Beyond the Absence of Killings and Arrests

Efforts to combat attacks against media workers and foster a safer media environment must also focus on the personal nature of media safety. Although there is definitely a need for activism that pushes for changes in restrictive regulations, this goal is long-term.

01. Introduction

Media workers in Southeast Asia are exposed to many risks, especially those who are critical of authoritarian governments or who cover issues that fight against the interests of powerful socio-political groups. Reporters without Borders (2022) reported that from January to April 2022 alone, 21 media workers—including those who are not journalists—have been imprisoned across Southeast Asia, with one journalist killed. In 2021, four journalists were killed in Myanmar and the Philippines, while 107 in Myanmar and 24 in Vietnam were imprisoned (Reporters Without Borders 2021). These figures paint a harrowing picture of the fate of media workers who “cross the line”, yet they still fail to capture the full range of attacks that media workers face in the course of their work. 

Killings, kidnappings and arrests are at the extreme end of the spectrum of attacks against media workers, but it would be a mistake to assume that the absence of killings and arrests means that a media worker is safe to do their job (Sarikakis 2017, 123; Torsner 2017). Media workers face a wide range of risks and dangers that impinge on their day-to-day work, including surveillance, intimidation and harassment, and these threats also deserve serious attention.

This study explores the threats to media workers’ safety by gauging their experiences of various kinds of reprisals and their sense of safety. Over September and October 2021 we conducted an exploratory survey of 277 independent media workers from or in nine Southeast Asian countries: Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor Leste and Vietnam. Despite not being representative of the whole media worker population in the region, this study has several findings about media safety in Southeast Asia. 

  1. Despite not being covered regularly in the media or by many advocacy organisations, it is likely that reprisals are commonplace among independent media workers.
  2. Reprisals due to media work have a gendered dimension
  3. Respondents’ personal experiences facing government reprisals due to their media work is correlated with how they feel about their governments’ attitudes towards independent media.
  4. Lack of safety in the media environment affects democracy by limiting the kinds of information that the general public can utilise in public discourse, which affects public decision making.

Methodology

This research is a continuation of a qualitative study we conducted in 2021 and is preliminary in nature. We do not aim to test a particular theory regarding media safety but rather strive to understand more about the day-to-day risks that media workers in Southeast Asia face in their work. 

A quantitative survey is appropriate to serve this purpose for two main reasons. First, it allows us to reach a large number of respondents in a short period of time. Given that this study is an extension of our earlier qualitative work (see Primandari, Hassan, and Melasandy 2021), expanding our sample and using a quantitative approach is a good way to further explore the issues of media safety that our earlier study uncovered. Second, the nature of surveillance, harassment, intimidation and media workers’ fears makes it difficult to rely on observation or records made by an external party, such as newspapers, which tend to track more overt violations against the media, such as legal charges, killing and assault. A survey allows individual respondents to self-report their experiences of harmful incidents that are difficult for external parties to capture.

In analysing our survey, we tried to contextualise the numbers that we generate since numbers on their own have little explanatory value (Bevir and Rhodes 2016, 19; D’Ignazio and Klein 2020, 156–57). We complement our survey results with some of the qualitative findings that we obtained from the first iteration of our research in 2021 and supplementary interviews that we conducted while analysing our survey results. 

The survey used in this study was distributed from 22 September to 25 October 2021. The questionnaire covered perceptions of media freedom, access to information, financial sustainability, the government’s and public’s treatment of independent media, and respondents’ activism. These are  variables and attributes that we selected and as well as how we measured them: 

a. Attacks against media workers

Attacks can be legal, physical or online—and can be carried out by both state and non-state actors. We then asked respondents whether they have faced any forms of these attacks. They could choose an option from a 5-point Likert scale for frequency (never, rarely, sometimes, often and always). For questions on experiences of online harassment, respondents were given an additional option (“I am unsure”), to recognise that sometimes it may be difficult to distinguish whether perpetrators are state or non-state actors due to the anonymity that social media and the internet allow. Table 1 summarises the attacks against media workers that we gauged through our survey.

To complement findings of the above, we also gauged whether respondents have experienced specific forms of attacks or threats. These experiences are described in Table 2 below. 

b. Media workers’ sense of safety

To acknowledge that a sense of safety is an important component of safety, we asked respondents about whether their governments’ and the public’s attitude towards independent media has made them feel unsafe. Since fear is likely to be shared with one’s close relatives or friends, we also asked respondents whether their friends and/or family have advised them to be careful about the content that they publish. Table 3 lists the attributes that we used to assess respondents’ sense of safety in doing their media work.

In addition to presenting the descriptive statistics for these findings, we also tested the correlation between respondents’ experience with reprisals and their sense of unsafety while controlling for their friends and/or families warning about their work-related safety. The latter is treated as a control variable because it is plausible that a respondent’s fear of their work’s repercussion is influenced by whether their families have expressed concerns over their safety. 

c. The effects of attacks against media workers on the production of information

This study gauges the effects of attacks against media workers on democracy by assessing whether they influence the production of information in the media: what information gets curated, published and circulated. We were able to illustrate the way that attacks and the hostile climate against the media influence respondents’ own actions and decisions in their production of information and thus infer how they may affect what we read, see or hear in media. We did this by gauging respondents’ experiences in changing their publication content due to fear, their perceptions of whether their colleagues have done so and whether potential sources have declined to give information due to reasons related to safety. Table 4 lays out the attributes that we used to gauge how attacks against media workers affect the production of information.

This study mainly concerns itself with risks that independent media workers face in the Southeast Asian media landscape due to the likelihood that independent media workers have relatively more freedom in determining their stories and being critical compared to their state-affiliated counterparts (Begoyan 2009, 5; Xu and Wang 2022, 358). We define independent media workers as those whose profession entails the collection, production and publication of information in either text or non-text format, such as illustrations, comics, radio and podcasts, who are not funded by or affiliated with their respective governments.

Unfortunately, no available sample frame currently exists for this specific population and constructing one is beyond our resources. To sample independent media workers for the purpose of this study, we employed the respondent-driven sampling (RDS) method which relies on the existence of social networks and respondents’ ability to pass on the survey (or information about the survey) to their networks (Salganik and Heckathorn 2004, 196). 

As New Naratif is an organisation which has relationships with many media workers, our seeds were initially selected from the media workers with whom we have had relations and with who we had interviewed for our initial qualitative study. The survey was administered online and at the end of the survey, the survey platform gave each respondent a unique code that they would need to pass on to their peers to recruit them. To incentivise respondents to recruit their peers, we rewarded respondents with $5 for each person that they successfully recruited, up to 10 people.

Though we had initially hoped that our final sample would be representative, its small size, our inability to reach media workers in certain countries and the low number of recruitment waves meant that we had not obtained a sample that is representative of the overall population of independent media workers in the region. The limited outreach of our survey also does not preclude us from presenting a “snapshot” of what working in media is like for independent media workers who are in close proximity to us or those who work in the same industry as New Naratif. Table 5 presents the overall makeup of our 277 respondents.

The makeup of our sample imposes several limitations on this study. First, due to the small sample size, the results of our survey are not generalisable to the whole population of media workers in Southeast Asia. Second, the disproportionality between sample sizes from countries renders it inappropriate to carry out by-country comparison. As more than half of our respondents were from Indonesia, our findings are skewed towards the Indonesian context. Therefore, rather than focusing on how different countries fare in terms of media freedom and ensuring the safety of their media workers, we chose to emphasise the experiences that our respondents have faced in carrying out their work in independent media. 


02. Reprisals due to Work in Independent Media

Our survey found that 54.5% of our respondents have experienced some form of reprisal from the government due to their work in independent media. Figure 1 breaks down these experiences among those individuals based on the general type of attack or threat and perceived frequency.

Similarly, 54.9% of respondents said that they have faced some form of reprisal from the public. Figure 2 presents the details of these experiences. 

Figures 1 and 2 show that online harassment is the most common form of harassment among respondents. This finding suggests that online harassment is easier to carry out against media workers because it does not specific skills or expensive equipment and is relatively easier to get away with in comparison to legal and physical threats. 

As we acknowledge that the internet allows people to browse and interact with anonymity and that online bots may be deployed to target people with critical views online (Timmerman 2021), which may make it difficult for victims of online harassment to discern who the perpetrators are, we asked respondents whether they have experienced harassment by such accounts. We found that 39.7% of respondents reported having experienced online harassment from trolls, cybertroopers or buzzers (Figure 3).

We found a gendered pattern among respondents’ experiences of attacks. Table 6 shows that across all sources of reprisals—government or the public—and be it online or offline, more men reported incidents of repression compared to their women counterparts. The correlations between whether the respondent was male or female and their experiences of reprisals were also statistically significant for both sources of reprisals, at Spearman’s rho (255)=.215, p=.001 for government reprisals and Spearman’s rho (258)=.154, p=.013 for those coming from the public.

We also compared the gendered differences in respondents’ experiences of specific attacks and acts of intimidation, as presented in Table 7.

From the specific attacks and acts of intimidation listed in Table 7, we found a positive and significant correlation between whether a respondent was male or female and whether they have experienced arrests, detentions or convictions (Spearman’s rho (260)=.142, p=.022). As arrests, detentions and convictions are carried out by the state whereas the other listed attacks could be carried out by either state or non-state actors, this correlation might indicate that, compared to women media workers, men media workers are more likely to cover topics that are unfavourable to hostile governments or topics that can incur legal charges. 

Our survey findings support this possibility. More male respondents cover “hard” topics such as domestic politics and crime and law compared to women respondents, while the majority of respondents who cover “soft” topics such as lifestyle and arts and culture are women. Table 8 breaks down the topic coverage of men and women respondents.

The data presented in Table 8 corresponds with the interviews that we had with four women journalists from Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia, who told us that women are less likely to be assigned topics or stories that are seen as “tougher” or riskier (personal interviews, 20 and 25 January, 3 February 2022).

An Indonesian investigative journalist who has covered environmental issues shared that her editor has expressed concerns over her reporting alone and often insisted that she be accompanied by a male colleague (personal interview, 20 January 2022).

A Vietnamese journalist shared that it is a common perception that women journalists are less suitable for jobs that require long travel, meaning that in comparison to their male counterparts, women journalists are more likely to be assigned “lighter” jobs at the office (personal interview, 25 January 2022). 

The differences between men and women media worker’s beats or topics should not be equated with “women having it easier than men”; the specific challenges that women media workers face may not be captured because they may not be directly linked to “media work” per se but rather women media workers’ gender identities. For example, some of the women research participants from our 2021 study and follow up interviews earlier this year mentioned sexual harassment and violence to be an additional challenge that women media workers face (personal interviews, 15 July and 15 September 2021, 20 and 24 January 2022). Gender discrimination in the workplace—such as the gender pay gap (personal interview, 3 February 2022), fewer promotion opportunities for women (personal interview, 15 July 2021) and the perception that women are more suitable for certain stories than others (personal interview, 24 and 25 January 2022)—also impedes women media workers from having the opportunity to pursue stories of their interest. 

Overall, this section shows that attacks against media workers cannot be narrowly defined through arrests or deaths. Online harassment being the most common form of attack points to how the increasing use and role of the internet opens up more avenues for attacks against media workers. The overall frequency data illustrates that such attacks are still quite likely to happen and therefore are something that respondents are likely to worry about in their day-to-day jobs.


03. Creating a Climate of Fear

Given that one of the main purposes of attacks on the media is to deter media workers from publishing views or information that are unfavourable to those in power or particular groups in society, we set out to measure the extent to which negative attitudes by governments and the public make our respondents  unsafe. As many as 203 or 73.3% of our respondents reported that they have felt unsafe due to their governments’ attitude towards independent media. 

We also found a significant and positive correlation between respondents’ experiences in facing government reprisals and feeling unsafe due to the government’s attitude towards independent media while controlling for friends’ and families’ concerns about safety (Spearman’s rho(269) = .277; p<.001). 

Next, we assessed how the public’s attitude towards independent media affects our respondents’ sense of safety. We found that 58.6% of respondents said that they have felt unsafe due to the public’s attitude. Figure 5 presents the details of their frequencies.

The number of respondents who have felt unsafe due to the public is lower than those who have felt unsafe due to their governments’ attitudes, though is still the majority of respondents. This lower number could be influenced by respondents’ perceptions about whether the public supports independent media—our survey found that 174 or 62.8% of respondents believed that the general public is supportive of independent media.

This section has been dedicated to demonstrating how hostile attitudes against independent media affect how safe our respondents felt about working in their media environment. The above findings correspond with the answers that our respondents gave to our open-ended question which gauged their aspiration and definition of media freedom. A significant portion of respondents associated media freedom with freedom from fear or reprisals due to their media work.


04. How a Hostile Media Environment Threatens Democracy

A free and independent media is often argued to be an important pillar of democracy due to its role as a watchdog over the government and providing information to the people (Whitten-Woodring 2009, 596). This pillar can only function when media workers are free to work without being subject to pressure or threats. Prior research in contexts outside Southeast Asia has found that attacks and fear may discourage media workers from being critical in their news or information production (see for example Elbaz et al. 2017; Walulya and Nassanga 2020), affecting the information that gets published and read by the wider public. 

Our survey results show that attacks against our respondents do affect what they end up publishing. We found that 49.8% of our respondents have concealed, changed or taken down their publication material or content for a variety of reasons, including acting in response to attacks and intimidation. Table 9 shows that attacks, threats and intimidation against media workers from both government authorities and the public have resulted in respondents changing, concealing or taking down their publication content.

We recognise that the act of concealing, changing or taking down one’s own content may be viewed negatively by respondents, which may discourage them from answering truthfully. We also understand that the practice is not one that occurs in isolation especially if it is encouraged or shaped by the broader socio-political contexts. Therefore, we also gauged our respondents’ perceptions of whether their peers have had to conceal, change or take down their content due to fear or direct pressure. Figure 6 shows that most of our respondents have colleagues who have concealed, changed or taken down their content due to fear or direct pressure. 

Pressure on media workers does not always come from government authorities or the public; pressure and constraints on media workers’ freedom to produce and publish information can also come from within their own newsrooms. Several respondents in the open-ended section of our survey also mentioned that their vision of media freedom entails not being subject to the influence of media owners and their seniors in the newsroom. 

Dynamics and decisions made within newsrooms are unlikely to be isolated from the role of personal networks and economic and political influences. For example, in Indonesia where media ownership is dominated by politicians or partisan conglomerates (Tapsell 2017), editorial decisions are embedded with political interests which may preclude politically-sensitive investigative stories from being published (focus group discussion, 13 July 2021). 

The production of information does not only rely on media workers but also on the ability and willingness of sources to provide information. In the open-ended section of the survey, 31 respondents (or 11.2%) associated their conceptions of media freedom with their ability to access information, with 2 mentioning that sources should be able to speak without facing reprisals. We also asked respondents if their requests for information have been declined by potential sources. Figure 7 shows that 93.9% of respondents said that their potential sources have refused to provide them with information.

We asked respondents whose requests for information have been refused what the reasons for the refusals were. Table 10 shows that potential sources’ reasons to refuse requests for information vary and that concerns over one’s authority to provide information and safety form two of the top three reasons

These findings illustrate how direct and indirect influence from state and non-state actors can affect what media workers get to publish. 

Direct influence can entail: 

  • Demands to alter or take down a particular content or to prevent the publication of a particular story or content altogether
  • Negative consequences when these demands are not fulfilled

Indirect influence can entail: 

  • Media workers’ fears that are caused by the overall hostile climate against the media
  • Economic and personal ties that shape decision-making within media outlets 
  • Potential sources’ fear of possible repercussions for revealing sensitive information. 

This then affects what the general public can learn from the media, hurting democratic practice. First, concealing information violates people’s right to make informed decisions. Second, such concealing is likely to benefit those who are in power, therefore affecting how, or even whether, political figures are held accountable. In authoritarian political settings, these practices are likely to benefit incumbents and their political agenda through the imbalance of critical coverage, which is often heavily directed against dissidents. This results in an uneven playing field for political debates and competition, which makes the political process undemocratic.


05. Conclusion: A Demand for Safety Training and Collective Care for Media Workers

This study makes two main arguments. 

First, our findings show that attacks against independent media workers in Southeast Asia are not limited to assassinations and arrests. Intimidation and harassment are common among our respondents and that media safety entails digital, physical and legal safety as well as the feeling of safety. 

Second, attacks on media workers are attacks against the media as an institution, but also as targetted attacks on specific individuals and their identities.  These attacks are prevalent and continue to happen because of the culture of impunity (Hayton 2021; IFJ 2020) and the lack of institutional support for media workers who are faced with such attacks. Holton et al (2021, 4) criticised how journalists are often left to fend for themselves in the face of the evolving forms of attacks, such as online threats and harassment, by following guidelines on how to respond to traditional forms of attacks. Our conversations with freelance journalists and artists in 2021 found that the overall situation is often worse for those who are not formally employed, who often lack the legal connections and resources that media organisations offer to their employees. 

Therefore, efforts to combat attacks against media workers and foster a safer media environment must also focus on the personal nature of media safety. Advocacy for changes in laws and institutional commitments requires a significant amount of effort and time, in which the safety of the individual media worker cannot wait. 

We suggest that addressing the personal nature of attacks against media workers, strategies to fight for media freedom include efforts to equip media workers with the means to effectively respond to attacks — especially to those who cover issues that may incur reprisals from a hostile government or public.

But what kind of safety training is appropriate? 

Høiby and Garrido V.’s (2020, 69) assessment of several safety training manuals by international and local organisations concluded that safety training should consider the local contexts such as 

  • Regime type
  • Social institutions
  • Legal issues
  • Globalisation
  • Technological advancement 
  • Differences in journalistic or media practices—


There needs to be a comprehensive understanding of such threats and contexts  before any training is designed. Other variables that may affect a media worker’s experience and therefore need to be considered include gender, race, citizenship status, and the specific role or job of the media worker. For example, although the role of local fixers are essential for the media industry, especially the success of foreign correspondence, the lack of recognition of their roles in comparison to foreign journalists from international outlets (Brooten and Verbruggen 2017, 442, 455; Baloch and Andresen 2020, 40) likely means that the dangers that fixers face are not paid as much attention, despite the fact that many fixers are also journalists themselves (Plaut and Klein 2019, 1699).

Another method of support is to establish a space for media workers to connect, share experiences and support each other. Due to the dangerous nature of media work in Southeast Asia, it is highly likely that taking up the job comes with fear and emotional distress (see for example Fishbein 2022; Ontheline 2022), suggesting the need for spaces for collective care. These spaces may allow media workers to access or participate various forms of resources or activities, from professional psycho-social support to informal sharing sessions with fellow media workers. In a context where non-democratic governments have the power to define and impose narratives that are in accordance with their interests, articulating one’s own experiences and stories can be empowering. It is important to note that no one size fits all when it comes to collective care, as people may feel empowered and supported in different ways. We hope to explore these methods further in our next publication, which discusses the foundation of our upcoming media freedom network for media workers in this region.


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Appendix

Credits

Beyond the Absence of Killings and Arrests:
Exploring “Media Safety” in the Context of Southeast Asia

Publication Year: 2022

Author Fadhilah Fitri. Primandari

Research Team Fadhilah Fitri. Primandari (Democracy Researcher), Sahnaz Melasandy (Network Coordinator), Samira Hassan (Research Editor)

Editor Michael Barr (Flinders University)

Art Director Ellena Ekarahendy

Graphic Designer Ellena Ekarahendy, Mufqi Hutomo

Illustrator Ozora

Funding The Media Freedom in Southeast Asia Research Project is funded by the National Endowment for Democracy, Grant No. 2020-08984.

This research report, excluding its illustrations, is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/. All illustrations are property of their respective illustrators.

Please cite this report as Primandari, F. F. 2022. Beyond the Absence of Killings and Arrests: Exploring “Media Safety” in the Context of Southeast Asia. Media Freedom in Southeast Asia Series. No. 2. New Naratif.


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