“There is no doubt journalism in Australia has been under attack,” writes Walkley Trustee Michael Janda, an ABC journalist. He cites falling profits, budget cuts and often inept management that have denuded our newsrooms of some of their finest storytellers and investigators; new platforms eating up time for research and writing; and successive governments making it harder to protect sources or threatening journalists with jail for doing journalism. There have been precious few new laws in Australia that make the journalist’s job easier or safer, he notes. But outside Australia, things can be even worse — where journalists’ physical safety is at risk. Janda travelled to France in June as part of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance delegation to the International Federation of Journalists congress in France. He brought back this chilling roundup on the conditions journalists face across the Asia-Pacific region.
Journalism permits, threats to broadcasting licences, caning, jail, torture and death. These are the threats that journalists from around our region deal with daily.
We sometimes read or hear of these things, and occasionally see the aftermath of a journalist’s assassination on our televisions, but seldom do we hear firsthand from the people who confront this reality.
The Asia-Pacific breakout meeting at the recent International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) conference in Angers, France, was a unique chance to hear these stories.
Our comrades’ reports ranged from rare glimmers of optimism to the oppression of journalists and suppression of journalism of the worst kind … and, unfortunately, much more of the latter.
To me, the all-too-brief session highlighted the importance of the work that the MEAA’s Media Safety and Solidarity Fund (MSSF) does across the region, supporting fellow journalists and their families in times of need.
The MSSF has recently been active in Australia’s near neighbour Timor-Leste, with four journalists from that country benefitting from the inaugural Balibo Five-Roger East Fellowship, jointly organised by the MEAA and Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA.
I met recipient Jose Belo at the IFJ Congress, which he was only able to attend through MSSF support.
Belo, a very experienced journalist, will participate in the fellowship by mentoring two younger recipients.
Outside the Asia-Pacific session, I spent hours talking to Belo and David Hugo, the other East Timorese delegate, about the press situation in their country (as well as apologising for Australia’s ongoing attempt to steal their nation’s gas and oil reserves. Fittingly, at one dinner the other Australian delegates managed to empty the wine bottle before it got to Hugo!).
The positive in Timor-Leste is that there are around 600 journalists and a good diversity of outlets for such a small, young and poor nation. Another plus is that they want to be part of the two journalist unions.
The negative is that they have more reason than most to get organised: Every journalist in Timor Leste is now required to go through a government-approved school to be able to work legally.
Effectively, you need a government permit to be a journalist.
While things may not be as dangerous as they were during the brutal Indonesian occupation, this new law is certainly a step back towards those dark old days.
It is not alone amongst Australia’s near neighbours in seeing press freedom go backwards.
Philippines president greenlights attacks
Journalists in the Philippines are no strangers to danger and restrictions on the press — one of the MSSF’s main projects is to support the orphans of dozens of murdered reporters.
At least 34 were killed in a single massacre in the town of Ampatuan in late 2009, many of whose children have been supported by Australian journalists through the MSSF.
However, things have taken a turn for the worse across the country since the election of Rodrigo Duterte as president earlier this year.
In a matter of months he has verbally given a green light to attacks on journalists critical of his regime, and Ryan Rosauro from the Philippines journalists’ union told us many journalists have been subjected to 8-hour to 72-hour shutdowns of their Facebook accounts.
Yet press freedom is not just under attack in the countries where you might expect it.
Even as a relatively developed country, Malaysia has seen press freedom go backwards at an alarming pace.
With evidence mounting that the country’s Prime Minister Najib Razak has benefited from corruption to the tune of hundreds of millions, if not over a billion, dollars, journalists who report on the issue have been under threat.
This threat was brought home to Australian press operating in the country by Malaysia’s detention of multiple Walkley Award winners, ABC Four Corners reporter Linton Besser and cameraman Louie Eroglu.
While this detention was short-lived, thanks in large part to public opinion and pressure from the Australian Government, the situation is far more critical for Malaysian journalists with no foreign power to advocate on their behalf.
Malaysian journalists now face six strokes of the cane for failing to reveal a source when writing stories about the government.
Bloggers critical of the government are being shut down and newspaper stories vetted for their content.
At the IFJ’s Asia-Pacific meeting, reports of these conditions prompted a Cambodian journalist to comment that press freedom was now better in his country than Malaysia.
But elsewhere, the situation is even worse.
Iran, Nepal and Pakistan: attacks and detentions
The Iranian Government closed the journalists’ association in 2009.
Out of its 4,000 members, more than 200 have been detained, while the same amount again have fled the country into exile.
In Nepal, as in Timor Leste, the government is trying to introduce a sort of licence for journalists, requiring mandatory minimum qualifications.
Moreover, well over 100 attacks on the press in recent years have seen around three dozen journalists killed with a further four people missing.
The MSSF has been assisting the children of some of these slain journalists, along with the families of journalists killed in some of the country’s recent natural disasters, some of whom are electing to follow in their parent’s footsteps, despite the grave risks.
But the situation is far worse still in Pakistan, where the IFJ has recorded 115 journalist deaths in the past 25 years — including 14 in 2014 and three in 2015 — placing it as the fourth-most dangerous country for the press to work in, behind Iraq, the Philippines and Mexico.
With Taliban and ISIS infiltration only increasing, there are no signs that Pakistan will become any safer for journalists in 2016 – already this year the death toll has overtaken last year’s.
But there is some good news in Asia-Pacific journalism.
The bright spot
The tiny island of Vanuatu supports one daily and three weekly newspapers.
The country’s fledgling journalist union has around a hundred members, and there is even a push on to have freedom of information laws enacted.
The IFJ Asia-Pacific has been supporting the union activists in this nation on their path to a modern, vibrant press.
Another important lesson out of the Asia-Pacific session was that Australian journalists are not alone in the challenges we face to our long-established but threatened media sector.
Colleagues from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan outlined similar problems with shrinking newsrooms, increased deadline pressure and multitasking.
Add to that quite explicit threats by the Japanese Government to the licences of broadcasters seen as overly critical, and Australia is certainly not the worst-placed developed country in which to be practising our craft.
The challenge is to build the solidarity we have with our colleagues around the region, learn from their successes and mistakes, and share the knowledge we have gained from tackling our own challenges.
Most importantly, journalists in countries that maintain a relatively free, well-resourced and vibrant media have a responsibility to assist their colleagues in those countries where such conditions are still a long way off.
The MEAA does this through its Media Safety and Solidarity Fund, which benefits from the annual press freedom dinner and the generosity of Fairfax staff who donate part of their pay rises.
However, with so much work to be done supporting our colleagues fighting for press freedom across the Asia-Pacific, it could use with a lot more help from all of us.
Michael Janda is a senior digital business reporter for the ABC and a MEAA board member, Walkley Trustee and MSSF Trustee. Learn more about the MSSF or donate.