The threats and harassment journalists face when reporting in their native countries was one of the main topics of discussion at the third annual Asian Investigative Journalism Conference held in Seoul, South Korea.
“People are getting creative, calling some journalists ‘presstitutes’ as a wordplay on ‘prostitutes’”, said Sudhakar Reddy Udumula, a journalist from India’s Hyderabad.
Udumala, who covered the alliance of the Telugu Desam Party and the Congress in Andhra Pradesh, was trolled mercilessly even though he published a well-researched and fact-based article. He was a target of right-wing groups in India who attacked him based on his personal identity.
“The caste system is still deep-seated in the Indian mindset. As a journalist, you can get judged based on being part of a lower caste.”
Journalists are also quick to be labelled anti-state if they criticise the government which also leads to loss of editors and investors, said NDTV managing editor Sreenivisan Jain. The reason is pressure from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to qualify every opinion that doesn’t align with their Hindu-nationalist program publicly as ‘anti-Indian.’”
Sometimes the threats, however, become even more dangerous as in the case of Aung Naing Soe, who was jailed for his work in Myanmar. Working in different ethnic areas of the country, Soe and his team were arrested and detained for operating a drone near Myanmar government buildings. “Luckily, there was no sensitive data on my computer or my cell phone,” he said.
However, Soe’s arrest points towards how officials can arrest journalists under false pretences. “I don’t really believe that I was arrested for operating a drone,” he said.
Perhaps no one knows threats against journalists better than Reg Chau, the chief operating officer for Reuters. His reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are currently imprisoned in Myanmar for their investigation into the killings of 10 Rohingya men and boys by the country’s military. The news organisation has been extremely vocal in trying to lobby for the release of the two journalists.
“It’s a sad commentary on where the world is that we have far too many panels at this conference devoted to dealing with harassment, hate and violence directed at journalists,” said Chau.
“42 journalists have been killed so far this year. And a record 262 imprisoned last year.”
Award-winning cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Haque better known as Zunar suffered years of persecution under former Malaysian PM Najib Razak’s regime. While journalists use their words to question the government, Zunar uses humour.
He faced arrests, travel bans and sedition charges and believes the best way to beat the oppressor is to laugh at them. “For me, if you cannot beat them, laugh at them. No dictator in the world can stand it if you keep laughing at them, until the day they introduce an anti-slaughter law,” he added, which led to laughter from the audience.
“By being neutral, you are giving the mandate to the crooks to rule you even more,” he said. “I am a cartoonist, I draw cartoons. You are journalists, you write. Freedom of expression is our fundamental right, no government will give it to you (freely), so we need to keep fighting.”