaks the law, then I think the journalists do have a responsibility (even if just a personal legal and safety responsibility) to adhere to the laws of the land in which they are covering.”
Recently, Lindsay Murdoch covered the story of Ai Takagi, who was jailed in March by the Singapore government for publishing outspoken articles on her website The Real Singapore.
The 23-year-old, who was eight weeks pregnant at the time, was sentenced to 10 months imprisonment for breaking Singapore’s sedition laws which make it illegal to incite hostility between ethnic groups.
The laws have been strictly enforced in Singapore who have used them as a blanket to cover websites and media organisations deemed offensive or controversial by the government.
But the rapid expansion of the internet and social media is making it much more difficult for governments to stifle the voices of “outspoken” journalists.
While there may be more ways for journalists and bloggers to find themselves in hot water for speaking out against restrictive regimes, there are also more ways they can preserve their anonymity and remain out of reach.
Lindsay Murdoch believes that social media is moving too quickly for governments to keep up.
“Authoritarian states like Singapore and Malaysia and now Thailand under a military junta are having difficulty controlling social media,” said Murdoch.
“While they impose restrictions on the main-stream media they cannot curb social media no matter how hard they try. They hate it but it is great for freedom of expression.”
In an 2014 article for The Washington Post titled ‘Authoritarian regimes retool their media-control strategy’, Robert Orttung and Christopher Walker argue that, beyond being afraid of social media and its potential to undermine the power of the state, authoritarian regimes are beginning to realise that social media is something they need to control themselves instead of fighting against it.
“As the number of people online grows, authoritarian governments realise the Internet is something they must try to control,” wrote Orttung and Walker.
“Yet managing the political content of what is broadcast is not the same as reining in such information online. Authoritarian regimes show great determination and innovation to achieve this objective.”
The People’s Republic of China was a prime example of this “determination and innovation” when, in 2013, the government implemented a crackdown on blogs with an emphasis on news and opinion.
During 2015, China locked up 23 journalists and 84 bloggers, most of whom were publishing material on Tibetans and other ethnic minorities in China.
In a statement on the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) website in December 2015, editor in chief Aude Rossigneux fiercely defended the right to a free press in China.
“The government is yet again putting pressure on journalists who criticize its policies,” said Rossigneux.
“It is not the job of correspondents to act as mouthpieces of the People’s Republic of China.”
The New Yorker writer Evan Osnos echoed Rossigneux’s statement, noting that he has watched China strip away the rights of its citizens and journalists to a point where its online atmosphere is now devoid of free thought, humour and truth.
“To the degree that China’s connection to the outside world matters, the digital links are deteriorating,” Osnos wrote in his 2015 piece ‘Born Red: How Xi Jinping, an unremarkable provincial administrator, became China’s most authoritarian leader since Mao’.
If authoritarian governments like China, Thailand and Singapore are able to tie a noose around journalists and suffocate the press, the process of reversal will be a much more difficult one.
As Orttung and Walker wrote, these governments will be able to entirely shape the landscape of media to fit with their agenda, even if it means depraving millions of people of independent information as well as their own voice.
“Through their dogged control of traditional media, and increasing ability to impede the political content of new media, authoritarian regimes are shaping an entirely different understanding of “breaking the news.””