Covering Asia’s New Order: It’s Grim Out There, Folks

Bill Poorman
Jun 20, 2019 · 5 min read

Can it even be called “news,” the fact that the news media and journalism are having a tough time? We’re familiar with the long-term trends that have made the practice of journalism an ever more difficult endeavor. Audiences and advertising dollars are harder to come by, at least in their traditional forms. Governments and people in positions of power always seem ready to take steps against journalists and reporters. Even so, the past year or two have been particularly tough in Asia, with these trends intensifying in worrying ways.

On the business side of journalism, the consistent growth of digital advertising and alternate outlets, like social media, continues to erode the traditional financial base of news organizations. Newspapers continue to be especially hard hit.

PricewaterhouseCooper’s most recent Global & Media Outlook anticipates that global circulation will essentially remain flat. In Asia, the number of news consumers is growing, but at the same time the competition for ad dollars is increasing. Companies’ efforts to diversify their revenue streams can produce strange results. Singapore Press Holdings — publisher of the national daily, The Straits Times — now earns two-thirds of its profits from properties that it owns and operates.

The growth of digital media has also increased the challenge of retaining audiences. Social media remains a huge and growing draw, especially in Asia. In a recent report, Global Digital 2019, We Are Social and Hootsuite record that tens of millions of new social media users are coming online in the region.

Chasing views and ad dollars is hard enough, but practicing journalism also has been extremely difficult. Here are some examples of the difficulties journalists have faced while reporting in Asia:

1. China has been imposing a generalized crackdown on journalism. More particularly, the Financial Times’ Victor Mallet in Hong Kong has been effectively ejected. Mallet, who was vice president of the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club, was denied renewal of his work visa after the club hosted a pro-independence speaker. This incident and the current anti-media climate led to a drop in the measure of Hong Kong Journalists Association press freedom to 45 on a 100-point scale — the lowest since the survey started in 2013.

2. In the Philippines,the government of President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly arrested journalist Maria Ressa of the social media site The Rappler. The government says the site violates foreign ownership rules, but press advocates say the harassment is a response to critical reporting.

3. In South Korea, the ruling party posted a personal attack against a reporter in March for a story that they claimed criticized the ruling government’s policy toward North Korea. The attack contained a derogatory term for a Korean who works for a foreign news outlet. The party later withdrew the post and apologized after pressure from some press groups, including the AAJA-Asia chapter and its Seoul subchapter.

4. So-called “fake news” laws are increasing. Malaysia passed such a law in 2018, though it may be repealed. The government of Singapore passed a similar law. These regulations are intended to criminalize online falsehoods, but press advocates are concerned that governments would use them to suppress information they dislike.

5. Two of Reuters’ Myanmar reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were sentenced to seven years imprisonment for their investigation into the killing of Rohingya, spending more than 500 days behind bars. The reporters were convicted of violating the Official Secrets Act, although there have been claims that the police set them up.

Incidents such as these have had a chilling effect on the region’s journalism and have prompted poor rankings for many Asian nations in the latest Reporter Without Borders World Press Freedoms Index. Even so, there are some hopeful indicators.

One example is the growing number of social media users. More potential news consumers are coming online, and growth in potential audience will precede solid audience growth.

Fine journalism continues to uncover information important to the public. Colleagues of the two imprisoned Reuters journalists in Myanmar completed their work and published the story last year. The Wall Street Journal played an important role in bringing to light the Malaysian 1MBD scandal, in which the then sitting prime minister, Najib Razak, was accused of funneling hundreds of millions of dollars of state money into personal accounts.

Ken Moritsugu was recently named the Associated Press news director for greater China. Even in today’s environment, he says, the need for quality journalism remains, even if extra precautions are needed:

“In some cases, it may take more time to get what we need,” he says. “We just have to stick with it and not give up.”

Nonetheless, it’s important to remain aware of the risks, he says.

“We want to tell the China story as accurately and completely as possible, but we don’t want to take undue risks or endanger anyone we interview,” Moritsugu says. “We probably have more conversations before a reporting trip than we would in many other places, to make sure we understand those issues and talk though how to handle various scenarios.”

Another positive sign is the burgeoning media start-up culture and community that is developing. A company called Splice — a Singapore start-up — is working to foster an entrepreneurial media culture. Asia encompasses many places and cultures so a host of media companies will be required to serve all of those readers, viewers, and listeners with their innumerable interests and languages, The trick is to find a business model that can sustain these operations.

And no matter what the state of the business side of journalism or the political climate, the need remains for high-quality, public-service reporting and analysis that helps people to participate in public life and make their lives better.

“I don’t think that news consumers are different in Asia than elsewhere,” says AP’s Moritsugu. “Everyone is hungry for information. Where information is restricted, there are journalists able to seek out information from other sources, from foreign media to bloggers and social media.”

The challenge is to separate fact from fiction. That’s why news literacy — the ability to be a discerning shopper — is crucial in the digital era.

Asian journalists, however, may have to content themselves with a different perspective on that mission. Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister and “founding father” of Singapore spelled out his particular take on the press in 1971 at the International Press Institute in Helsinki.

“Freedom of the press, freedom of the news media, must be subordinated to the overriding needs of the integrity of Singapore, and to the primacy of purpose of an elected government,” Lee said. “The government has taken, and will from time to time have to take, firm measures to ensure that, despite divisive forces of different cultural values and lifestyles, there is enough unity of purpose to carry the people of Singapore forward to higher standards of life, without which the mass media cannot thrive.”

In other words, nation-building and stability could override Western notions of what journalism is all about. That’s a choice that Asia governments and peoples will be wrestling with for some time.

Bill Poorman is a freelance journalist, writer, podcast producer, and video producer living in Singapore.