Donald Trump may tweet against “fake news” and call the media an “enemy of the American people,” but that rhetoric is having a real impact in Asia where regimes of a dictatorial tendency are using it as cover to suppress and even close critical media outlets.
Whereas the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and a robust tradition of free speech protect most of the American media industry, in emerging democracies in Asia, the stakes are real and immediate for individual journalists, publishers and media outlets.
‘He has … inspired dictators and authoritarians’ – Sen. Jeff Flake
In the Philippines and Cambodia, “strongmen” leaders have publicly noted that the leader of the free world has condemned the media. Their actions suggest they believe that the United States can be expected to be weaker in its defense of free speech in other countries under a leader who campaigns on an ‘America First’ mantra.
That impact overseas prompted U.S. Republican Senators, Jeff Flake and John McCain, to warn of the risks Trump was taking in attacking the press. (That didn’t deter Trump from publishing his own “Fake News Award” list on the party’s website.)
“Not only has the past year seen an American president borrow despotic language to refer to the free press, but it seems he has in turn inspired dictators and authoritarians … This is reprehensible,” said Flake. Trump, he said, had used the language of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in branding the media the “enemy of the people.”
This week President Rodrigo Duterte, whom Trump has called “a good man,” effectively shut down Rappler, the Philippines’ most prominent independent news site critical of his regime which has repeatedly questioned his behavior, exposed corruption and accused him of recklessness in his murderous campaign against drug dealers.
In September, the veteran Prime Minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen, engineered the closure of the English-language Cambodia Daily and multiple radio outlets. He has matched moves against the media with restrictions on non-governmental organizations and effectively shut down the official political opposition, accusing them of working together to foment “anarchy” and a color revolution like those in Ukraine and Georgia.
In each case, the moves against media groups were straight out of a playbook familiar to those who have watched Russian President Vladimir Putin use tax demands or investment regulations (New Yorker) to achieve the elimination of media critics without the messy business of arresting editors.
Like Putin, Duterte and Hun Sen have portrayed both non-governmental organizations such as human rights groups and the media as hostile players influenced by foreigners. Of course it’s not just Asia that is experiencing this trend: Hungary and Turkey have populists leaders deploying similar methods to curb free speech and a media that isn’t always compliant.
Rappler vs. Rodrigo
The Philippines, once a beacon of the free press in the region, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), now finds its independent media and journalists increasingly threatened and, in extreme cases, murdered (RSF). Duterte, with whom Trump has hailed as having a “great relationship” has been at war with the press since he took office in 2016.
Though Duterte denied any involvement in the Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) order to shut down Rappler, he always had a particular disdain for the news outlet, once singling it out at a speech before congress last year. “Rappler, try pierce the identity and you will end up [with] American ownership,” he said. That turned out to be the basis on which the SEC withdrew Rappler’s authority to publish – citing financial support it received from the U.S. philanthropic group the Omidyar Network – which disburses funds on behalf of E-Bay founder Pierre Omidyar. The Omidyar Network defended its support for Rappler as legal under Filipino law and said it expected a challenge.
Bloomberg reported last year how Duterte’s administration exploited Facebook to wage a campaign against critics, including Rappler founder and editor Maria Ressa, a Filipina former CNN correspondent. In one example, a 2016 article written by Ressa, titled “Propaganda War: Weaponizing the Internet,” prompted hate-filled messages in response. “I want Maria Ressa to be raped repeatedly to death,” read one.
A 2017 report by the Computational Propaganda Research Project at Oxford University included the Philippines in the list of countries where the government has deployed so-called ‘troll armies’ – mainly bloggers – to spread patriotic messages and falsehoods about its critics.
The Philippines government and its proxies stand accused of effectively creating a climate of disinformation and lack of faith in media. Rappler stood out as an alternative source of the truth.
Ressa told CNN that the company plans to fight the decision. “We plan to take this to the next legal remedy, to the next court, all the way up to the supreme court,” she said. But the ruling against Rappler is another example of attacks on critical media outlets in the region.
‘Descent into outright dictatorship’
In Phnom Penh, The Cambodia Daily was also seen as a beacon of free speech and journalism in the nearly three decades since it was founded in the wake of the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime. It was forced to close late last year after it was slapped with a $6.3 million tax bill, which its publishers said was politically motivated.
In a final act of defiance, The Cambodia Daily published its last edition with the headline: “Descent Into Outright Dictatorship,” aimed at Hun Sen, and with a photograph showing the arrest of Cambodia’s main opposition leader, Kem Sokha, on treason charges.
Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander in power for more than 30 years, has directly quoted Trump’s attacks on the media, especially when CNN published a report on sex trafficking, which he thought to be exaggerated. “CNN deserves the rantings of President Donald Trump,” Hun Sen said at a graduation ceremony (The Cambodia Daily). “His rantings are right. I would like to send a message to the president that your attack on CNN is right. American media is very bad.” Hun Sen has said he regards the media as a promoter of anarchy against his promise of stability.
Moves against media in countries like Cambodia, the Philippines – along with Thailand and even the emerging democracy of Myanmar – match a shift in the emphasis from the United States under President Trump of the importance of free speech, independent media and political plurality. Trump appeared not to raise human rights issues (Washington Post) in those allied countries during his recent Asia visit. As a result, leaders throughout the region no longer feel watched by the world.
“The hard-edged government of Hun Sen knows a green light for oppression when it sees one, and it’s now engaged in a multi-pronged crackdown on the free press and the political opposition,” wrote Eric Pape, who worked briefly at the Cambodia Daily, in a recent commentary in The Daily Beast.
Apart from the tacit or unwitting support of Trump, Hun Sen in Cambodia is also keenly aware of his country’s close relationship with China (Think Progress). With China’s support, which includes financial backing, Hun Sen is emboldened to take bolder moves to crackdown on media and opposition groups.
The silence of Aung San Suu Kyi
A Nobel Prize winner who once demanded a free press, Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been one of the most surprising invokers of “fake news.”
Her first response to the crisis of reports of the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslim minority was that it was being distorted by a “huge iceberg of misinformation calculated to create a lot of problems between different communities and with the aim of promoting the interest of the terrorists.” When a Rohingya woman described her account of rape, Aung San Suu Kyi’s Facebook page called her story an example “Fake Rape.” (now removed).
In a move to further silence the press, Myanmar’s authorities arrested two Reuters journalists covering the crisis by charging them with offence under the Official Secrets Act in Myanmar. They could face up to 14 years in prison.
At home, there has been little outcry over the plight of the Rohingya in Buddhist-dominated Myanmar. The United Nations termed the crisis “ethnic cleansing,” though many in Myanmar – and the constitution of the country – do not recognize them as an ethnic people. “There is no such thing as Rohingya,” a security official told the New York Times.
‘A handy cudgel’
From communist-led Vietnam to the military dictatorship and monarchy of Thailand, press freedom in Southeast Asia has been declining for more than a decade. Islamic populism is gaining traction in Indonesia. Thailand’s military junta, entwined with the powerful monarchy, remains entrenched in Thai society.
Freedom House’s latest version of its Freedom in the World shows that press freedom is increasingly endangered in Southeast Asia as “repressive regimes continue to consolidate their power”. Vietnam is rated 20-out-of-100 in the Freedom index, Cambodia 30/100 and Thailand 31/100 – “not free”. The Philippines rated 62/100 or “partly free”.
Dictatorial regimes have been restricting media long before Trump; but the U.S. president has “given them a handy cudgel with which to beat their own media into submission,” wrote Asia veteran journalist Keith B. Richburg for the Nikkei Asian Review. “It allows them to dismiss the foreign media, particularly U.S. outlets, as dishonest – parroting the Trump line.”