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Southeast Asian Governments ‘Celebrate’ World Press Freedom Day

According to an open letter to Facebook from 10 free expression and human rights organizations in Vietnam, the social networking behemoth has been blocking access to content on the request of the Vietnamese government.

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United Nations Special Rapporteur David Kaye speaks to the media about the situation of the right to freedom of opinion and expression in Turkey, in Ankara, Turkey, Friday, Nov. 18, 2016. " The space for critical voices, academics, journalists, lawyers and others in civil society has been under threat," Kaye said.(AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici). RFA

Governments and state media in Southeast Asia touted improving media liberty on World Press Freedom Day Friday, but critics were swift to point out limits on expression and the jailing of many journalists across the region.

UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression David Kaye said in a statement that celebration alone to mark the day would be an insufficient way to observe a day created by the UN General Assembly in 1993 to assess the state of press freedom worldwide, defend the media from attacks on independence and pay tribute to journalists who have died in the line of duty.

“Autocrats and demagogues too often denigrate the press, with dire consequences for safety, for democracy, and for the public’s right to know,” Kaye said in the statement.

“Today more than ever, we need not just generic celebrations, but concrete steps to improve press freedom worldwide,” he said.

The UN statement highlighted the case of two Reuters reporters in Myanmar, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who last month were denied their final appeals and must serve the remainder of their seven-year-sentences.

They were arrested in December 2017 while pursuing a story about the massacre of 10 Rohingya Muslims during a brutal military-led crackdown in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Authorities detained them shortly after two policemen with whom they had dinner in Yangon handed them state documents related to the atrocities, in what was widely viewed as a police setup.

The statement indicated that press freedom in many parts of Asia is severely lacking, including in China where “basic rights to seek, receive and impart information hardly exist.”

The theme for this year’s World Press Freedom Day is “Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation.”

Cambodia

UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Cambodia, Rhona Smith, currently in the midst of an 11-day visit to the country, posted her thoughts about the state of press freedom under Hun Sen’s regime.

“I am concerned that Cambodia has slipped further one point to 143 over the last year, after falling 10 points from 132 the previous year in the Reporters without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedoms Index,” she wrote.

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If we need to speak out or want to know what’s going on, we use Facebook. We can’t’ rely on state TV, radio or newspapers because it’s too slow, inaccurate and restricted,” said the citizen. Pixabay

She also gave advice to Cambodia’s government on ways to improve.

“I encourage the Government to provide the space for a free media, both offline and online, including through the adoption and implementation of the draft Law on Access to Information,” she wrote.

“I also repeat my encouragement to lift the charges against the two former RFA journalists,” she added, referring to Uon Chhin and Yeang Socheameta, who were arrested in November 2017 on suspicion of continuing to provide news about Cambodia to RFA after the U.S.-funded media outlet closed its office in Cambodia that September.

Cambodia’s fall one spot in the RSF index to 143, was matched by those of neighbor Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar, which each fell one step. In a year-on-year comparison for 2018, Laos fell one spot from 170 to 171, Vietnam fell one spot from 175 to 176, and Myanmar fell one spot from 137 to 138.

Meas Sophoan, a spokesman for the country’s Ministry of Information told RFA’s Khmer Service that Information Minister Khieu Kanharith held a press conference to mark the day where he said that press freedom is getting better each day within the kingdom.

The spokesman added that broadcast and print media are on the rise, and the country is showing how it respects human rights and press freedom, offering the press conference itself as an indication that press freedom is important to the regime.

But Long Kimmaryta, a journalist for a bilingual newspaper in Phnom Penh disagreed, saying that reporters and the press must now self-censor, after the government arrested reporters.

She said writing criticism about the government is risky in the current climate.

“If we were to write positive stories about the government, then sources within the government are happier to talk to us,” she said, adding that journalists in Cambodia can only write stories if they feel their safety isn’t threatened.

Laos

Meanwhile in neighboring Laos, the deputy editor of the government-published Vientiane Times told RFA’s Lao Service, “I think we have all kinds of freedoms because we have media laws guaranteeing those freedoms, including the freedom to write news and freedom of expression.”

“We want to improve and upgrade our reporters’ knowledge and skills and we also need to diversify the way we [source] content for our news stories,” said Deputy Editor Phonekeo Vorlakoun.

“Of course, as reporters, we want to respond to the needs of our people,” he said.

The deputy editor’s comments were contradicted by a local reporter stationed in Sanamxay district, Attapeu province who is covering the lasting damage caused by last year’s disaster at a nearby dam which claimed the lives of hundreds and has been described as Laos’ worst flooding in decades.

“All news stories, even those on technical matters, must be approved by the leadership of the district and the province before we can publish anything,” said the reporter.

An official of the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism agreed with the reporter saying, “The government will never force us to do anything, or order us how to do this or that, but if they say we can’t publish the story, we can’t publish it.”

A citizen of Vientiane gave insight on how the people gain access to reliable news in the country.

“If we need to speak out or want to know what’s going on, we use Facebook. We can’t’ rely on state TV, radio or newspapers because it’s too slow, inaccurate and restricted,” said the citizen.

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The letter said that Vietnam’s 64 million Facebook users use Facebook as their primary news source, citing the absence of independent media within the country. VOA

Facebook in Vietnam

But Facebook has also been the target of criticism, particularly for bowing to the whims of governments looking to restrict the public’s access to information, such as in Vietnam.

According to an open letter to Facebook from 10 free expression and human rights organizations in Vietnam, the social networking behemoth has been blocking access to content on the request of the Vietnamese government.

The letter said that Vietnam’s 64 million Facebook users use Facebook as their primary news source, citing the absence of independent media within the country.

“On January 1, a restrictive “cybersecurity” law went into effect in Vietnam but the desire of Vietnamese to stay connected and build community has not changed,” said the rights groups in the letter, signed by Reporters Without Borders, the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, Viet Tan and other groups.

“The Vietnamese government may want foreign companies to set up local data servers, censor content, and turn over private user data — but it’s up to Facebook to ultimately decide whether it will uphold human rights or not,” they said.

The letter cited Facebook as saying that blocked content was based on “local legal restrictions,” but urged the company and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg to not become “complicit in the human rights violations of authoritarian governments such as Vietnam’s.”

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Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur,  “States must move beyond words, beyond resolutions and take immediate and sustainable action to ensure safety of journalists, the independence of the media, the plurality of voices.”

“That is the challenge of the coming year: translating celebration into action, stigmatizing and penalizing those that attack journalism, and devoting resources to the great project of media freedom.” (RFA)

Next Story

U.S. Media Industry Going Through A Bad Phase

On the surface, it may look as though the average U.S. media consumer is awash in choices: websites, podcasts, cable and broadcast TV, satellite, but this is not the reality

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Some front pages and section fronts of the Orange County Register are seen in the newsroom in Santa Ana, Calif., Dec. 27, 2012. VOA

On the surface, it may look as though the average U.S. media consumer is awash in choices: websites, podcasts, cable and broadcast TV, satellite and over-the-air radio, and yes, even printed newspapers. But the reality is different.

There is an oft-quoted line from Thomas Jefferson about the importance of a free press to the stability of the newly formed United States: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government,” he wrote to a colleague, “I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Almost always, though, the words Jefferson wrote next are forgotten. He added, “But I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them.”

His insight was that a press free from government interference is a necessary condition for a healthy democracy, but not a sufficient one. A free press isn’t very useful if nobody has access to relevant reporting on the issues that affect them.

If Jefferson were able to look at the media landscape in his country today, particularly at the local level, he would almost certainly be worried.

Consolidation

News sources, particularly local ones, are increasingly controlled by a limited number of companies that have bought up smaller news organizations and consolidated them.

This is perhaps most visible in the world of newspapers. Twenty percent of the newspapers that were active 15 years ago have been shut down, according to the University of North Carolina, leaving hundreds of locales without a local paper.

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A specialist works at the post that handles Gannett on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Aug. 5, 2014. VOA

Employment in newspaper newsrooms has fallen by 47% since 2004, according to the Pew Research Center. Meanwhile, companies like GateHouse Media and Gannett  control hundreds of publications using centralized news gathering that decreases the focus on their communities.

In August, the two companies announced a plan to merge, a deal that would create a company controlling more than 250 daily newspapers, as well as hundreds more weeklies and community papers. The merged companies would be several times larger than the next biggest newspaper company, Digital First Media, which in 2018 owned 51 daily papers and 158 other publications.

Digital First, which is owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, has been at the forefront of another troubling trend: buying up newspapers, laying off newsroom staff, and liquidating the papers’ real estate assets.

Digital First, which also goes by MediaNews Group, or MNG, did not respond to a request for comment from VOA. However, in response to a Washington Post story earlier this year, the company said “MNG is committed to the newspaper business and a long-term investor in the space. MNG’s focus is on getting publications to a place where they can operate profitably and sustainably and continue to serve their communities.”

Job cuts, quick profits

“They’re owned, essentially, by private equity companies, or even hedge funds at times, and they don’t particularly care about the quality of the journalism,” said Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for The Washington Post and former public editor of The New York Times.

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Two New York Daily News employees leave the newspaper’s office after they were laid off, in New York, July 23, 2018. VOA

“What they’re there to do is to strip mine these properties and get as much profit from them as they can in the short term. And that is very bad for journalism. It’s very bad for journalists, because it often means round after round of job reductions, cutting costs in really draconian ways that hurt the news gathering process.”

Newspapers are not typically seen as a major profit-making venture. While they generate significant cash flow through advertising sales, that is offset by high production costs of personnel and the logistics of printing and delivery. Many are run by family foundations and other organizations that place some value on their public mission.

The strategy of many investment firms buying up newspaper chains has been to increase profits by slashing personnel costs.

In the broadcast world, the story is similar. Large companies have been buying up local stations and cutting costs by centralizing the production of much of the content they air. Most notorious among them is Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns 193 stations across the country, reaching up to 40% of the U.S. population.

Sinclair is known for enforcing a sharply conservative political slant on its broadcasts, providing “must-run” content that appears on every station the company owns. It regularly requires its stations to air commentary by Boris Epshteyn, a friend of President Donald Trump’s family and a former political consultant to the president.

Last year, a video went viral in which dozens of Sinclair anchors could be seen repeating, verbatim, a script that echoed Trump’s complaints about “fake news.”

Easing antitrust

Rules that formerly limited the ability of individual companies to own a dominant share of the media outlets in a specific market have been slowly eased over the years. Then, in 2017, the Federal Communications Commission gutted many of the remaining restrictions, opening the door to single companies dominating individual markets in both broadcast and print.

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Hundreds of old newspaper vending machines are shown in a vacant lot near the former offices of the Alaska Dispatch News in Anchorage, Alaska, Sept. 11, 2017. VOA

The resulting consolidation has been “disastrous for local communities,” said Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press, an organization that advocates for the decentralization of media. “We’ve gone from a more diverse localized media system to one increasingly controlled by a small handful of companies.”

 

“You used to get in your car in New York and drive to, I don’t know, Phoenix,” said Aaron. “Everywhere along the way, you would get incredibly different local voices, local flavors, local music. Now, you’re much more likely to get the same hit songs and Rush Limbaugh. So, we’ve lost some of that, you know, which I think has huge cultural value.”

The impact goes beyond culture, though, as Aaron and others have pointed out. It also has a direct impact on how Americans govern themselves.

“When sources of local and regional news dry up or go away,” Sullivan said, “there’s research that shows that the way people engage politically changes. They are going to be less likely to vote, they become more polarized, because for many years, the local newspaper might have been a way that people in that community were sharing a set of facts. Now, that’s gone or diminished.”

Last year, the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard Universityassembled a list of academic studies that tied the loss of local news sources to a decline in both the quantity and quality of citizens’ civic engagement.

Social media news

To fill the gap, Sullivan said, people turn to less objective sources of news, like Facebook, or politically partisan cable television programming.

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An iPhone displays the app for Facebook in New Orleans, Aug. 11, 2019. VOA

“It is really a very damaging thing for the way we talk to each other, the way we feel as a community and the way we deal with politics,” Sullivan said.

Identifying the disease and cataloging the symptoms is one thing. But finding a cure that will return the U.S. to a more Jeffersonian media model won’t be easy.

Sullivan argued that the growth of nonprofit news organizations is a hopeful sign that an alternative to corporatized media may be available. Groups such as Report for America provide funding so that young journalists can work in local media outlets, providing them important training while supplementing understaffed news outlets.

Some nonprofit publications like The Texas Tribune and Voice of San Diego have been able to make important contributions to their communities.

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But nonprofits can’t bridge the gap entirely, and Sullivan and others worry that the advertising-dependent business model of traditional journalism — particularly newspapers — has been so thoroughly broken by the rise of digital media that trying to rebuild it on the same design will be impossible.

That’s why Aaron and his organization want the federal government to get involved. Free Press argues for a return to tighter federal restrictions on media consolidation, including the breakup of existing conglomerates. They also call for federal investment through grants or tax incentives to support local news.

“If local journalism is important to making sure democracy survives, then we need the policies to actually match that need,” he said. “And right now, we don’t have them.” (VOA)