By Max Kolbe
It must be said that China, Burma, Vietnam and Cambodia are hardly darlings of the media establishment. In Beijing they’re jumping at their own shadows in response to the protests that have toppled rulers in the Middle East while thugs in Indochina have come out to play.
The Chinese government is threatening to expel foreign journalists as the Jasmine Revolution left dear leaders doubting how much their people actually liked them. Bloomberg’s Stephen Engle was beaten while others were detained.
Foreign journalists were also read the riot act and harassed by security forces for turning up at small gatherings of people. Warnings were issued that correspondents risked having their visas revoked and the authorities again revealed how their thin skin.
Gilles Lordet, research coordinator for Asia at Reporters without Borders, says China has increased its control over the media and critics since human rights activist Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October.
“It shows the nervousness of the government about demonstrations, about the possibility of that the demonstrations in the Middle East can have an impact on a network of human rights defenders, journalists and defenders of freedom of expression in China,” he said.
In Burma It had to happen. Nobody expected the Burmese junta to let the good times roll once last November’s “elections” were done. But I thought the focus of their paranoia would again be pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi.
Instead, authorities arrested Australian publisher Ross Dunkley, who is anything but The Lady, and thrown him behind bars in Rangoon’s notorious Insein Prison.
His February 10 arrest followed a story by The Irrawaddy magazine about an internal power struggle at Myanmar Consolidate Media, publisher of the heavily censored weekly Myanmar Times.
Dunkley is co-founder, the other is Swezon Media Group. According to The Irrawaddy an acrimonious split emerged at the paper. This was shortly before Dunkley’s arrest for a visa violation and allegedly molesting a woman. The woman told the court she wants the charges dropped but police have refused to oblige.
Dunkley is also publisher of the Phnom Penh Post.
David Armstrong, Chairman of Post Media which publishes the PPPost, was deeply concerned.
He said the arrest “coincides with tense and protracted discussions Mr Dunkley and the foreign ownership partners in the Myanmar Times have been conducting with local partners about the future direction of the publishing group, ownership issues and senior leadership roles.”
The Overseas Press Club of Cambodia (OPCC) added increased authoritarianism is a growing trend in many countries around the region, while free press advocates from across South-east Asia and further afield were also worried.
The arrest of Dunkley, a free trade advocate — who is currently out on bail — speaks volumes for the bullying of a junta that believes November elections were also grounds for the dropping of sanctions against it.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has opposed the lifting of punitive measures, prompting Burma’s state media to warn that Suu Kyi and her party will meet tragic ends if they keep up their support of Western sanctions.
Suu Kyi noted this during a recent audio conference from Rangoon with correspondents in Kuala Lumpur.
“I am not certain exactly why Ross Dunkley has been arrested but certainly one thing I can say is that there is no freedom of the media yet in Burma and it helps if people try to expand the limits of what journalists can do in Burma,” she said.
She adds even Burma cannot escape 21st Century technology that has significantly expanded the ability of people to organize without government interference, a major factor behind the protests in the Middle East.
“Those who know about those events are comparing what’s happening there with what happened in Burma 1988 … Everybody is waiting around to see with great interest what transpires because people were impressed with what happened, particularly in Egypt.”
In Indochina they’re doing it tough. Le Hoang Hung, a 50-year-old Vietnamese journalist who was set on fire while sleeping has died from his injuries.
Hung had worked for The Worker covering the southern Mekong Delta and earned himself a reputation for investigating official corruption. According to reports he was scheduled to cover a court case involving a local official being sued for misappropriation of land.
Hung’s wife was sleeping in another room when an intruder broke into their home and doused him with chemicals. Minutes later he was alight.
“The whole family was sleeping and all of a sudden I heard my husband screaming,” she told a local news portal. They threw water on the flames and rushed him to hospital where he died 10 days later.
This can’t compare with the comparatively mild shenanigans that occur in Cambodia.
But the real fear is that Cambodia could be losing its luster as a haven for the free press.
In the early 1990s the United Nations arrived, so did the NGOs, the Phnom Penh Post and the OPCC. The authorities appeared tolerant of journalists who knew their own mind.
As such eyebrows were raised when Om Yentieng, head of the government’s anti-corruption unit and the
Cambodian Human Rights Committee, confiscated tapes from journalists after a recent press conference he had given.
He objected to questions about a grenade attack on opposition supporters in 1997 when 16 Cambodians died and more than 100 people were injured. Nobody has been held responsible.
Government spokesman, Phay Siphan, later said officials had the right to confiscate recordings if the questions create trouble. He also noted officials had a right to protect their privacy and dignity.
What this had to do with questions surrounding the 1997 grenade attack is anybody’s guess and the OPCC noted Om Yentieng’s actions were incompatible with three Cambodian laws and its constitution which guarantees press freedom.
The confiscations followed an incident where police injured photographer Sovan Philong from the PPPost and confiscated his camera. He sustained minor injuries while Hong Menea, an apprenticed photographer, also had his equipment taken.
They held government press cards and were documenting evictions around Boeung Kak lake in Phnom Penh and their gear was returned after their photos were deleted. It’s a worrying trend