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Media freedom on back foot in Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines

Sydney Morning Herald - November 5, 2016

Lindsay Murdoch, Bangkok A journalist has been sacked from a key Myanmar newspaper after writing about security forces allegedly mass raping villagers, as press freedom comes under increasing attack across south-east Asia.

The English-language Myanmar Times dismissed Scottish-born Fiona MacGregor, the paper's special investigations editor, after public condemnation of her reporting on Myanmar's western Rakhine State by the President's Office and a complaint from the Ministry of Information.

The state is under military lock-down following deadly attacks last month on police border posts which have been blamed on Muslim Rohingya insurgents.

Journalists have been banned from going to the restive region where Ms MacGregor reported on October 27 there had been "dozens of rapes," citing Chris Lewa, the head of a Rohingya rights organisation.

Human rights groups and the Reuters news agency have documented alleged rapes by security forces in the region, including one women who was three months pregnant and later suffered a miscarriage.

Other journalists working for the Myanmar Times have been quoted as saying they have been told by management not to report on Rahkine state, military actions in the state or the Rohingya community until the establishment of new reporting guidelines.

Rahkine's almost one million Rohingya have suffered years of persecution by the government and Myanmar Buddhists.

Shawn Crispin, the south-east Asia representative of the International Committee to Protect Journalists, urged the Myanmar government to stop obstructing and harassing journalists attempting to cover the conflict.

"If the government truly has nothing to hide, then there is no need to restrict media access to areas in question in Rahkine state," he said.

The Myanmar Times, co-founded by Australian journalist Ross Dunkley in 2000 and since fully acquired by Myanmar businesspeople, declares on its website that "our liberty" depends on freedom of the press, while its journalists must adhere to the highest standards of integrity, balance and fairness in all news gathering.

In Malaysia, journalists at the respected news site Malaysiakini are facing increasing intimidation and threats, including from the pro-Malay "Red Shirts" movement which has vowed to "tear down" their offices.

The news site is also under police investigation for allegedly attempting to carry out "activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy." Malayasiakini journalists were assaulted in October while covering an anti-government convoy.

The site has reported extensively on a scandal surrounding prime minister Najib Razak who has struggled to explain how hundreds of millions of dollars turned up in his private bank account that according to multiple reports originated from a sovereign wealth fund he set-up and oversaw through his chairmanship of an advisory committee. The prime minister denies any wrongdoing.

In the Philippines, where a total of 70 journalists were killed between 2006 and 2015, newly-elected president Rodrigo Duterte recently claimed that journalists killed on the job were often corrupt.

"Just because you're a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you're a son of a bitch," he said. "Freedom of expression cannot help you if you have done something wrong."

After an outcry over the remarks, including from the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, Mr Duterte said his statement was misinterpreted and that he would never condone extrajudicial killings because they are against the law.

His administration also announced the establishment of a task force to deal with journalist killings.

In Thailand, the ruling military government is cracking down on people deemed to have defamed the monarchy in the wake of the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej on October 13. Authorities have launched at least 20 new criminal cases and are seeking to extradite more suspects from abroad.

The country's lese-majeste laws are among the world's strictest with penalties of up to 15 years jail on each charge. The military has imposed sweeping restrictions on the media since seizing power in a 2014 coup after months of political upheaval.

Source: http://www.smh.com.au/world/media-freedom-on-back-foot-in-myanmar-thailand-malaysia-philippines-20161105-gsiq0q.html .

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