Impact of COVID-19 on media freedom, journalist safety and media viability in Southeast Asia

20 January 2022
The Public Media Alliance’s new research report gives a timely insight into the key impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the media across nine countries in Southeast Asia. Its accompanying draft Media Recovery Plan responds to the key challenges.
Front cover of Southeast Asia research report | PMA, UNESCO, ADN

The report provides an assessment of the regional media landscape, in light of the current global pandemic. Research was carried out over seven months by media experts based in nine focus countries: Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor-Leste, and Vietnam.

The report illustrates the strain news organisations have been under in recent years. They have been forced to accelerate their move to providing more extensive digital services due to various lockdown restrictions, with some not having the resources to make this transition successfully. Financial pressures imposed by the pandemic have occurred against a backdrop of broader threats to media freedom and the safety of journalists. Prior to and amid the pandemic, several laws purporting to combat the spread of disinformation and misinformation were introduced across the region. While such laws were introduced under the guise of protecting the public, they have more often been used a tool to limit the ability of journalists to hold power to account. As countries geared up to fight COVID-19, a crackdown on independent journalism and critical reporting ensued. As a result, many media workers have faced unprecedented risks to their physical and mental well-being.

Recovery Plan SEA frontpage
Frontpage of the draft Southeast Asia Media Recovery Plan | PMA, UNESCO, ADN

The draft regional Media Recovery Plan compiled as part of this project concentrates on the key areas to be addressed in order to create a sustainable media environment, one which enables the media and journalists to work independently and collaboratively during a time of crisis such as COVID-19. Recommendations on how to better equip journalists, media organisations and the wider media environment with useful and practical ways of responding to the challenges during and beyond the COVID-19 crisis were developed from feedback by the report researchers and during four virtual consultations taking place in November 2021 with PMA members and media stakeholders from across the region.

Key recommendations covered in the Media Recovery Plan include:

  • Building strong partnerships between media organisations to produce high quality and cost-effective content
  • Establishing a regional (non-governmental) forum to cover welfare, safety, and the freedom of journalists
  • Strengthening coordination and communication between states (with respect to media)
  • Supporting improved digital media literacy
  • Analysing the impact of digitalisation, especially the impact of social media

PMA hopes that the research will facilitate journalists to work more safely, and to legitimately promote freedom of expression and media freedom in the region. Creating a safe environment for media and journalists which enables them to work independently is a prerequisite for democracies to flourish. The issues pertaining to the safety of journalists, media freedom and media sustainability during a time of crisis such as COVID-19, require attention from all stakeholders, including both state and non-state actors.

This research report and draft media recovery plan allows all media stakeholders in the region to widen their understanding of the benefits of collaboration, sharing best practices, and innovations that address the current challenges strategically. These documents can further be used as educational tools which will help authorities realise that a free press matters for democracy.

The recovery plan will be available to view in six Southeast Asian languages (Thai, Burmese, Malay, Indonesian, Tagalog and Khmer) on the PMA website soon.

This important and timely project was organised by the Public Media Alliance, in collaboration with our local partner, the Asia Democracy Network (ADN), and with support from the UNESCO Bangkok Office and the rapid response mechanism of the International Programme for the Development of Communications (IPDC). We extend our gratitude to our project facilitators, Laxman Datt Pant, Chairperson of Media Action Nepal, and Tess Bacalla, Project Lead and Editor in Chief of the Asia Democracy Chronicles. Special thanks are also extended to our research contributors.