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To mark the 9th International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists (IDEA) on 2 November, media workers from around Southeast Asia gathered together with international stakeholders to consider the how best to overcome prevailing constraints on regional media - legal, political and cultural.

An online report launch and panel discussions on 2 November 2021.

The United Nations (UN) General Assembly proclaimed IDEA in 2013, both to commemorate the assassination of two French journalists in Mali and to encourage member states to adopt measures to end impunity with respect to crimes against media workers.

While killings are clearly the most extreme dimension of media censorship, journalists are also commonly subjected to numerous other types of violence, creating a climate of fear for media professionals and impeding the free circulation of information, opinions and ideas.

Addressing the problem requires the investigation and prosecution of all who threaten violence against journalists, both to prevent future crimes and to send a clear message that society will not tolerate attacks that undermine the right to freedom of expression.

To mark the event on 2 November, an online public discussion was held by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and Prachatai, an independent online newspaper based in Bangkok.  Prachatai also launched a special report on challenges faced by Thai journalists in recent years, regional trends related to the safety of  journalists, and the role of judiciary in bettering the investigation and prosecution of crimes against media workers.

The need to be protected

The 2 November commemoration included a panel discussion by investigative journalists from Thailand and Myanmar.  They talked about the risks they face performing their work and also considered a situation report about media safety in Thailand.

Crowd control police pulling on a reporter covering a protest (Photo from iLaw)

Katia Chirizzi, the Deputy Regional Representative, OHCHR Regional Office for South-East Asia said that the protection of civic and democratic space is crucial for democracy and the enjoyment of other human rights. The Southeast Asia region has seen an increase in attacks on journalists in various forms which affect media workers, who often resort to self-censorship.

"The work of journalists and media workers across the region and in Thailand must be protected. The democratic space of free expression is vital for human rights and also for fostering understanding and dialogue needed to advance overall efforts to achieve sustainable development goals in the region," said Katia.

"In Asia and the Pacific, journalists are facing an increasingly hostile working environment as the democratic space continues to shrink. Female journalists are particularly subjected to harassment and threat, especially online. When threats of violence and attacks on journalists are not properly investigated, this often leads to more aggression and even murder, the ultimate form of media censorship," said Shigeru Aoyagi, Director of UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, UNESCO Bangkok.

Soe Myint, the founder and editor of Mizzima News in Myanmar, explained the grave situation for media safety in Myanmar, which was highly exacerbated by the February 2021, resulting in hundreds of journalists being arrested and, on occasion, subjected to beatings and torture.

Censors have revised permissible language, prohibiting the use of words like "junta", "coup" or "regime".  The laws and courts have been systematically used to suppress dissent and keep publications from “inciting anti-establishment sentiment” with the critical comments of journalists and citizens. Increased tensions and armed conflicts around the country have also led to more dangerous working conditions, particularly for those working in the overlooked ethnic media operating in conflict zones.

Soe Myint urged pressure from inside and outside the country to repeal the laws that now stifle press freedom.

"I encouraged all governments, journalists and regional associations to work together to bring about an environment for press freedom in the Greater Mekong region that truly allows for freedom of information while respecting the need to be balanced and professional under context of media activities," said Soe Myint

A situation report on Thailand indicates that media workers in the country have also been facing increased risk while performing their duties.

Key findings

  • 2 journalists lost their lives while reporting on the protest dispersion in 2010. Perpetrators were never apprehended,
  • Following the surge of public protest calling for a political and monarchy reform in 2020 , at least 5 mass media workers and 3 citizen journalists were arrested while reporting at the protest sites, 14 were reportedly shot by rubber bullets, 3 were physically assaulted and 4 injured by explosive devices.
  • In Southern Thailand, media workers continue to find themselves in the middle of confrontations between the state and local insurgents and are subject to arbitrary detention. News sources and the families of journalists have occasionally been threatened by authorities.
  • Between 20032019, at least 13 cases of defamation and contempt of court lawsuits were filed against journalists over their coverage and comments about the public impact of private firm activities and development projects.

Jutharat Kultankitja, a reporter from Prachatai, called upon Thai authorities to take part in creating an environment that is safer and friendlier for media workers on the ground. She also called upon existing media associations to take a firm stand to ensure media safety and demanded that those engaged in media harassment be punished.

A tool for protection

In addition to discussing the prevailing media environment, a ‘Guidelines for prosecutors on cases of crimes against journalists’, published by UNESCO and the International Association of Prosecutors, was presented to improve methods for investigating and prosecuting crimes against journalists in Mekong countries.

The guideline is undergoing Thai translation at UNESCO. For an English version, click here.

Sabin Ouellet, author of the Guidelines and senior prosecutor in Canada, said that human rights violations against journalists interfere with the work of journalism and promote self censorship.

The guideline suggests that when crimes against journalists occur, investigators must respect the confidentiality and safety of stakeholders, the victims of the crime.  Effective investigations also require that social factors, like power relations between genders, be kept in mind.  

New legislation is also needed to deepen the legal base for pro-active investigations as well as assure effective prosecution and case closure.

Yongyoot Srisattayachon from Thailand's International Affairs Department, Office of the Attorney General noted that threats against journalists ultimately limit public access to information.

He suggested that within the context of Thailand, the Department for Special Investigations should be tasked with such investigations as it allows prosecutors to take part in the investigation process, which is otherwise left to the the police, who are far less efficient in tracking down perpetrators.

When asked about the case of Fabio Polenghi, an Italian photographer who was shot to death by the authorities during the 2010 protest crackdown in Bangkok, Yongyoot said that he did not know about the case but would be willing to look into it.

Calls to stop a culture of impunity

Prof. Vitit Muntarbhorn, a professor of law at Chulalongkorn University, said that crimes against journalists in the region are a source of shame.  He added that countries in Southeast Asia all have ways of suppressing freedom of expression and freedom of association, affect the work of regional journalism.

He also noted how the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic led not only to the use of emergency laws and disease control laws to curb the disease but also to crack down on political dissent. Multiple abuses have also arisen from new laws designed to stop hackers and cybercrimes.  Broadly interpreted, they have also been use against online expression, labeled as fake news and misinformation.

"Freedom of expression and freedom of association are not absolute rights which cannot be constrained. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other UN-related instruments do not prohibit reasonable limitations on such freedoms but the state must prove objectively...that such limitations comply with international human rights law and are necessarily and proportionate to the risk emanating from an exercise of such freedom,"

"The SEA region is confronted by awfully and excessively used invocations of national security and public order. Indeed, fake national security, fake public order which failed to satisfy those criteria. Leading to a situation where civil space and political space are shrinking, shrunken, shrunk, according to a recent UN report," said Vitit.

Vitit called upon Southeast Asia countries to use their political will for democratisation, revise laws, policies and practices in compliance with human rights laws, and replace criminal punishments under defamation, sedition and lese majeste laws with civil codes drafted in line with international trends.

Additionally, states should also have a high awareness of and rapid response to threats against journalists, both in peace time and in the context of armed conflicts, with due regard to gender-based issues.

"A key component is action against a rampant impunity that undermines the development of this region. UNESCO and friends should show a preferred path to the future by initiating a change of mindset, change of control, and change of power monopoly."

Tewarit Maneechai, Prachatai editor-in-chief urged media associations to include citizen reporters as media workers in order to provide them protection. He also asked for the public to be alert to the limitation of communication freedom and violence against journalists, including structural threats like law and cultural violence. 

"It is an establishment of collective consideration for the population to have all-around information. There may be some bad-quality news but that freedom will guarantee that you will also have some of the good-quality news,"

"In a society filled with fear and violence, without freedom of the press, you will never know whether the news that you are reading is of good quality or not," said Tewarit.

On 11 November 2021, a quote from Prof Vitit was corrected into this:

"Freedom of expression and freedom of association are not absolute rights which cannot be constrained."

 

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