This week, media development stakeholders will discuss how to foster freedom of expression at the World Forum for Media Development in Jakarta. #mediadev looked at some of the topics and challenges for the ASEAN region.
"The region is still in the making," says Ayman Mhanna, Executive Director at the Global Forum for Media Development, host of the World Forum for Media Development in Jakarta, about the regions' nations, "so now is the time to act, cooperate internationally and establish best practice."
Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have fast-growing populations and the economic prospects are on the rise – and so is international investment and cooperation. There is, however, a downward trend when it comes to the ability of citizens to express themselves openly and freely.
In Reporters Without Borders' international ranking for media freedom, nine out of ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) range in the lowest third in 2016, with Cambodia just a few ranks above the lowest third.
Brunei has been in free fall with a decrease of 38 positions since 2014. Laos and Vietnam are among the lowest ranks in the region – barely ahead of China, Syria, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea, who constitute the bottom of the global ranking.
Advancements could be observed in Cambodia and Indonesia, although developments in Indonesia seem to have stalled recently.
"Indonesia can be taken as a positive example for its first years of democratic transition but I do not think it can set as an example beyond that," explains Yin Yadanar, Myanmar Program Manager at the NGO Article 19.
A tendency to curb freedom of expression
Of course, the countries of the region are extremely diverse, spanning democratic and transitioning countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia as well as repressive regimes like Laos and Vietnam. The countries are also disparate economically from prosperous nations such as Singapore and Brunei to poorer countries like Cambodia or Laos.
Still, there are challenges that the countries have in common. "We often see a downward domino effect in a region when it comes to laws and policies concerning freedom of expression," says Michael Karhausen, Head of Asia and Europe at DW Akademie. Although the regional ties could also lead to an upward spiral, "currently there is a general tendency to curb freedom of expression."
And the difference between formal legal rules and the practical implementation can be huge: "What we observe is that the countries adopt a liberal legislation to show to the world that they seemingly have free press. But they undermine legislation with massive restrictions that eventually limit press freedom, be it under the veil of national security or combating crime. It results in journalists either practicing self-censorship or being censored by authorities. It also means journalists will opt for more harmless fields of reporting such as entertainment where there is less interference by politics," Karhausen says.
Online censorship and security threats
Experts have also noted a rise in online censorship. "The issue of internet regulation has been on the table for years. But recent developments, mainly security threats and the need to prevent the abuse of internet by radical groups, have made the situation worse," explains Ayman Mhanna.
According to him, there is also an increasing problem with hate speech and discrimination against minorities, for example ethnic minorities and the LGBTI communities.
Further, security threats for journalists and human rights defenders as well as violence against those dissenting or expressing critical views represent a serious problem. For instance, Vietnam continues to be one of the worst places for bloggers with 29 netizens in prison, according to the Freedom on the Net Report by the US-based organization Freedom House.
In Laos, Sombath Somphone, the NGO Director of DW Akademie's former cooperating partner PADETC, went missing in 2012, potentially in relation with his protests about Laos' land reforms. He has not appeared ever since.
"Journalists' safety is an important part of the new curriculum at the Myanmar Journalism Institute," says Michael Karhausen. DW Akademie supports the newly founded journalism school since its first days.
Another important aspect in the conflict settings of the region is the quality of journalism – as imprecise work and untrue accusations can cause further polemics and polarization in society, explains Karhausen: "We try to make sure journalists exert their profession with solid craft. If they investigate thoroughly and can back up their statements with reliable facts, their defense is much stronger if under pressure."
Community media and social media counterbalance mainstream outlets
"In big countries like Indonesia or Malaysia, diversity and inequality among the regions is very high. There are a lot of disparities in terms of the quality of reporting between big cities and remote areas. And there is little access to information in remote areas and islands," explains Ayman Mhanna.
Yet, nearly half of the Indonesian population lives in rural areas, in Myanmar it is two thirds. Several media development organizations promote community media in the region.
"They act as a counter-balance to dominating media conglomerates and give a voice to minorities unreached by state media. That's why they represent an important part of our work, for example in Myanmar," explains Michael Karhausen. Community media also help mitigate existing regional disparities.
There is also hope that social media can provide a further balance of views, despite increasing tendencies to regulate them. "In Cambodia, there is a vivid female blogger scene making use of their right of expression. They call themselves the "cloggers". To me, they are the real heroes. They take great risks in expressing critical views," says Michael Karhausen.
A similar phenomenon can be observed in Indonesia, with an increasing number of active users on Twitter, using the platform among others for a vivid debate on LGBTI rights. "To me, it shows that people will always find a platform to express their opinions," says Ayman Mhanna.
The digital transformation could have a huge impact on general freedom of expression in the region. Ayman Mhanna points to the vibrant culture of entrepreneurship in the technology sector: "It is very clear that technology firms that develop innovative apps cannot prosper in an environment that is restricted and that has a lot of limitations in freedom of expression and freedom of thoughts."
He wants to use the regions governments' economic goals as leverage for advancing freedom of expression. "We need to discuss with international partners so that they do not look at the economic status only but make sure economic engagement is coupled with conversations about human rights and freedom of expression."
Looking at the future of free and independent media in the region, DW Akademie's Michael Karhausen is cautious: "I can see very promising signals, but we also have a major task ahead of us. Changing a country's media landscape in a sustainable way is a matter of long breath."
World Forum for Media Development
The 2016 World Forum for Media Development, entitled "Decoding the Future: Rethinking Media for a New World" will take place in Jakarta, Indonesia, from September 20-22, 2016.
During the Forum, participants from all sectors of society will share best practices, explore ideas and together find solutions for challenges facing the media sector in order to enhance freedom of expression and access to information. The forum is hosted by the Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD), an international membership network to foster free, professional and pluralistic media, leading to more open societies, greater transparency and enhanced freedom of expression.
DW Akademie is a member of the network.
On Twitter, watch out for the conference hashtag #mediadev16.