Reporters Without Borders

US database a threat to Southeast Asia press freedom

The US’ plans to keep tabs on outlets and journalists will fuel media crackdowns in Southeast Asia, Reporters Without Borders say

Tom O'Connell
April 11, 2018
US database a threat to Southeast Asia press freedom
A poster in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, advertising the new law on fake news. Anyone found guilty of the law could face up to six years in prison Photo: Fazry Ismail / EPA-EFE

A Reporters Without Borders (RSF) spokesperson has described plans by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to compile a database on media outlets and individual journalists as “very worrying for press freedom in Southeast Asia”.

“Not only is the wording dangerously vague and sounds like East German Stasi-style jargon, but it would create a precedent that could serve as an inspiration and a model for many Southeast Asian governments who want to muzzle press freedom,” said Daniel Bastard, the Asia-Pacific director at RSF.

Bastard added that the database could “work like a bonanza for countries who want to monitor journalists’ and bloggers’ activities”.

He highlighted the cases of Malaysia and Singapore, with the former on the verge of passing a law rendering ‘fake news’ illegal and the latter likely to follow suit.

‘Fake news’ is a favourite term of US President Donald Trump, who has used the allegation frequently to counter criticism of himself and his government.

The fake news law has proven especially controversial in Malaysia, with opponents fearing that it could be used to protect Prime Minister Najib Razak from criticism.  

“This law is necessary for Najib, but not the country. He needs this to put fear in people, that they can go to jail if they criticise him,” Zaid Ibrahim, a former minister in charge of legal affairs, told CNN.

Data on the DHS’ planned list will include the “sentiment” expressed in reports by media outlets and journalists, in addition to personal details on reporters, editors and other media professionals. But the list will also take aim at bloggers and “media influencers”.

The database also seeks “the ability to identify top media influencers” in an effort to track “any and all media coverage related to the Department of Homeland Security or a particular event”, according to a DHS job listing first reported by Forbes.

A spokesman for DHS issued an assurance via Twitter that there is nothing to be worried about, stating: “Despite what some reporters may suggest, this is nothing more than the standard practice of monitoring current events in the media. Any suggestion otherwise is fit for tin foil hat wearing, black helicopter theorists.”

Southeast Asia is home to some of the world’s strictest press regulations. Vietnam ranks 175th out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index 2017, and only Timor-Leste ranks inside the top 100.

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