The Charlie Hebdo cartoons would never have been published in Asia, but the freedom to offend is alive and well (for some)

Robin HicksMost of Asia’s largely conservative press would never have published cartoons like those that led to the terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo. But much of the region’s media, even where it is effectively state-run, have more freedom to offend than they’re given credit, argues Robin Hicks.

In an article in The Guardian yesterday, it was suggested that the offending cartoons depicting Muslim icons that probably led to the murderous attacks on a satirical magazine in France would not have been publishable in Australia because of tough anti-discrimination laws. And Australia – except for New Zealand – has the region’s “freest” press, according to Reporters without Borders.

So it follows that elsewhere in Asia, in countries like Singapore (whose mainstream media was recently compared to North Korea’s in a peculiar article by The Guardian), Malaysia and Indonesia, where there is more government influence over the press, cartoons of this nature – whether lampooning Islam or any other religion – would have been unthinkable. Right?

Cartoon in Japan Times

Cartoon in Japan Times

Many Western publications shied away from re-publishing the offending cartoons to cover the tragedy. Hardly any Asian newspapers did (The Philippine Star was one of the few to reveal the cover of first edition of Charlie Hebdo since the attacks today, and Japan Times ran an old Charlie cartoon in an opinion piece syndicated from Bloomberg). A media law contact says that it is unlikely that most Asian countries would ever allow publication of such content – if they took the view that it was racist or incited hatred towards a particular group.

Singapore could ban Charlie Hebdo using the Undesirable Publications Act, which restricts the importation, sale and circulation of publications that are felt to be in conflict with the public interest, in this case insulting a religion, or throw the Sedition Act at it.

The same would apply in Malaysia, where the Sedition Act would make a title like Charlie Hebdo no more than a figment of a cartoonist’s imagination. Promoting feelings of ill-will between different races in such a race-sensitive country is a serious no-no.

Press freedom in Asia - Reporters without Borders

Press freedom in APAC (Reporters w/o Borders)

In Indonesia, while political satire is on the rise and the emerging democracy sits higher than Singapore or Malaysia in the 2014 Reporters without Borders index, what is regarded as “indecent” material or hate speech towards certain communities, including religions, is out of bounds for publishers.

Which is why it did not go unnoticed that two of the loudest voices from Asia condemning the attacks in Paris – the controversial Malaysian cartoonist Zunar and Meidyatama Suryodiningrat, the editor of The Jakarta Post – are both also under scrutiny at home for cartoons that were considered offensive to the public.

Freedom to offend (for some)

It is curious that, in the case of Singapore – which ranks lower than its neighbours for press freedom (Indonesia is ranked 132nd, Malaysia 147th, Singapore 150th) – the freedom to offend in the media seems to be alive and well, depending on who you are.

Stomp logoStomp, a citizen journalism-cum-gossip website published by government-friendly Singapore Press Holdings regularly carries articles that could reasonably be accused of inciting religious or racial (as well as many other forms of) hatred. And yet – despite a petition to have the site closed down because of a string of publishing offences – the site marches on.

The government has clamped down on online news sites that it does not control, such as The Independent, Mothership and The Breakfast Network (which has now folded) in recent months, obliging them to get a license that would block suspected (but not proven) foreign ownership. And yet some blogs such as the Real Singapore, which has been known to run pieces written by “real Singaporeans” that would make Hitler blush, go on their merry way.

Utusan logoAs does Malaysia’s Utusan, the unofficial mouthpiece of the ruling UMNO party. The site has a track record for inciting racial hatred; the day after UMNO took a hammering in the 2013 general elections, but still managed to get re-elected, Utusan published a piece that ran with the headline “Apa lagi Cina mahu?” (“What else do the Chinese want?”), which suggested that Chinese Malaysians were “ungrateful” for trying to overthrow the Malay-led government.

In Hong Kong – which outside of Australia, Korea, New Zealand and Japan has Asia’s freest press – the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo’s are more conceivable, says my lawyer contact. Advertisers in Hong Kong’s newspapers have been free to portray mainland Chinese people as resource-stripping locusts, although earlier last year the South China Morning Post’s editorial team was instructed to refrain from describing protests against mainland Chinese as “anti-locust” demonstrations prompting some to suggest that the paper was self-censoring.

Press freedom and the freedom to offend in Hong Kong is declining as fast as anywhere in Asia. Though journalists are unlikely to get shot or blown up, those who offend the wrong people tend to get stabbed, as Ming Pao editor Kevin Lao discovered last year, or their houses and offices firebombed, as Jimmy Lai, the publisher of Hong Kong’s only pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily is coming to realise with alarming frequency.

The consequences of rocking the boat in Singapore or Malaysia tend to be less violent, with both governments preferring to financially cripple dissident voices through the courts. Just ask blogger Roy Ngerng, who is being worn down by a defamation suit by Singapore’s prime minister over comments he made about a compulsory savings plan for working Singaporeans, or Malaysiakini, the swashbuckling independent news site which has accused Malaysia’s prime minister of “taking a leaf out of Singapore’s book” by suing critical voices such as its own.

How free the press is depends where you’re sitting. If you have the right backers, it seems that you are free to be as offensive as you like.

Which could partly explain why – beyond the Middle East – Asia Pacific is the most dangerous region in the world to be a journalist. Last year, of the 66 journalists killed globally, 11 were from APAC, mostly from the Philippines (three) but also in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, which is fast losing its status as Southeast Asia’s model for how to unshackle the press. Meanwhile, just in the last few months, many more journalists and bloggers have been rounded up, thrown in jail or beaten in China, Vietnam, Bangladesh and Myanmar for, to use official language, abusing democratic freedoms.

But press freedom is probably less about the liberty to, to borrow a Singlish phrase “talk cock”, than it is about money. Malaysia’s Star newspaper closed its sex-and-scandal site The Daily Chilli not because it caused offense to some who were offended by it, but because it wasn’t profitable. Similarly, the South China Morning Post is said to hold back in its criticism of Beijing partly because it doesn’t want to lose pro-China advertising dollars.

Press freedom comes with a price, as Charlie Hebdo has shown the world. But the currency is not usually lives or jail sentences, but dollars and cents.

Robin Hicks is the editor of Mumbrella Asia


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