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Introduction

Attacks against media freedom, and democracy in general, in Southeast Asia are on the rise. Reporters Without Borders (RSF), one of the world’s leading non-governmental organisations advocating for media and press freedom, recorded at least 76 journalists being imprisoned and 1 killed in Southeast Asia this year as of September (Reporters Without Borders, 2021b). RSF’s World Press Freedom Index (2021a) ranks Brunei, Laos, Singapore and Vietnam below 150 among 180 countries, while only one Southeast Asian country, Timor Leste, is ranked above 100.

The sentencing of three journalists in Vietnam earlier in June (Ives, 2021), the military coup in Myanmar and the subsequent revocation of the country’s five leading independent media organisations (Robinson, 2021), as well as the recent ban of The Online Citizen and passing of the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill in Singapore (Mahmud, 2021) further exacerbate the pessimism over the future of democratic space in the region. New Naratif has not been immune to crackdowns and intimidation either—the Singapore Prime Minister’s Office filing of a police report against New Naratif accusing its coverage of the 2021 General Elections as constituting unauthorised election advertising is just one of the attempts by the Singaporean government to silence New Naratif (New Naratif, 2021a). 

Unfortunately, this barely touches the surface of the challenges and dangers that media workers in the region face. While these quantitative indicators used by media freedom rankings offer us some insights into the challenging terrains of the media landscape, they have several shortcomings.

Firstly, they are mostly aggregated at the national level. This neglects the tremendous diversity contained within Southeast Asia.

From “New Naratif – A Platform for Southeast Asia”

Countries in Southeast Asia are homes to a rich number of ethnicities, religions, and languages as well as various socio-economic contexts. However,  current metrics fail to account for the fact that media workers in the same country might have drastically different experiences, depending on their ethnicity, religion, language, location and socio-economic status. These summaries may lead to a simplistic and generalising view of media freedom (or lack thereof) in the region. At the same time, media workers in different countries may face similar experiences—such as those living on different sides of a common border, or those working in major cities.

Secondly, the political contexts of media workers vary widely.

Art by Chuan Ming Ong, from “A New Islamic Populism and the Contradictions of Development”

Political regimes in this region are spread across a spectrum, with the most restrictive and undemocratic ones such as Laos and Vietnam on one side and those that are more liberal and democratic—though unconsolidated—such as the Philippines and Indonesia on the other (EIU, 2020) Within these countries themselves, different provinces, states or cities may be governed differently. For instance, Papua and West Papua in Indonesia have been argued to be governed under subnational authoritarianism (Tapsell, 2015) and the Rakhine state in Myanmar has been subjected to heavy surveillance and harsher restrictions compared to most parts of the country (Looi & Diamond, 2020). There is also often a clear difference in the experiences of those working for state-affiliated media organisations versus those who are either at non-state-owned organisations or freelance workers.

Thirdly, media workers in the region may hold different conceptions of media freedom.

Art by Pssyppl, from “Artists Respond: Hindsight Is 2020”

This is often unaccounted for by global media freedom indices, which mostly use frameworks of media freedom and democracy that originate in Western democratic contexts (Schneider, 2020, p. 18). Asking how media workers in Southeast Asia make sense of media freedom is, therefore, imperative.

For more, read the full report here.

Methodology

Art by Rosmaini Sunarjo, from “Examining the Evolution of “Pendatang”

There is limited research that centres the narratives of media workers. Surveys and large-scale comparative indices, such as Freedom House’s “Freedom of the Press”, the Media Sustainability Index by the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) can be helpful in understanding broad trends and challenges facing media freedom in Southeast Asia.  However, the numbers in these studies do not tell us much unless they are embedded with narratives (see Stone 2016). More narratives need to be told from the perspectives of those who live in the places that these indices and surveys seek to summarise.

Against this backdrop, we strive to explore the meaning of media freedom in Southeast Asia from the lens of independent media workers themselves. Large-scale studies on media freedom in Southeast Asia often do not differentiate between media workers working for independent media and those working for state-affiliated media organisations. As there has been much coverage on government efforts to punish those who voice dissent and are perceived as a threat to their power and legitimacy, including independent media workers (see Quackenbush et al., 2018; Sandoval, 2021), asking independent media workers about their experiences in working in the Southeast Asian media space could give us valuable insights into the dimensions of media freedom that are not always discussed. Through their stories, we hope to shed more light onto issues that have not received much attention. 

We used an exploratory approach to the question of media freedom in Southeast Asia in our effort to bring more stories of lived experiences to the heart of the Southeast Asian media freedom study and activism. Throughout our research from July to October 2021, we spoke with 44 independent media workers—journalists and illustrators, freelance and formally employed—and representatives of independent media organisations. Our participants came from 8 Southeast Asian countries, namely Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Each of our focus group discussions and interviews lasted between 40 minutes to three hours.

We asked our research participants about their experiences in producing stories and artwork, the challenges that they face in their work, and how they navigate them. At different points of our conversations, we posed the imperative question, “what does media freedom mean and look like to you?” 

For more, read the full report here.

Positionality, Ethics and Limitations

Art by Adriena Fong, from “The False Scarcity in Singapore’s Meritocracy”

Positionality

No social research is value-free, nor do we believe that they should strive for such an objective. We argue that research, especially about marginalised, struggling and oppressed communities, should be empowering for participants. This study is part of a wider project that aims to foster wider networks and engagement among independent media workers in Southeast Asia. Thus, the aim of this study goes beyond unearthing the experiences of independent media workers in the region; it also seeks to develop strategies to help independent media workers in the region navigate and resist the challenges of working under hostile conditions. This aim feeds into our decision to employ participatory methods that allowed research participants to interact and exchange knowledge and stories. 

Our participatory approach means that we regard the people whom we interviewed as “research participants” rather than “research subjects”. We sat down together and asked as well as sought their advice on how we may support them. Taking this position does not mean that it sets aside our ability to think critically of the issues raised during our discussions. Rather, we try to think together with our participants instead of prescribing a top-down solution, policy or programme. 

We regard ourselves as part of the Southeast Asian independent media community. We often relied on our established networks to carry out this research. This means that we interviewed and discussed with some of our own friends and colleagues. While the information that we convey in this report is objective in the sense that it is based on the experiences of our research participants, our own experiences in working in and navigating the challenging Southeast Asian media environment nevertheless affect the way we understand and empathise with the participants in this research. We regard this as a strength rather than a limitation, as it helped us to not only immerse ourselves in the narratives shared by our participants but also to value this project beyond the goals of providing empirical explanations. 

Research Limitations

We acknowledge that our exploratory approach has its limitations. 

Firstly, we make no claims to be statistically representative nor exhaustive in the dimensions or issues that we discuss. Our constrained timeframe and outreach resulted in the limited number of people as well as countries that we could cover and include in this report. We were not able to interview media workers from Brunei, Laos, and Timor Leste. While we were able to speak to participants from the other eight Southeast Asian countries, we recognise that the limited number of individuals we talked to alongside our inability to conduct on-site observations due to the COVID-19 pandemic prevent us from claiming full representation of the complex realities that media workers face in their everyday lives.”.  

We had to rely on emails and online video conferencing platforms which hindered our ability to establish rapport with people with who we were not yet connected with. We understand that people are generally hesitant to communicate and share details of their lives with people they are not familiar with, and the loss of direct interaction posed by the pandemic may have exacerbated this hesitancy. Security concerns may have also played a part in people’s decisions on their non-participation in this research, which focused on a topic that is politically sensitive. The shift to online communication channels may have also affected people’s fatigue and thus reluctance to respond and agree to have an interview.

Ethical Considerations

Most of the research participants in this study live and work under dangerous and sometimes life-threatening situations. We have thus taken precautions to ensure that none of the information included in this report can be traced back to any individual participant without their consent. While some information may not be traceable back to an individual participant, surfacing it may still pose potential harm toward the groups discussed in this study. Any research that covers marginalised groups or communities has the potential to exacerbate their vulnerabilities, and making certain survival strategies visible may feed into sinister efforts to look for weaknesses in these strategies (Schaffer, 2016, pp. 94–95). In other words, information published in these kinds of research has the potential to be used by hostile governments or groups in order to familiarise themselves with the operations and work of media communities to potentially carry out harsher crackdowns. Therefore, we excluded information that we believe could bring more harm than good, such as details of one’s security strategies or weaknesses. 

Nevertheless, we recognise that publishing anything politically dangerous or risky may be used by any party with evil intentions. For decades, authoritarian governments, or those with authoritarian tendencies, have been studying the operations of dissenting groups and activists to come up with more effective ways to suppress them. As researchers, we cannot control how our publications are used by those who read them, but we try to be aware of the possible negative consequences the information we put out might have. Thus, in sections that reveal certain vulnerabilities of our participants or their communities, we make note of their possible implications. We hope that by showing how hostile governments may utilise certain information against media workers, we can strengthen ongoing solidarity efforts amongst media workers in Southeast Asia. 

For more, read the full report here.

Intersecting Media Work and Identities

Comparative studies on media freedom are usually centred around individual countries. Such a perspective implies that differences or variations mostly occur at the country level. However, national borders on their own are insufficient to explain the distinct challenges that media workers face in Southeast Asia because experiences can vary greatly even for those living and working in the same country or producing content about the same country.

We strive to fracture the monolith of Southeast Asia in this research by paying special attention to the role of attributes such as race, citizenship status, gender, sexuality, age, geographical location as well as the employment type of our research participants. These factors and identities are inseparable from the media workers’ experiences, such as the kinds of news stories and media content that they produce as well as the types of challenges that they face (Steiner, 2012). These are some of the pertinent factors we found to play a significant part in the experiences of media workers in Southeast Asia:

Geography, race and citizenship

Media workers do not only write about the countries that they are residing in —  They may write about more than one country or even report and write remotely, whether due to the demands of their job or socio-political factors. A refugee journalist from Myanmar who had been temporarily living in Indonesia shared with us how his immigration status can bring risks in his work:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Hannah_RefugeeHeader_Web-5.jpeg
Art by Hannah Hoang, from “The Making of a Refugee”

“Well, my situation is a bit different here after fleeing my country. I became an immigrant in Indonesia, and foreign immigrants doing some political stuff and doing journalism is really difficult. I have faced many challenges, like I had to run from city to city, to save myself, to be anonymous…”

Focus group discussion, 27 July 2021

Foreign and local journalists evidently receive different treatment from authorities and the public, despite covering or working in the same country. What is “foreign” or “local”, however, is complex and subjective. They are not entirely reliant on formal citizenship. Instead, we found that these labels often refer to how media workers have their appearances perceived by those around them. In Cambodia and Myanmar, for example, journalists who appear local tend to be more targeted by the authorities than white, foreign journalists, especially when they write critically (focus group discussion, 13 July 2021; personal interviews, 28 July & 9 September 2021). This, however, does not mean that reporting is necessarily risk-free for (and with) foreign journalists. One of our Vietnamese research participants shared that in certain cases, reporting with a foreigner may prompt more suspicion and harassment as it would attract more attention, especially so when reporting in rural border areas (focus group discussion, 13 July 2021). Conversely, a journalist from the United States with experience covering various parts of Southeast Asia told us that his racial identity as an Indian-American has made it easier for him to immerse himself with local communities (personal interview, 28 July 2021).

Media workers in the same country can also face vastly different working conditions depending on their specific location. A research participant from the Philippines shared how journalists in rural areas usually receive much lower pay and face higher safety threats because they do not receive as much attention compared to their urban counterparts (focus group discussion, 6 July 2021). National demarcations alone, therefore, are insufficient to explain media workers’ experiences and we require a more local lens to recognise the nuances that come with individuals’ race, citizenship as well as location.

Gender identities and gendered experiences

Media workers’ experiences in navigating the media landscape are also gendered, with women often facing more difficulties in carrying out their media work. 

A journalist from Malaysia recounted her experiences with sexual harassment from colleagues at a Malaysian news agency (focus group discussion, 27 July 2021). The participant, added that freelancing had allowed her to avoid the structures and people in her workplace that had made her—and likely other women—feel unsafe (focus group discussion, 27 July 2021). Another woman participant also recalled being catcalled and subjected to sexist remarks by potential sources while she was reporting on the ground. Her woman colleague had also experienced being catcalled while reporting (15 September 2021).

Photo by Kimberley Phillips, from “Reporting While Female in Myanmar”

It is important to recognise that women media workers have a harder time in the media industry not only because of their gender identity. Structures within newsrooms are often inadequate to prevent sexual harassment and assault and to protect victims when such problems occur (see for example Ferrier, 2018). For instance, there are very few redressal mechanisms to report sexual harassment and gender-based bullying in the workplace (personal interview, 15 July 2021). Larger structures, such as men-dominated media organisations and the wider patriarchal culture, which fail to recognise sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence, are likely to cultivate gender-discriminatory employment practices. There is thus a need to not only recognise that media workers’ experiences are gendered, but also to cultivate gender-sensitive practices and make the media landscape, especially newsrooms, a safer and friendlier space for women media workers.

Does age make any difference?

The complexity of power dynamics and relations within newsrooms are also affected by age and generational gap. In certain settings, these may have crucial implications on what gets published and what does not. For example, at more independent outlets in Indonesia (where the editorial board are usually made up of older journalists), the “old guards” are sometimes more reluctant to publish investigative stories exposing corruption and abuses of power by political figures (focus group discussion, 13 July 2021). Younger journalists are usually more open to writing such stories (focus group discussion, 13 July 2021), making them a possibly significant variable in the work that independent media outlets do in holding power to account.

Photo by Finneke Wolajan, from “Prabowo’s Identity Politics

Formal employment and freelancing

Although types of employment are not typically regarded as personal attributes, we consider them as part of a media worker’s identity. Not only did many research participants whom we spoke to identify themselves using these markers, we have also found out that employment statuses significantly impact media workers’ lives. Another reason we wish to highlight this explicitly is because employment statuses are seldom brought up in discussions about media freedom, despite the important ramifications that it may have.


For example, being a formally employed and full-time journalist can guarantee one’s access to legal protection, usually provided by their employers. Being a freelancer, on the other hand, may make it more difficult for individual media workers to access legal protection (focus group discussion, 13 July 2021). Employment statuses can also affect media workers’ experiences with financial certainty—or lack thereof. Some of the freelancers we spoke to pointed out that although freelancing does offer them more flexibility with time and the type of work they do, regular income is not guaranteed (focus group discussion, 8 July 2021). We explore this issue further in one of our subsequent chapters, Money Matters.

For more, read the full report here.

Breaking Down Attacks Against Independent Media Workers

Art by Pssyppl

Across Southeast Asia, media work that is critical of the state often draw scrutiny and reprisals (Faulder & Venzon, 2018). There are, however, certain topics that are more controversial and sensitive in different places.

In Singapore, for example, news stories related to corruption by government officials and questioning the judiciary’s independence inevitably draw fierce attacks from the government (personal interview, 28 September 2021). In Malaysia, the 3Rs—race, religion, royalty—are regarded as highly sensitive issues (personal interview, 15 July 2021), while in Vietnam, media workers need to be careful when covering issues pertaining to minority groups, borders, corruption and land rights (Abuza, 2015). Participants from Thailand told us that news related to the monarchy was particularly risky. In Indonesia, unfavourable coverage of environmental destruction and the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic may invite backlash (Arditya, 2021). 

However, hostile governments are not the only adversaries of independent media. These attacks can also come from the public or other hostile entities. At certain times, it might not even be easy to determine the perpetrator of these attacks. Therefore, instead of categorising attacks solely on the basis of their perpetrators, we structure this section based on the varying ways in which attacks against the media can take form. 

Expand the sections to learn more:

Physical violence

For most of our research participants, covering stories that criticise governments, prominent politicians and the military come with critical safety threats. For instance, the assassinations of media workers in the Philippines (Committee to Protect Journalists, 2021) has created a climate of fear for those working in media. As most of these assassinations have happened in rural areas, some of our Manila-based participants told us that they are less concerned about their safety but fear more for those who have to travel and work in more remote areas (focus group discussion, 6th July 2021). Another way in which media workers in the Philippines are targeted is through red-tagging, the act of labelling individuals or critical organisations as terrorists or linking them to entities such as the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). When media workers are red-tagged, their pictures are published and circulated with bounties being offered for their deaths (personal interview, 16 September 2021).

Art by Stephani Soejono, from Artists Respond: Hindsight is 2020

In Indonesia, some reporters who covered the protest against the revision draft to the criminal code, the revision to the Law on the Corruption Eradication Commission and Omnibus Bill in 2020 were threatened, beaten, detained, and even had their reporting equipment damaged by the police (Amali, 2020; CNN Indonesia, 2019; Septianto, 2019). Similarly, Prachatai, an independent outlet in Thailand, told us that one of their reporters was arrested during their coverage of the 16 October 2020 student-led anti-government protest (personal interview, 29 July 2021). The protest formed part of the longer series of protests against Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s government, during which the Thai police had indiscriminately used tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons despite reporters’ press IDs and badges (personal interview, 29 July 2021). 

Regulatory harassment

Legal and regulatory instruments can be used by both governments and members of the public to restrict and punish media workers.

Research participants from the Philippines observed the open antagonism toward the media since the 2016 election of the current Duterte administration — resulting in the shutdown of major broadcaster ABS-CBN and the arrest of journalist Maria Ressa.

The Singaporean government’s efforts to drown The Online Citizen, an independent media outlet based in the country, in red tape, lawsuits and criminal charges since 2011, and the outlet’s subsequent shutdown in September 2021 following the suspension of its website license is just another example of regulations being used to clamp down on critical reportage (New Naratif, 2021b; Reporters Without Borders, 2021c). In Myanmar, after the February 2021 coup, the Ministry of Information revoked the licenses of Myanmar Now, 7 Day News, Mizzima Media, Democratic Voice of Burma and Khit Thit Media on 8 March (Thornton, 2021).

In some countries, laws also allow non-government entities to sue media workers and organisations.

Malaysiakini, a Malaysia-based independent media organisation covering political and current affairs, lost a defamation case against Raub Australian Gold Mining (RAGM), a gold mine company, in early July 2021 (Rashid, 2021). The Malaysian outlet is facing four lawsuits as of mid-July 2021 (personal interview, 16 July 2021). In Indonesia, Law No. 19/2016 on Electronic Information and Transactions (UU ITE), is often used to criminalise critical views on the basis of defamation and libel. Although the law formally does not apply to the press, which is governed and protected by the Press Law, in practice members of the press have been victims of UU ITE’s vague and catch-all provisions, with one of the most recent being the charge against journalist Bahrul Walidin from media outlet Metro Aceh (CNN Indonesia, 2021).


The Covid-19 pandemic has been used by some Southeast Asian governments to further restrict the media.

For example, when the first COVID-19 outbreak hit Thailand, the Thai government issued an Emergency Decree, which included a provision that criminalises publishing information that causes fear in society (personal interview, 29th July 2021; Reporters Without Borders, 2020). Similarly, in the Philippines, the Duterte administration enacted the “Bayanihan to Heal as One Act” in March 2020, which enabled the government to penalise anyone for publishing information that is perceived as ‘false’, deemed to provide no ‘beneficial effect on the population’ or ‘promote chaos, panic, anarchy, fear, or confusion’ until the law’s expiration in June 2020 (Barreiro Jr., 2020; Freedom for Media, Freedom for All Network, 2020).

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is shutterstock_422872711-copy-1024x684.jpeg
Photo by nattapan72 / Shutterstock.com, from “The Rise and Fall of Thailand’s Print Media”
Anti-media propaganda

Labelling critical stories as “fake news” is a strategy that hostile governments have long used to undermine criticism (see for example Goebbels’s use of such campaign in Longerich, 2015; for an account of the ongoing campaign, see Neo, 2020, p. 4). Some of our participants told us that this strategy is particularly concerning because it erodes the public’s trust in the media. A participant from the Philippines said that, on various occasions, the Duterte administration has tried to delegitimise the media by accusing them of being unable to convey an objective truth (personal interview, 19 August 2021). Further belittling them, the government has even remarked that social media influencers were more legitimate sources of information compared to media outlets (personal interview, 19 August 2021). A journalist reporting on Myanmar stressed that, when successful, labelling the media as “fake news” could be incredibly dangerous; pointing to the case of Rohingya, he said, “in the ten steps of genocide, the last step is denial” (focus group discussion, 6 July 2021). 

Art by Tristan, from “Artists Respond: the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020”
Digital attacks

Digitalisation has opened up a new frontier for attacks against media workers. The anonymity offered by social media platforms has given rise to faceless accounts or cyber-bots—called trolls in the Philippines, buzzers in Indonesia, the PAP’s Internet Brigade (IBs) in Singapore and cyber-troopers in Malaysia (Sinpeng & Tapsell, 2020, p. 9). These anonymous accounts skew online discourse through reactionary and negative comments. In Indonesia, the government and other political actors have allegedly paid and taken advantage of buzzers to disseminate pro-government narratives and policy information (see for example CNN Indonesia, 2020; Syahputra et al., 2021). This shows that the line between state actors and social groups has become increasingly blurry. 

Photo by Brian A Jackson/ Shutterstock.com, from “The Muslim Cyber Army and the Virtual Battlefield

A journalist who often covers issues regarding West Papua has had her name and photographs circulated by an anonymous account on Twitter (focus group discussion, 13th July 2021). Another Indonesian journalist who was also an activist working on issues of media freedom told us that she has received death threats (personal interview, 15th July 2021). In August 2020, the websites of Tempo and Tirto from Indonesia were hacked after they respectively published pieces about the use of social influencers to promote the Omnibus Bill and the alleged involvement of the military and intelligence body in the production of COVID-19 medication (Aji, 2020; Nurita, 2020). In June 2018, Luat Khoa, which covers political affairs in Vietnam, experienced distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks against their server which has led to the suspension of the website for ten days (personal interview, 13 July 2021). Due to the anonymity afforded by the internet, it is often unclear who is behind the attacks in such cases. 

Another form of digital attack against media workers comes in the form of hacking and taking over one’s personal or work account. A research participant from Tabloid Jubi, an independent news outlet based in Papua, told us that all except one of his personal communication accounts have been hacked (personal interview, 6 September 2021). A Singaporean participant told us that he has suspected that there have been attempts to compromise his personal Facebook account (personal interview, 28 September 2021).

For more, read the full report here.

Money Matters

Art by Nadhir Nor

Working in media is work—labour—and media organisations are businesses, even for independent ones. In this section, we explore the financial difficulties faced by both individual media workers and media organisations, how they impact media output, as well as how media organisations continue to remain in business.


Underappreciation and low pay

Art by Kathrinna Rakhmavika, from “Artists Respond: Life in the Time of COVID-19”

“…if you want to be a freelance journalist in Asia, it’s kind of difficult for you to survive financially because . . . you don’t get paid well, and you don’t get paid enough.”

Focus group discussion, 27 July 2021

Most of the freelancers we spoke to said that they struggle to make a living from freelance work due to its uncertainty and low pay. It is not uncommon for freelance journalists to work other jobs to cover their living costs. The situation has only gotten worse because of the pandemic. In Cambodia, restricted movement for freelance journalists had made it difficult for them to access and interview communities in remote areas for their work, adversely impacting their income  (focus group discussion, 13 July 2021). 

A part of these financial challenges is caused by less-than-ideal receptions to media work. Some participants complained about a lack of appreciation for their work, particularly when pitching to local outlets. A Myanmar journalist told us, 

“. . . the other thing that is frustrating about being a freelance journalist in Asia is that the media actually doesn’t really value your work as much as you deserve . . . you don’t get paid enough for your work.”

Focus group discussion, 27 July 2021

The problem of low pay is also experienced by art creators, who create artwork for both editorial and commercial purposes. From our discussion about clients’ and people’s reception to their work, we learned that art, particularly digital art, is not always seen as “real work” in their countries because it is not tangible. The underappreciation of artwork makes it difficult for artists to negotiate pay with potential clients and has even led to instances of plagiarism from members of the public (focus group discussion, 8 July 2021).

Some of the participants have observed differences in how their work is received by international and local outlets or clients. An Indonesian freelance artist said international clients tend to be more appreciative of creative work and ideas—and as a result pay more—than local clients, although he noted that local clients or brands that are more established are usually also generous (focus group discussion, 8 July 2021).

Some freelance journalists also prefer to submit their work to international outlets, as they tend to offer higher pay and better guarantees for due credit. However, this does not necessarily mean the process is any easier. While local outlets tend to pay less for individual submissions, international or global news outlets tend to allocate lower budgets and space for stories from Southeast Asia (personal interview, 9 September 2021). These budgets are usually even less for countries that international outlets deem less “prominent”, such as Cambodia (personal interview, 9 September 2021). These conditions result in higher competition among freelancers pitching to international outlets. 


What does (the lack of) money do to media content?

From “Don’t Go to Work”: Fundraising for Myanmar’s Revolution

Low pay has implications on what journalists can and cannot write about, as well as when they can and cannot write. Some participants voiced their frustration over not being able to write on certain topics because it might not be as profitable, or it would be difficult to pitch. A journalist from the Philippines said he has had to write about topics he did not enjoy in order to pay his bills (focus group discussion, 6 July 2021). 

In Indonesia, the problem of low pay has led some journalists, including those employed by more “established” independent outlets, to accept bribes from government officials, police officers and companies in exchange for covering certain topics or framing reports to be more favourable to them (focus group discussion, 6 July 2021; personal interview, 19 August 2021). This practice, sometimes called budaya amplop (envelope culture), was said to be very prevalent and difficult to monitor and get rid of. A research participant told us that without taking these amplop, it would be very challenging for journalists to get by (personal interview, 19 August 2021). 

The unprofitability of working in independent media has also made it difficult for some outlets to find people who want to work in the sector. Several participants from Cambodia and Thailand were pessimistic about getting younger people to enter independent journalism; they observed that university students and recent graduates seem to be more interested in the communication industry instead because of better pay (focus group discussion, 13 July 2021; personal interviews, 28 July 2021 and 29 July 2021). 


Business models and viability

Art by W. Naila Rahmah

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, several news outlets in the region have had to cut salaries or even lay off journalists. On 12 October 2020, The Jakarta Post, one of Indonesia’s best-known independent newspapers, encouraged its employees to resign (Nurbaiti, 2020) and within a month, 25 journalists submitted their resignations (Mariani, 2020). Tempo, another leading independent outlet, also laid off some of their journalists in September 2020 (Hutton, 2021). In the Philippines, some community news groups closed down after cutting pay and personnel (Elemia, 2020). 

Like individual media workers, independent media outlets have also struggled to stay afloat. With no financial support from government institutions, independent media organisations need to look for other sources of funding to stay in business and maintain their editorial independence. 

Grants have been one of the main sources of funding for the independent outlets we spoke to. VOD, based in Cambodia, told us that being funded by foreign donors has helped them maintain independent reporting. A media organisation from the Philippines corroborated this, saying that although some donor agencies had requested to see their pre-prints, our research participant had been strict about their terms of editorial independence (personal interview, 19 August 2021). 

With so many independent media outlets requiring funding and a limited number of grants, there is bound to be competition —which has only grown steeper since the COVID-19 pandemic started with less funding was being offered and more independent media workers and organisations in need of money increased (personal interview, 28 September 2021). Accessibility of funding applications also mattered; in Malaysia and Singapore, some grants were offered to artists, but those covering contentious issues were reluctant to apply, as they would be required to disclose the sensitive nature of their work (focus group discussion, 8 July 2021). 

Even grants are sometimes not enough. Prachatai complemented their funding from international donors with merchandise sales such as books, T-shirts and umbrellas (personal interview, 29 July 2021). Other research participants have questioned the sustainability of relying on donors for funding, looking to other avenues such as through advertising and subscription models. 

Advertising models are not always easy to set up and make profitable. An independent news outlet in Papua said advertising does not bring them much money because advertisers tend to prefer spaces in Jakarta and West Java, where most businesses are centred. Companies do not usually see advertising in a remote area such as Papua as potentially lucrative (personal interview, 6 September 2021). In Cambodia, advertisers and businesses are reluctant to work with independent media outlets because it may get them into trouble with the authorities (personal interviews, 28 July & 15 September 2021).

Some outlets are now looking to pivot toward subscription and membership models but the process has been slow and challenging. People are reluctant to pay for content, particularly when it is hosted online (personal interview, 19 July 2021; personal interview, 28 September 2021). As the internet allows virtually anybody to generate and circulate news, and as information is becoming more accessible, people have less incentive to buy news and content through subscriptions. When people’s disposable income took a hit during the pandemic, their ability to pay for news and content became more limited (personal interview, 28 September 2021). 

This does not necessarily mean that these models are doomed to fail. Project Multatuli in Indonesia was optimistic about setting up its membership model despite its difficulties. Their audience research revealed that readers are beginning to realise the importance of supporting independent and critical media (personal interview, 19 July 2021). Luat Khoa, which focuses on Vietnam, said revenue from their readers made up around one-fifth of their 2020 budget, which they considered a large amount of money (personal interview, 13 July 2021). The success of these models rely on outlets’ ability to make their work and mission resonate with their target audience, especially as some of these media outlets also see themselves as socio-political movements advocating for critical thinking and democratic progress. 

However, despite the growing success and optimism around membership models, it should be noted that the existing ones form only a niche fraction of the wider public. Expanding the pool of people who are supporting independent media is then necessary to establish a free media that is in service to the wider public.  

Splice Media, which supports and reports on media start-ups, told us that one of the big challenges for emerging independent media organisations today is balancing between fighting for a cause with running a business (personal interview, 14 July 2021). The business side of media work requires testing funding models, forecasting their viability and discerning what target audiences want to see and consume. This prompts us to ask: to what extent is a media worker or organisation independent if they constantly need to tailor their content to appease funders and audiences? As one of the journalists we interviewed said, “we need to improve our product, but improve it to whose taste?” (personal interview, 7 October 2021). 

“The more journalists get paid, the better their work will be.”

 Focus group discussion, 6 July 2021

Money, therefore, has concrete impacts on media workers and the work they produce, perhaps even more so for independent workers. Directly or indirectly, factors such as pay and sources of funding may influence what kinds of content one can and cannot produce. It is therefore important for media workers to be paid fairly. As a research participant told us,

The critical role of money for independent media’s survivability exposes a point of vulnerability that can be exploited by hostile governments or other groups. For example, governments and other hostile entities can weaponise litigation and fines to make it financially unsustainable for critical and independent media to operate. Thus, in recognising that money (and its lack thereof) matters, we point to the need for strategies and resources that not only support independent media workers legally and physically, but also financially. 

For more, read the full report here.

Avoiding Repression: Art of Content-making

Art by Pssyppl

In this section, we explore further how such challenges have impacted the ways our reIn this section, we explore how  media workers respond to challenges in order to avoid reprisals. Our conversations with our participants revealed that there are shades and layers to ways media workers tailor and adjust their media content to remain safe. Whilst some of these strategies can be considered a form of self-censorship, it would be a mistake to interpret this as a complete lack of agency. Many coverage on media freedom tends to narrowly portray media workers in hostile political climates as victims, without recognising the subtle ways media workers resist (see for example Freedom House, 2018; Hayton, 2021; Strangio, 2021). On the contrary, our research participants assert their agency by conveying their works strategically whilst avoiding punishment for them.

A participant who had previously written on the issue of race in Singapore told us that she had stopped writing publicly as she had been placed on the government’s “grey list” as a result of her work, preventing her from being hired by certain companies and government agencies for over a year  (focus group discussion, 27 July 2021).

A Malaysian illustrator and painter expressed his interest in exploring cultural and religious elements through his artworks but had A Malaysian illustrator and painter expressed his interest in exploring cultural and religious elements through his artworks but had refrained from doing so out of fear of having his work being labelled as blasphemous (focus group discussion, 8 July 2021). The artist, who identified himself as queer, wished he could incorporate Malay-Muslim visual elements, such as Jawi scripts, in his works, but feared that more conservative members of the public would not like seeing “someone queer to work on those [religious elements]” (focus group discussion, 8 July 2021).   

Art by Teh, from “Growing Pains”

The conversations we had with our research participants also revealed that there is an art in the ways they choose the framings and wordings for their stories. For example, an illustrator from Thailand shared that his strategy for depicting the monarchy or government in his works is to use characters or symbols to represent the Thai law system instead of drawing a specific person (focus group discussion, 8 July 2021). In a country where critics of the monarchy can face up to 15 years of imprisonment (Reuters, 2020), avoiding explicit and personalised narratives and criticism can make the difference between criminalisation and remaining out of jail.

Art by Pssyppl , from “What Happened to Wanchalearm?”

Some other strategies independent media workers and outlets use:

  • Fact-checking
  • Cutting potentially incriminating parts of interviews
  • Investing more time into supplementing with evidence
  • Carefully attributing the information that they publish to their sources
  • Using more conservative headlines for their news stories

We found that publication languages are also strategically used by some media workers to avoid public and government reprisals. Some of the journalists we spoke to said that writing in English gave them a stronger sense of safety because their governments do not pay as much attention to articles written in English.


“We tend to think that we can write more directly in English because we believe that English publications are not watched as much as Thai language publications.”

PERSONAL INTERVIEW, 29 JULY 2021


A participant from Tabloid Jubi, which publishes in both Indonesian and English, confirmed that a national or local language is more likely to attract reactionary responses as they circulate faster on social media platforms, such as Facebook (personal interview, 6 September 2021). Pointing to a similar problem, an Indonesian illustrator told us that she was reluctant to have her artwork reach the wider Indonesian audience as she was wary of the cancel and doxing culture prevalent in Indonesian social media (focus group discussion, 8 July 2021).

Publishing in English, however, does not completely preclude reprisals. One Vietnamese participant told us that writing for international media—which usually publish in English—may implicate her as somebody who is trying to portray her country in a bad light, which the Vietnamese government is especially sensitive about (focus group discussion, 13 July 2021). The participant, who had previously worked in state-owned media prior to freelancing, said that sometimes writing in a state-owned Vietnamese newsroom can confer a stronger sense of safety, as articles are more rigorously filtered, checked and approved prior to publication (focus group discussion, 13 July 2021). 

For more, read the full report here.

Freedom of Information

Art by Marvinne de Guzman

Media freedom is not just about the freedom to tell and publish stories without fear of repression of relation. It also entails media workers’ access to information. Information is at the centre of media work—it is what media workers look for, gather, distribute and create. Across the board, our research participants from various countries had attested to the difficulties in accessing information such as documents and verbal statements.  For example, in Cambodia, it can be difficult to find and access certain types of statistical data from the past five years, including those related to COVID-19 (personal interview, 9 September 2021). 

Laws and regulations

Obtaining information, or comments,  directly from public officials can be a difficult task for journalists in the region. Some countries, such as Cambodia, Myanmar and Singapore, do not have laws that guarantee the public’s access to data. By not having the right to information enshrined in law, media workers’ chances of speaking to officials depend on government bodies’ or spokespersons’ willingness to entertain comment requests. When government officials are willing, it can be quite easy to speak to public officials (personal interview, 9 September 2021); other times, the process can be a gruelling and protracted one. A freelance journalist from Cambodia recounted that a ministry spokesperson had refused to speak to her on the grounds that she was a freelancer, accusing her (and freelance journalists in general) of only being interested in selling information to foreign agents without caring about whether such information could jeopardise the country’s peace and stability (focus group discussion, 13 July 2021). In Singapore, officials often ignored requests for comment from journalists who are known to be critical of the government (personal interview, 28 September 2021).

The absence of laws guaranteeing access to information also means that it could be difficult to hold public officials accountable for refusing to give information or comments.  Without the ability to independently verify obtained information, there is little to no way to ascertain whether it has been amended or manipulated.

However, even in countries like Indonesia, where there are laws that formally state that the press and public have rights to access government records, gaining that access to offline documents or government officials is not always easy due to time-consuming bureaucracy (personal interview, 28 July 2021). In the Philippines, although Duterte has signed an Executive Order on Freedom of Information (FOI) that formally guarantees access as well as full public disclosure of government records and documents in the Executive Branch (President of the Philippines, 2016), accessing wealth records, especially those of the president, has become more difficult during his presidency. The Philippines Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), known for their work on corruption, said that the Duterte administration has declined requests for wealth-related documents after the publication of their report on President Duterte’s wealth in 2019 (personal interview, 19 August).

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is lee-hsien-loong-asean-leaders-cutout_2018.11_mattsurrusco-3-e1634184166842-1-1024x576.jpg
Photo by Matt Surrusco, from “The PAP’s Long and Bloody History of Foreign Interference”

When the pandemic hit the region, some governments took advantage of it to further limit access to information. In the Philippines, it became an easy excuse to put information requests on hold (personal interview, 19 August 2021; Barreiro Jr., 2020). As press conferences were moved online and later on pre-recorded, opportunities for journalists to respond to statements and ask questions became more limited. In Malaysia, attendance in press conferences during the pandemic have been limited to media organisations selected by the government, such as Bernama, Radio Televisyen Malaysia (RTM), New Straits Times and Berita Harian (personal interview, 18 August 2021; CIJ, 2020). As the pandemic got worse, these sessions were moved to Zoom, a video conferencing platform, but there were still moderators who would filter the questions asked by journalists (personal interview, 18 August 2021).

Access to sources

“…because of so many arrests of opposition party activists, activists on the environment, it has become a threat to others. Some NGO staff constrain themselves from speaking on sensitive issues. As a journalist, you rely on sources, but they refuse to speak to you.”

Personal interviewl interview, 28 July 2021

Research participants told us it was also challenging to interview non-government sources. Sources—in some countries more than others—have refused to speak to journalists because they fear the repercussions.

A news outlet’s name and reputation may affect how potential sources respond to interview requests, though in different ways. Prachatai, a Thai independent news outlet that often covers human rights issues, told us they have had sources ask for more time to deliberate before agreeing to an interview because it was risky to appear in their reporting (personal interview, 29 July 2021). On the other hand, PCIJ, which has had a reputation for investigating the wealth of public officials in the Philippines, are often approached by sources or whistleblowers who provide tips in the form of advice, information and exclusive documents (personal interview, 19 August 2021). 

Concerns over the safety of sources post-interview and publication were also brought up by some of our research participants. Tabloid Jubi, based in Papua, where the flow of information is more restricted than other provinces in Indonesia (Freedom House, 2020),  said they maintain communication with their sources to ensure that they remain safe after the publication of their stories (personal interview, 6 September 2021). When they suspect that their sources might be exposed to physical harm, they evacuate them (personal interview, 6 September 2021). 

Limited infrastructure

Photo by slyellow, from “Drought, Construction, and Dry Wells”

Some media workers were also constrained by limited technological infrastructure such as poor internet quality. In many Southeast Asian countries, internet connection is more accessible for people living in urban areas than their rural counterparts, affecting day-to-day ability to communicate, work and learn online (Jalli, 2020). This has become more apparent since the COVID-19 outbreak, as travel restrictions have pushed media workers, particularly journalists, to rely on long-distance reporting. Most of our Philippines-based participants, for example, complained about the poor quality of their internet connection, which had impeded one of them from conducting online interviews with sources from rural areas, where internet connections are usually less reliable or even inaccessible (personal interview, 16 September 2021). We experienced this problem ourselves: in an online interview with a research participant from Papua, bad internet connection affected the flow of our conversation, and at one point, a power outage occurred on our participant’s end of the line, cutting off the discussion completely.

Role of the wider public

Media workers can only access sources and information when the larger public is also able to freely express their thoughts and recount their experiences. Media work involves retelling people’s stories and experiences, and the ability to bring untold stories and voices to the forefront relies on people’s willingness to speak to media workers. Media freedom therefore cannot exist in a vacuum, as one of our research participants argued, 

“…if you really want to improve media freedom and freedom of the press you also need to expand what citizens are allowed to say as well … as public opinion expands, media freedom and freedoms of speech also expands…” 

Focus group discussion, 6th July 2021

For more, read the full report here.

Media Work as Resistance

Art by Marvinne de Guzman

“…if a media organisation doesn’t fight for freedom of expression, how on earth is it supposed to operate? … a fish needs water to breathe, media organisations need freedom of expression to operate.”

Personal interview, 28 September 2021

In this section, we analyse how the act of working in media is itself an act of resistance, especially in a region where it is exceedingly difficult to do so. Many of the journalists and illustrators we spoke to said they write and draw not just to convey information to the public, but also to expose and fight against injustices and to galvanise support around causes that they care about—both explicitly and implicitly. In this section, we argue that media workers are political actors, and the media are a political institution (McCargo, 2003, p. 2), thus highlighting the inherently political nature of media work. 


Firstly, media work can be a form of resistance against state narratives and domination. In contexts where governments are constantly trying to impose singular narratives of “the truth”, there is an imperative to tell untold stories.

Photo by Stéphane Combre, from “Writing Their Own Stories”

A participant from The Online Citizen described the media space in authoritarian regimes: 

“The best way for a dictatorship, authoritarian government, is to make sure that information remains curtailed, the whole narrative is being distorted…”

Personal interview, 3rd August 2021

Raising awareness of attacks against media workers serves as a strategy to counter hostile governments’ attempts to control the media space. Violations against media freedom are not always covered by state-affiliated media outlets. Sometimes, stories about such events need to be boldly framed to emphasise that certain rights and freedoms are violated and that justice needs to be attained; writing “neutrally” is not always effective to evoke awareness that something wrong and unjust has occurred (see for example Blanding, 2018; Hanson, 2019; Shaw, 2012).

Secondly, publishing articles or illustrations in spaces that are traditionally gatekept is an act of making stories matter and relevant.

Some participants told us that sometimes their editors would tone down their articles or even filter information for publication. In Indonesia, for example, not many newsrooms are willing to publish news that exposes prominent political figures due to their ties with their investors or owners (focus group discussion, 13 July 2021).  

Some participants said they also struggled to get stories about environmental issues commissioned. A research participant from Malaysia said:

“I think it starts with editorial decisions for me, at least for environmental stories. A lot of editors in general are just not interested to publish environmental stories. So, it’s a lot of effort from my side just to convince newsrooms why we need to have certain stories as the front cover … but you don’t talk climate change, I mean, you don’t see that on the front covers of newspapers in Malaysia. It’s always somewhere inside, in the small box about environment.”

Focus group discussion, 27 July 2021

Photo by Deborah Augustin, from “In Fight for Malaysian Forest, Can Activists Replicate a Win?”

This phenomenon is not exclusive to local newsrooms. While writing for international outlets offers an opportunity to engage a wider audience and to platform more Southeast Asian stories, local stories tend to receive very little attention from editors in international newsrooms. This makes it difficult to publish these stories, let alone convey their complexities to an international audience. A freelance journalist spoke of the challenges he had experienced in trying to make local news global:

“In terms of … pitching stories, I would get frustrated very often because, [….] making the case that an environmental story in Southeast Asia matters to a global audience is really, really tough. I was pitching a story that was about Sulawesi and Mindanao, and editors didn’t think that was an important story, because … it’s too regional. But from my perspective, those two islands have huge populations and huge amounts of forests. So it is, to me, a global story. But it’s really hard to prove that it’s a global story … or to make the case, because editors have so little knowledge about, especially, remote regions of Southeast Asia.”

Personal interview, 28 July 2021 (emphasis by the researcher)

Pitching stories about Southeast Asia to international outlets often also means filtering them through reductive views of the region. A participant from Singapore brought up the issue of “country quotas” where international outlets have a limit on the number of stories they can publish for a certain country (focus group discussion, 27 July 2021), while a Malaysian participant let us in on her thoughts about sacrificing the authenticity of one’s story or perspective for the wider readership offered by these outlets:

“…I don’t think you’re staying true to yourself because you just want to write something that’s nice for the Western audience to consume, so you kind of, like, form your story around their expectations and assumptions of what’s happening in your country … I do want to make sure that in our stories, we do have a sense of self-determination. We don’t need ideas from certain organisations or from the West to kind of decide the future or the trajectory for how we want to solve our own problems.”

Focus group discussion, 27 July 2021 (emphasis by the researcher)

The participant, who has written about environmental and conservation issues in Malaysia and Indonesia, added that environmental issues, such as the palm oil industry, are often judged as either “good” or “bad”, pushing aside other issues that do not fit squarely into the dichotomy (focus group discussion, 27 July 2021). She criticised some international outlets’ expectations of blanket denunciation of palm oil production, emphasising that environmental problems are complex. Imposing a narrow lens on the industry means nuances around local people’s livelihoods and their dependence on natural resources; our participant shared that unfortunately, some international outlets or funders rarely view these issues as “sexy enough” for a story (focus group discussion, 27 July 2021).

Thirdly, Southeast Asian media workers are constantly fighting  to reclaim the media space where narratives about the region are told.

Art by Amita Sevellaraja, from “We Are All Hartal”: Malaysian Contract Doctors to Strike”

In one of our focus group discussions, an Indonesian freelance journalist complained about some international editors’ preference for choosing foreign journalists over their local counterparts to cover news stories about Southeast Asia (focus group discussion, 13 July 2021). She also voiced frustration at foreign journalists, usually from Western countries, hiring local journalists to act as fixers and refusing to credit them, even when local fixers end up doing more than arranging interviews (focus group discussion, 13 July 2021). Our participant stressed the importance of local journalists writing and reclaiming stories about their own communities, countries and the issues that affect them (focus group discussion, 13 July 2021).

These narratives tell us that working in Southeast Asian media is also a pursuit to amplify Southeast Asian voices and experiences. Independent media workers in Southeast Asia resist not only hegemonic state narratives that attempt to silence critical and non-conforming views and dictate what is true and false, but also narrow and simplistic depictions of Southeast Asia. 

For more, read the full report here.

Advocacy & Standing Together in Solidarity

Art by Astro Ruby

“(The media) is only free because the media is fighting for it to be free.”

Personal interview, 19th August 2021

Due to the dangerous nature of working in independent media, banding together with fellow independent media workers is vital for media workers’ wellbeing, and sometimes for their survival. Our research participants emphasised the importance of building a community where they can share experiences with one another in order to feel more supported and secure. Beyond providing emotional support, many networks and communities also work to raise awareness when problems arise, to gather more support from other networks and the wider public, as well as to push for institutional reforms. In this section, we look at the various forms of networks and communities of media workers, the resources that our research participants need as well as the role of the larger public.

Campaigns, protection, training—and access

At its core, media workers’ networks and communities aspire to create a freer media space. Organisations like Gerakan Media Merdeka (Geramm) from Malaysia, for example, was part of a cluster that advocated for greater freedom of expression and had engaged with the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia to discuss the possible establishment of a media council. 

In a climate this hostile to critical voices, independent media workers’ access to legal protection is crucial, especially as institutional and regulatory reforms in favour of media freedom are unlikely to materialise soon. Some organisations and communities address this need by providing legal assistance for media workers. The Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association (CamboJA) and Aliansi Jurnalis Independen (AJI) in Indonesia, for example, provide legal support to journalists facing legal attacks due to their journalism (CamboJA, 2021; personal interview, 15 July 2021).

Some organisations also hold capacity building training for media workers. Some examples include:

  • PCIJ offers fellowships for individual journalists that include training sessions, opportunities to pitch stories as well as funding for selected pitches (personal interview, 19th August 2021). 
  • CamboJA offers its members and the wider public investigative journalism training on various issues such as land rights (personal interview, 15th September 2021).
  • AJI provides basic- to advanced-level courses on fact-checking and sensitivity training that teach media workers how to report and write on issues related to gender and minority groups (personal interview, 25th July 2021).
  • Yayasan Pantau, an Indonesian organisation, raises funds for journalists (personal interview, 19 August 2021). 
Photo by Shutterstock.com, from “The Age of the Journalist”

Unfortunately, these connections and networks are not accessible to everyone; some media workers are better connected and well-resourced than others, allowing them to receive more support. A well-connected freelance journalist from Indonesia told us that while she felt fine reporting on sensitive topics such as LGBTQIA+ issues, environmental problems and human rights violations in West Papua, other journalists may prefer to shy away from these topics because they do not have the legal support that she has (focus group discussion, 13 July 2021). On the other hand, a Myanmar journalist seeking refuge in Indonesia said that he had little to no protection due to his circumstances (focus group discussion, 27 July 2021). 

Many freelancers, both journalists and illustrators, noted the absence of networks and communities that specifically cater to the needs of freelancers. Resources such as tips, information on fee rates, contacts of editors as well as a space to share experiences would be helpful, they said, especially for those starting out in the field. Therefore, it is important to not only ask what networks and communities provide for their members, but also who gets to be their members and access their benefits. 

On getting public support

Acknowledging the role of the public in strengthening democracy (see for example Gill, 2000; Gillman, 2018; Pietrzyk-Reeves, 2015), we asked our research participants about the wider public support and activism for freedom of the media in their respective countries. . In Singapore, freedom of the media does not seem to be a top public priority (personal interview, 28 September 2021); while it is likely that people do have their opinions on the matter, supportive views do not guarantee a robust movement to protect freedom of expression and the media. In Indonesia, while it is common for netizens to take to social media to protest various issues, including violations against press freedom, counter-protests were also common when the media workers under attack have been known to cover sensitive issues. Maintaining momentum and sustaining strong public support over long periods of time is also difficult, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic (Primandari, 2021, p. 6).

Photo from Shutterstock.com, from “Let It End in Our Generation: How the Thailand Protests Came to Be”

Our research participants told us that younger people tend to be more supportive of independent and more progressive media coverage. These are often university students, recent graduates and millennials. In Thailand, supporters of the pro-democracy movement also tend to support independent media coverage (personal interview, 29 July 2021). 

International events can also shape the way the public perceives independent media. A participant from Vietnam told us that since the election of Donald Trump as president in the United States, independent media in Vietnam have gotten a bad reputation due to some independent media outlets and journalists expressing support for Trump (personal interview, 13 July 2021). This support was spurred by Trump’s anti-communism and anti-China rhetoric, which is shared by a large portion of the Vietnamese population (personal interview, 13 July 2021). However, support for Trump has not been popular among independent media consumers, and this development has caused a setback to independent media’s efforts in building their support base (personal interview, 13 July 2021). 

Independent media is essential for any working democracy which is why garnering public support for independent media and the wider goal of media freedom remains a challenge. Devising a strategy that also engages the public is critical if we wish to attain structural change. 

For more, read the full report here.

Rethinking Media Freedom

Art by Nadhir Nor

“Press Freedom is not about simply personal safety of the reporters or the outlets. It is about the freedom to carry out the duties of a reporter, to be able to interview individuals without any… self-censorship. There are (should be) no repercussions for covering the news responsibly, if you have fulfilled all the ethical duties of what a reporter should do.”

Personal interview, 3 August 2021 

The conversations we had with our research participants pushed us to reflect and rethink what it means for a media worker or organisation to be “free” and “independent”.

In illuminating the many “fronts” of media freedom, we are also left with more questions. For example, while it might be straightforward to say that state censorship, legal punishment for critical coverage and funders’ influence over media output are restrictive and should be eliminated — we find it more difficult to take a bold position against the influence of social media algorithms and the expectations of audiences in shaping media workers’ and organisations’ editorial decisions. What we can posit for now is that the current funding models are insufficient to achieve genuine independence. Subscription and membership models and grants that are currently used to fund the media may, for the time being, bring their incentives closer to the public interest. However, the limited scope of audiences as well as donor interests may limit the media organisations’ freedom in publishing stories of wider public importance. For the media to be truly free and independent, its incentives must be aligned with the public interest, and therefore, a funding model that cultivates these incentives is crucial. 

In view of all the challenges and possibilities we have explored in this report, we ask the question: what exactly are we working toward? The aspirational nature of media freedom us to consider the wishes, hopes and expectations of the people who work and fight at the centre of the media landscape. Listening is thus the first step toward this goal. Reflecting on the problems raised by our research participants, we put forward at least four semi-operationalisable goals:

  1. eliminating violent and legal repercussions for publishing critical or non-conforming views
  2. securing better pay and living conditions, without these rights being jeopardised when media workers publish critical or non-conforming views
  3. expanding access to information
  4. creating more opportunities to publish critical or non-conforming views.

For more, read the full report here.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Art by Amita Sevellaraja

This study’s findings prompt the question of what we need to do next. The challenges we fleshed out throughout this report signal the need for support and solidarity with and between independent media workers and organisations. For media workers in Southeast Asia, a regional, transnational network that builds on the good practices of local and national coalitions may be able to provide support, facilitate collaboration as well as share resources and knowledge. 

Another takeaway from this study would be for activists and the wider public to push for the reform or abolition of laws that allow powerful people and institutions to interfere with media work. Raising awareness of the repression experienced by media workers, and supporting them in resisting or pushing back against it, would be helpful. At the same time, media organisations, especially sustainable ones, must be held accountable for paying fair living wages to both staff and freelancers. 

Finally, for those seeking a more radical solution, one possible path suggested by our findings is to remove the profit motive from media work and have media work funded directly by the wider public. This would address the issue of sustainability while bringing the incentive structure of the media in greater alignment with the public good. Finally, it is important to note that our findings are preliminary. We are still in need of more research that pays closer attention to the nuances of media workers’ experiences in navigating the Southeast Asian media landscape and those of structural forces that shape media freedom. Our brief section on identities in an earlier part of this report shows that we would certainly benefit from more studies on the significance of identities in shaping media workers’ experiences and content as well as public discourse. Research on media freedom that is conscious of the role that nationality, race, ethnicity and gender, to say the least, play in shaping the process of media production and discourse would allow us to not only understand how media workers’ experiences may vary but also facilitate our efforts to support media workers.  These research projects may come in many forms, as long as we realise their implications and how they can encourage us to listen more closely to media workers. We intend for this study to be the first in a long, iterative series that seeks to further unpack the issues of media freedom. 

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Fadhilah Fitri Primandari

Fadhilah is a researcher reading democratisation, discursive politics, and feminist methodology. Her personal research projects centre on the gendered aspects of democratic transitions and consolidations. When she is not working, she enjoys reading detective novels, writing fiction, and painting.

Samira Hassan

Samira Hassan is a writer, researcher and translator who has worked on issues of migration, race and mental health across Singapore, Bangladesh and Seoul. In her free time, she tries to keep her plants alive.

Sahnaz Melasandy

Sahnaz Melasandy

Sahnaz is a community organiser, researcher and freelance translator based in Indonesia. She spends most of her time reading, and is passionate about human rights, social movement, gender, literature and arts. She co-founded a book club called LiteraSEA focusing on Southeast Asian literature, with members based in Southeast Asia and beyond.