Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte

After this week’s criminal conviction of Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos Jr — of the Philippines online news organisation — journalists face jail and new voices around the region will be chilled.

Across the Asia-Pacific, new digital media like Rappler have given a critical overlay to accountability journalism. It’s been fresh, challenging and provocative. Now it’s being targeted by governments, often using bespoke cyber crime laws.

The Philippines Trial Court decision on Monday has been widely condemned, including by the International Press Institute. (Ressa is a member of its executive board and I’m an adviser to the institute.)

“Maria Ressa has been convicted for her fearless journalism and speaking truth to power,” board chair Markus Spillmann says. “This ruling serves as a warning to all independent journalists in the country.” 

Ressa, Santos and Rappler were indicted for “cyber libel” in 2017 under the 2012 Cybercrime Prevention Act. The story in question was originally published five years earlier — before the law came into effect. (The court ruled corrections to punctuation in 2014 amounted to it being republished.)

Ressa and Rappler have been targeted by President Rodrigo Duterte and his allies, particularly since he was elected in 2016.

It started with online attacks and social media trolling and built to arrests and other legal harassment. On top of this week’s cyber libel conviction (which Rappler and Santos are appealing), eight cases are pending ranging from tax laws to foreign ownership rules. Ressa faces nearly 100 years in jail.

Rappler is the major example of how the Asia-Pacific’s emerging digital media bears the brunt of media freedom violations, increasingly inspired by (or hidden behind) the emergency response to COVID-19.

Even before the pandemic, governments had been taking legitimate concerns about “fake news” online to give themselves new powers — or repurpose old powers — to crack down on journalism and public commentary.

Here’s a particularly shocking example: Sovann Rithy, from Cambodia online news TVFB, is in jail for posting on his Facebook page a public quote from Prime Minister Hun Sen: “If motorbike-taxi drivers go bankrupt, sell your motorbikes for spending money. The government does not have the ability to help.”  

Cambodian authorities said Hun Sen was joking and Rithy was arrested for “incitement to cause chaos and harm social security”, which carries a prison sentence up to two years and a fine of up to four million riel (A$1,392).

In India Siddharth Varadarajan, founding editor of Indian news site The Wire, has been charged with “spreading panic”. In the context of attacks on Muslims after participants at a religious gathering in Delhi spread the virus, Varadarajan tweeted a reminder that large Hindu gatherings were held or planned even after the lockdown was announced. (Varadarajan is an adviser to Australia’s Judith Neilson Institute which supports Crikey.)

The IPI tracker on media freedom violations related to COVID-19 (there are 338 cases worldwide) has created a specific category of excessive regulation of fake news, such as Thailand’s time-limited emergency decree in March that made it a crime to share “misinformation” online about the virus, or a new law in the Philippines imposing two months’ prison or fines up to US$19,500 for spreading “fake news” about the virus. (It’s already been used against an online news portal.)

In Singapore the government used its Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act passed last October to order New Naratif to take down a story that, ironically, was seeking to explain how the law works.

Governments have been restricting access to information for online media.

Again in the Philippines, the emergency regulations block independent (usually digital) media from covering official briefings on COVID-19 in the country. They can submit questions beforehand and watch by video-conference, but cannot seek clarification afterwards.

These examples show how governments are intensifying their actions to bring journalism to heel, particularly the independent, questioning journalism of the new digital media.