Governments across Southeast Asia have little incentive to protect freedom of expression domestically but steps taken by both domestic and international actors could mean the difference between freedom and its opposite.
All of the countries of Southeast Asia currently sit in the bottom half of the World Press Freedom Index, with four – Brunei, Laos, Singapore and Vietnam – ranked below 150 in the 180-country list, and Myanmar expected to join them following its February 2020 coup.
In these countries, critical coverage is not formally banned but there is no presumption of the right to publish. In Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand, for example, a theoretical commitment to freedom of expression is marred by restrictive legislation, intimidation and even the killing of journalists.
The media in Southeast Asia faces two problems – vaguely worded laws open to abuse and politically-motivated prosecutions – and, in the absence of robust independent courts willing to challenge these governments, politicians have been able to pursue personal vendettas against publications and individuals with few limitations.
Without independent courts, even those countries with rules-based legal systems, will fail to defend dissenting voices against politicians in power.
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