ASEAN governments pressed to stop assault on press freedom

Jakarta―Southeast Asian governments must end the growing assault on press freedom across the region and hold to account those responsible for killing media workers, Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights said Friday on the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists.

In Manila, Senator Francis Pangilinan said journalists around the world work at great personal risk to report on issues that affect people’s lives.

“They bring to the fore abuses, corruption and inefficiency and in return face threats, harassment, legal cases and even death,” he said.

“But we cannot imagine a world without journalists. They play an indispensable role in the healthy functioning of our democracy,” said Pangilinan who is also president of the Liberal Party.

The regional lawmakers warned that a culture of impunity for killings would only embolden more attacks on journalists, who play crucial roles in holding power to account and bringing information to the public.

“Media is under increasing threat across Southeast Asia. It is abhorrent that brave journalists should have to put their personal freedom or even lives on the line when they are simply trying to do their jobs,” said APHR board member Teddy Baguilat, a member of the Philippines’ House of Representatives.

“Governments must do much more to protect journalists and ensure that those responsible for killing media workers are brought to justice. Anything less will simply send a signal that such crimes are acceptable.”

According to Unesco, close to 1,010 journalists have been killed worldwide in the decade spanning 2006 to 2017, while in nine out of 10 cases the murderers had escaped without punishment.

In Southeast Asia, the Philippines remains one of the most dangerous countries for media workers. There have been at least 47 unsolved killings of journalists there since 2008, placing the Philippines among the five states in the world with the poorest accountability records, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The other four states are Somalia, Syria, Iraq and South Sudan.

In one of the most recent incidents, local publisher Dennis Denora was shot down by unknown gunmen while driving his car through Panabo City, Davao del Norte, on June 7. 

The Philippines is also home to one of the deadliest single attacks against journalists in history―the 2009 “Maguindanao massacre” when at least 34 journalists lost their lives for which no one has yet been held to account.

While President Rodrigo Duterte established a Task Force on Media Security in 2016, his administration has also stepped up a harsh rhetoric against media houses. 

The government has launched politically motivated tax evasion and libel cases against the independent news website Rappler and threatened other outlets with similar action.

“President Duterte’s angry tirades against the media outlets who dare stand up to his murderous regime must end immediately,” said Charles Santiago, APHR chairman and a Member of Parliament from Malaysia.

“The Philippines has a shameful record of holding killers of journalists to account.  Authorities should focus on seeking justice for these attacks and not trying to silence legitimate criticism.”

Other countries in Southeast Asia where the murders of journalists have gone unpunished in the last decade include Myanmar, Indonesia, and Cambodia. In Cambodia, at least 13 journalists have been murdered since 1994, many of whom were investigating and reporting on allegations of corruption by high-level individuals in the government and military. 

But the threats to journalists in the region are not limited to killings. Authoritarian governments are increasingly relying on harassment and repressive laws to silence and imprison media workers who carry out critical reporting.

In Myanmar, two Reuters journalists―Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo―were sentenced to seven years in jail in September this year for violating the archaic Official Secrets Act. Their only “crime” was helping to uncover the massacre of Rohingya villagers by the Myanmar security forces.

In Cambodia, what little remained of the independent media was silenced by Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party in the build-up to the widely discredited general election on July 29 this year. 

Across the border in Thailand, media has operated under heavy restrictions since the military government seized power in a coup in 2014. In Vietnam and Laos, the governments control all mainstream media, and independent expression is often met with harsh punishments. 

“Independent media plays a crucial role in any democracy. It should be protected and not subjected to attacks. Governments in Southeast Asia and across the world must do their utmost to ensure that journalists can carry out their work without fear of reprisal. This must include effective, impartial and speedy investigations into all attacks on media workers,” said Charles Santiago.

The United Nations General Assembly has proclaimed November 2 as the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists in 2013. The date was chosen in commemoration of the assassination of two French journalists in Mali on November 2 in the same year. 

Topics: Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights , press freedom , International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists , Francis Pangilinan , Teddy Baguilat , House of Representatives
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