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Press Freedom Is Under Fire In Southeast Asia


In Southeast Asia, freedom of the press is taking a beating from strongmen in places like Cambodia and the Philippines. There, the digital news outlet Rappler was ordered to shut down, critics say largely because it criticized President Duterte's war on drugs. Michael Sullivan reports from Manila.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Maria Ressa is a longtime conflict correspondent and former CNN bureau chief who founded Rappler five years ago. She's used to adversity and remains defiant.

MARIA RESSA: We've been attacked because we do our jobs, and we do it well. We, of course, will fight back. You know, we will hold the line.

SULLIVAN: But she admits to being caught off guard by the government's decision.

RESSA: I guess, in a way, you can say I was blindsided by the fact that the government has used authoritarian tactics to try to control the narrative - the public narrative and to use a propaganda machine in a completely new way.

SULLIVAN: It began, she says, just after President Duterte's election, when his war on drugs began.

RESSA: In July of 2016, with the start of the drug war, President Duterte boycotted traditional media for one month. That one month was the same time that the social media campaign machinery pivoted and became weaponized. And the first targets of attack were actually journalists.

SULLIVAN: Journalists like Pia Ranada, the palace reporter for Rappler, who in February was banished from the palace and publicly humiliated by a combative Duterte angered by a Rappler report Ranada didn't even write. But what Ranada got from Duterte is nothing compared to what she gets from his online trolls.

PIA RANADA: They say they wish death upon me. They wish I get gang raped. They wish that they could do all kinds of really gross sexual assaults on me. They make fun of the fact that I have a flat chest - I mean, very graphic.

SULLIVAN: Ranada gets dozens of such messages each day, and she's not even the trolls' prime target. At one point, Maria Ressa says, she was getting 80 hate messages an hour.

RESSA: I think in terms of what's happening globally, the Philippines was the harbinger for everything we're seeing play out in terms of how social media has been used by authoritarian leaders to deploy cheap armies that cut down democracy.

SULLIVAN: Ressa vehemently rejects the notion Rappler is foreign-owned, the basis of the government's order in January to shut it down. When she first returned to the Philippines in 1986 after the fall of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Ressa says, for the longest time, she couldn't understand how her friends explained away decades of dictatorship. She does now.

RESSA: They were right. I didn't understand until I lived through it now, right? Now I truly understand how power, money and fear can work together to transform a democracy into a dictatorship.

SULLIVAN: In Cambodia, says Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, Prime Minister Hun Sen is already there.

PHIL ROBERTSON: With Hun Sen, that trifecta - money, power and fear - is what makes his government work. He is controlling the political situation with fear. And he's shutting down critical voices like The Phnom Penh Post.

SULLIVAN: And The Cambodia Daily, which he hounded from the country late last year. In neighboring Thailand and Myanmar, the problem is less obvious, Robertson says, but...

ROBERTSON: What we see is a effort by these authoritarians to try to squelch critical voices. They have gone after radio, TV, independent newspapers and magazines wherever they can.

SULLIVAN: One bright spot, Robertson says - Malaysia, where newly-elected Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has vowed to scrap the fake news bill his predecessor rammed through just before the election. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Manila.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICOLAS JAAR'S "COLOMB") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.