Illiberal leaders targeting media freedom


On Monday, a court in Manila convicted Filipino American journalist Maria Ressa of something called “cyber libel.” Her case will have severe ramifications for press freedom not only in South Asia but around the world, notes Jason Rezaian, The Post’s Global Opinions writer:

Ressa is one of many journalists who have become targets of illiberal leaders in countries where democratic traditions and institutions are under threat. Once home to a free and thriving press, the Philippines has become — under the thuggish leadership of President Rodrigo Duterte — yet another very dangerous place to be a reporter.

“Today a court in the Philippines became complicit in a sinister action to silence a journalist for exposing corruption and abuse,” Amal Clooney, Ressa’s London-based lawyer, said in a statement with co-counsel Caoilfhionn Gallagher. “This conviction is an affront to the rule of law, a stark warning to the press, and a blow to democracy in the Philippines.”

The coronavirus pandemic has provided cover for a variety of authoritarian moves against free expression in the South East Asia region, notes Jim Nolan, the International Federation of Journalists’ pro-bono legal expert in the Asia Pacific. In the Philippines, a full frontal attack on the free media has occurred with the Duterte government’s cancellation of the broadcasting licence of the country’s largest broadcaster – television network ABS-CBN.  In Malaysia the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) continues to be used to prosecute media workers who are reporting the pandemic despite the relevant minister’s commitment to review the act’s restrictions on press freedom. In Indonesia, access of journalists to West Papua is still restricted and political activists have been arrested and jailed, he writes:

To add to this litany of woes, on Friday, June 5, the Minister of Justice of Timor-Leste published a draft law proposing to re-introduce criminal defamation law. This is an especially troubling development since – alone among South East Asian nations – Timor-Leste abolished colonial era criminal defamation laws when its new Press Code was adopted back in 2014. Although the press law was not without its critics (for good reason), at least it was a cause for celebration that the scourge of criminal defamation had been removed from the statute books. RTWT

On June 19, as part of the Post’s Press Freedom Partnership, Jason Rezaian will be moderating a panel discussion with Ressa and filmmaker Ramona Diaz, whose documentary “A Thousand Cuts” follows Duterte’s efforts to shut down Rappler and silence Ressa.

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