Shrinking Spaces

The Covid-19 pandemic has left its marks on Asia's media landscapes

Governments all over Asia have used the pandemic to restrict press freedom considerably. While established media outlets have been shut down or were forced to engage in self-censorship, smaller and more independent outlets are trying to survive this onslaught on the internet.

The Covid-19 pandemic has left its marks on Asia’s media landscapes. Governments all over Asia have used the pandemic to issue emergency decrees that have shrunk the space for independent journalists considerably. Unsurprisingly, these actions have been especially harsh in countries where the free press was under a lot of pressure already.   

New laws for widespread censorship 

Cambodia and Malaysia belong to the group of countries that already have several laws in place that considerably restrict press freedom and freedom of expression. Nonetheless, both countries passed emergency decrees to extend the government’s censorship powers. Cambodia issued its “Law on National Administration in the State of Emergency” in 2020 that allows the president to censor any journalistic content that he dislikes. Cambodian authorities also shut down several independent media outlets during the pandemic. 

The case of Malaysia is similar. The country, which according to RSF already possesses “a draconian legislative arsenal to restrict press freedom”, also passed an emergency information law in 2021. The “Anti-Fake News Emergency Ordinance” gives the government “complete, arbitrary power” to remove any kind of content that is deemed to be false. 

Contrary to countries like Uzbekistan, which issued laws that restricted press freedom specifically in relation to Covid-19, Cambodia and Malaysia went a step further and implemented laws that give their authorities blunt, universal power to just delete any information they dislike. 

Countries like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan also passed restrictive laws during the pandemic, although they were not framed as emergency laws in reaction to Covid-19. Kazakhstan passed several amendments that make it illegal to publish anything that is deemed to be insulting towards the president. Kyrgyzstan, a country that according to Reporters Without Borders enjoys at least partial press-freedom, has also seen deteriorating press freedom during the pandemic. The government passed an anti-fake news law in 2021 that gives the government the power to ask service providers to block information that it condemns to be false. Moreover, members of parliament have started to encourage protests against independent media outlets. 

Be innovative to stay independent 

These worsening conditions for journalists and independent media outlets all over Asia have turned the web into the last frontier of press freedom in many countries. Internet usage and news consumption over social media platforms is not yet as popular in many Asian countries. TV and radio are traditionally the most popular news outlets. With increasing digital saturation that is beginning to change. The pandemic, as well as the governments’ actions against free media outlets, has forced audiences and journalists alike to embrace the online sphere much faster.

In the Philippines for example, ABS-CBN, formerly the country’s biggest and most trusted TV broadcaster, did not get its licence renewed in 2020 and was shut down. As a consequence ABS-CBN is now an online-only outlet that still reaches a lot of people this way. Nobellaureate Maria Ressa’s online outlet “The Rappler” is another example of independent journalism from the Philippines that tries to persist on the internet.

Similar developments can be observed in Cambodia where popular and independent radio stations like Radio Free Asia or Voice of Democracy have been shut down. There, independent news-startups like Southeast Asia Globe are approaching reporting with new, mixed business models to finance their work and stay independent. According to Splice they use their digital skills to work in fields such as analytics, in order to finance their independent reporting.

Major disruptions of the media landscape 

In Thailand the disruptions caused by the media’s move into the online sphere were particularly strong. In 2020 the country experienced nationwide anti-government protests and the established media outlets habitually engaged in self-censorship when they reported on the incidents. This opened up a window for small, independent outlets that are broadcasting via YouTube and Facebook to attract the mainstream audience. These developments have led to a considerable loss in viewership for established TV outlets, and platforms like Youtube and Facebook have now become the main source of news. 

The independent outlets’ more brazen approach towards reporting has forced established outlets to reduce their amount of self-censorship and pushed the boundaries of what news outlets can publish. 

Governments try to exercise more control over the internet 

But the developments in Thailand are not solely positive. News outlets like Voice TV, that are leading the push for more press freedom have been charged for violations of the Computer Crime Act. According to Reuters Institute, this law has been increasingly used since the outbreak of the protests to target the emerging independent outlets. 

This development is mirrored in other countries that have a similarly hostile attitude towards independent journalists. When news outlets move online to gain more space for independent reporting, governments try to follow.

Countries like Pakistan, Cambodia, Malaysia or Uzbekistan have all used the pandemic to target free speech on the internet and have filed lawsuits against independent online outlets. Vietnam passed a new cybersecurity law as early as 2018 and has issued a decree in 2020 that allows the government to punish anyone who posts offensive content with heavy fines, even when the content is not deemed offensive enough to warrant a verdict. 

Shrinking Spaces

What stands out regarding  many of these laws is the fact that website providers, social networks or website owners are not only made responsible for their own content, but also for content that third parties publish on their websites. It makes them more vulnerable to lawsuits from the government, and also prevents these platforms and websites from becoming spaces for independent and free discussions. 

Meanwhile, news outlets and journalists are not only fighting against censorship and oppression but also have to stay profitable. Stagnating advertising markets, the possibility of becoming financially dependent on governments and corporations, and the difficulties of generating revenues from online journalism are just some of the challenges independent outlets are facing. Spaces for independent reporting are under a lot of pressure.

“Shrinking Spaces” is a research project by Vivien Götz during her intership at the KAS Media Programme Asia.

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