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This is a comic summary of the New Naratif research report “Envisioning Media Freedom and Independence: Narratives from Southeast Asia”.

Circles decreasing in size. The text reads: Media workers in various contexts across Southeast Asia have different ideas of what media freedom is. 
But global media freedom indices and reports often do not account for these nuances.
Page 1.
A comic page of 5 panels in brown lines and full colour. The narration is provided in caption boxes.
Panel 1. A map of Southeast Asia with pins indicating which countries are represented in the study. Photos stuck on the map show the kinds of media workers involved: journalists, reporters, staff at media organisations, organisations who support them, artists, illustrators. Text overlaid on the map reads: We interviewed 44 media workers from eight countries for this exploratory study, asking: What does media freedom mean and look like to you?
Panel 2 to 4 shows three media workers, one wearing a collared shirt and press tags, one in a headscarf and holding a clipboard, one sitting at a drawing table. Narration: “We define “independent media workers” as those who identify themselves as working in media and are not funded or employed by state-owned or state-sponsored media. Third media worker: “This includes freelancers and those in full-time employment.” Second media worker: “Who gets defined as a journalist anyway?” Third media worker: “And who does the defining?”
Panel 5. One person dressed in a sarong with overlapping transparent frames on them, and labels indicating some of the markers of identity which were used: class, age, race, gender and sexuality, nationality, geographical location, employment status. Narration: “Our qualitative study centres the narratives and lived experiences of media workers themselves. We paid special attention to how media work intersects with the identities of media workers because we want to explain how these factors influence media freedom in Southeast Asia. Especially as large-scale media freedom indices don’t always take these factors into account.”
Page 2.
A comic page of 5 panels in brown lines and full colour. The narration is provided in caption boxes.
Panel 1. A reporter’s notepad where the printed lines are barbed wire. Pixelated eyes representing surveillance are visible in the background. Narration: “Our findings paint a nuanced picture of their challenges and experiences. Media workers are under threat from more than just repressive governments.”
Panel 2. Lawsuit papers and documents point like knives at a person who is cowering. Narration: “They might be sued by non-government entities.”
Panel 3. A person in a headscarf is nearly engulfed by tweets. Narration: “The growth of digital spaces and platforms…”
Panel 4. A paper airplane in flames illuminates a dark room, landing on a desk before a reporter. Narration: “...enables attacks by non-government actors, like hacking, trolling, doxxing and death threats.”
Panel 5. This panel shows media workers attempting to access information, but they are blocked visually by boxes. From top: someone trying to access records which have been partially censored; journalists trying to get into a press conference; a source backing away from journalists; someone holding a laptop trying to get online; a person unable to connect to certain websites on their computers; a man telling others to remain silent. Narration: “Media freedom encompasses not just the ability to write and publish information but also the process of collecting that information. Blocking access to sources of information impacts media freedom.” Labels in boxes overlaid on the art lists the ways in which this access is blocked: Laws preventing access to information; Sources who fear repercussions; Poor internet infrastructure; Public access to information; Freedom of expression; Selective access to press conferences.
Page 3.
A comic page of 9 panels in brown lines and full colour. The narration is provided in caption boxes.
Panel 1. Media workers walking down tree branches like paths, each faced with a forked pair of branches, one of which is laden with gold coins, the other thorny and barren. Narration: “Money matters. Low pay and employers’ lack of appreciation for their work affects what media workers can and cannot create. It also discourages younger people from becoming independent journalists.” A media worker dressed in a tunic and leggings: “I’ve been underpaid and sometimes even unpaid.”
Panel 2. Four icons paired with labels: Grants, a package wrapped with a label in front of a clock; Donations, a money box; Subscriptions, a membership card; Crowdfunding, a group of people. Narration: “Still, media organisations have found alternative sources of income and success with membership models.” One of the people says: “But the pandemic has hampered this success…”
Panel 3. A media worker at a fork in the branches: one path leads to a group of funders who are holding a bright blue square and surrounded by gold coins. The media worker holds a blue square of their own. The other path is thorny and without any coins. Narration: To what extent is a media worker or organisation independent if they need to tailor their content to what audiences and funders expect?”
Panel 4-8. These panels show ways in which media workers persist despite the challenges. Narration: “They navigate contradictions between content-making and censorship in varied, layered ways.” Panel 4. Two frames, containing an angry face and smiley face respectively, intersect. Narration: “Altering the tone and framing of pieces”.
Panel 5. Comments, highlights, and corrections on a Google doc/ Word doc. Narration: “Thoroughly editing and checking their work”.
Panel 6. A chrysanthemum flower. Narration: “Using creative visual metaphors”.
Panel 7. A drop-down menu where ‘English’ is selected. The other options are various Southeast Asian languages. Narration: “Publishing in certain languages”.
Panel 8. Blank space. “Avoiding certain topics altogether”.
Panel 9. An artist walking on the gutter of an open book, like a tightrope walker, using a brush as a balancing pole. Narration: “Always balancing between publishing critical information and avoiding reprisals.”
Page 4.
A comic page of 2 complex panels in brown lines and full colour. The narration is provided in caption boxes.
Panel 1. A group of media workers; the space between them is bright, but the rest of the page is dark. They attempt to expand the lit space by pushing outwards with their tools: brush, pencil, laptop, camera, microphone, studio floodlight, film camera. Narration: “Media work can be interpreted as resistance and activism. Media workers fight for a space where they matter, where their work matters, where Southeast Asian stories matter.” A media worker in a headscarf and headphones says: “I want my work to expose injustice, garner support for causes.” A journalist says: “But it’s tough to get local newsrooms to cover certain topics.” A videographer holding a camera says: “When some editors have little knowledge about Southeast Asia, it’s hard to convince them that our stories matter…to both local and global audiences.”
Panel 2. A network-like diagram of people and resources, represented by icons. Each point glows like a candle in the dark. Narration: “And to survive, they connect in support networks, which also include the public.” These labels are overlaid in boxes next to the respective icons on the network: Sharing news; Pushing for institutional reform; Providing capacity-building and training; Offering legal support; Raising funds. An isolated worker with no connections says: “But not everyone has the same or equal access to networks and resources…”. Another notes: “And it’d be nice to have more info about rates for freelancers.”
Page 5.
A comic page of 5 panels in brown lines and full colour. The narration is provided in caption boxes.
Panel 1. Someone is recording a protest using their mobile phone. Narration: “In making media”
Panel 2. Papers spread out on a table, with notes and stationery. Narration: “A media worker also makes the world they want to see”
Panel 3. A podcast interview being conducted between a media worker wearing headphones and a hoodie, and an old grandmother with white curly hair. Narration: “Bringing attention to the issues and stories they care about and the communities they work with.”
Panel 4. We see two people, one with a long-handled broom and a bucket, another rifling through a basket of rolled up paper. They are standing in front of a wall which has various posters wheatpasted on it. Narration: “To think about and address challenges to media freedom and media independence, we need a holistic understanding of what media work entails.”
Panel 5. The camera pulls back to reveal a wall that has been plastered with layers of posters and images, some old, some fresh, some defaced/censored, some painted over. Among the images are: the three-fingered salute; protests in Myanmar; a detainee in a prison cell; Raffy Lerma’s pieta photograph of a victim of the extrajudicial killings in the Philippines; armed riot police; climate crisis. In the middle, some media workers are wheatpasting a new poster: recognisable as the cover art of the report. Narration: “We see the Southeast Asian media landscape as a contested space, with media workers, outlets, donors, governments and the public all shaping it in different ways. This study is just one step toward understanding media freedom in Southeast Asia. What’s next? Studying how media workers’ identities matter to and shape their work. Let’s keep asking questions, interrogating assumptions and listening to their narratives.” The background fades to white.

Here’s what you can do right now:

  • Read the full report by New Naratif’s Research and Advocacy department.
  • Share and talk about this with friends. What does media freedom mean to you?
  • Support independent media organisations by becoming a member or donor.
  • Support independent media workers by sharing and subscribing to their work.

Charis Loke

Charis is an illustrator, comics editor, and programme designer based in Malaysia. Her interests include how comic artists and illustrators exchange resources in their networks, capacity-building for comic artists and illustrators, and drawing as a research method. Charis was formerly Comics Editor and Illustrations Editor for New Naratif.

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.

Jacob Goldberg

Jacob Goldberg is a journalist based in Thailand.