May 3 marks World Press Freedom Day, and this year, the journalistic freedom landscape looks particularly bleak, especially here in Asia.
The last year depressingly has seen as many as 66 journalists killed, according to the International Federation of Journalists. Reporters Without Borders puts the number somewhat lower, at 50, depending on definitions. In all the surveys, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Philippines led the list in Asia.
Last year also saw a distressing number of attacks against journalists, including by police and security forces. Journalists in the United States covering the Black Lives Matter protests, as well as reporters in Myanmar and Thailand covering the pro-democracy demonstrations, have all been targeted.
There has also been a marked increase in online harassment directed against journalists, and particularly against women reporters who have been subjected to abuse and threats of sexual assault, all for their reporting.
We have also seen a weaponisation of the legal system to harass and threaten journalists, as authoritarian governments try to stifle tough, independent reporting. Laws against blasphemy in Indonesia and against insulting the king, known as lèse majesté in Thailand, have been used to intimidate journalists trying to do their job. Defamation and libel suits have become costly cudgels for the powerful to try to beat journalists and independent news sites into submission.
There has also been a proliferation of so-called “fake news” laws, ostensibly aimed at reining in disinformation—including surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic—but in reality used as a tool to shut down truthful, accurate reporting that those in power wish to suppress.
Hong Kong, sadly, has been no exception. A local reporter was criminally charged and convicted for using a common journalistic tool—a vehicle public records search—to undercover the truth behind a triad attack at the Yuen Long MTR station, and the delayed police response, in July 2019. The government later announced plans to restrict reporters’ access to public data like identity card numbers and residential addresses in the companies registry, which will severely impede investigative journalism.
And now the Hong Kong government appears set on introducing some kind of new “fake news” law that will set the police and bureaucrats as the arbiters of what is real and what is fake. No doubt, any reporting that contradicts the government’s official line or that offers a critical, independent perspective may be deemed “fake news” and a “smear”, and thus subject to prosecution.
According to Reporters Without Borders’s ranking of 180 countries and regions for press freedom, only South Korea and Taiwan place among the top 50. Most ASEAN countries, including Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia and Singapore rank nearer the bottom, with Laos, Vietnam and China bringing up the ignominious rear, just ahead of North Korea, Eritrea and Turkmenistan.
Hong Kong ranks at number 80, a seemingly too generous spot, but a far cry from its recent past as a city with perhaps the freest press in Asia. Next year is likely to see Hong Kong tumble again, as officials seems intent on turning it from one of the region’s most press-friendly places to one of the most hostile. Or in other words, turning Hong Kong into every other mainland city.
What can journalists do? Keep pushing. Keep publishing truthful, fact-based journalism. When legitimate mistakes are made, as happens, correct them quickly and fully to avoid the “fake news” finger-pointing. Know the legal limits, but keep holding power to account, and do not succumb to the temptation to self-censor or self-edit. And do not be distracted by the noise, including from the abusive online trolls and anonymous harassers.
Press freedom remains integral to society. And despite the obstacles, it’s still a right worth fighting for.