Not only does it point to China’s already outsize regional influence, it also underscores America’s own waning ability to do much in the face heavy-handed tactics aimed at civil society. The United States has lost so much of its moral authority in recent years, and our defense of press freedom as a global ideal has been an obvious casualty in this struggle.
For media freedom to flourish in Asia again, though, it will require regional powers with democratic traditions, such as India and the Philippines, to return to the values that their current leaderships have abandoned.
In the current vacuum, China sees a chance to further extend its hold on the guiding principles of governing in Asia. Free expression has no place in that agenda, which is why the attack on Apple Daily matters.
“It’s obvious that no one can do anything to stop this. China is feeling its oats, and they’re doing whatever they want,” Steven Butler, Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists told me. He said governments in the region “are not afraid of the U.S anymore. They are looking to China and saying ‘we can do this, too.’ ”
Laws ostensibly packaged to protect national security, combat terrorism or stop misinformation are often used to target critical journalism and online activism — and they have become a global phenomenon. Throughout the Middle East and Africa, such laws have been increasingly used to jail and otherwise silence journalists. Liking or sharing social media posts in some countries has become grounds for being charged with sedition.
A national security law that was passed in Hong Kong in 2020 made clear that the authorities could deem nearly any sort of expression a threat punishable with jail time. In a long flourishing media landscape, self-censorship sprouted suddenly.
Apple Daily’s closure could lead to sweeping enforcement targeting other outlets, dealing a devastating blow to the future of democracy in Asia.
Governments in several Asian countries are sending the not-so-subtle message — through proposed legislation targeting journalists — that they should pursue other careers or face the consequences.
China’s influence is perhaps the biggest single factor contributing to suppressed expression in Asia, but India’s own backsliding on media freedom mustn’t be discounted.
India, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has become one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist.
In neighboring Pakistan, a once thriving domestic local press is now plagued with censorship. Journalists there, such as Hamid Mir, are facing both physical violence and legal threats for their critical work. Rights activists and journalists have fought back hard against a proposed law that would pave the way to establish something called the “Pakistan Media Development Authority,” essentially a tribunal that would have the power to decide what is legally expressible in word or print.
The crackdown on journalists in Myanmar is not new, but since the coup there this year the situation has been particularly alarming. American journalist Danny Fenster, who was arrested on May 24, remains behind bars on vague charges that he was “working to foment dissent” against the military government.
My friend, the Filipino American journalist Maria Ressa, has been battling similar charges leveled at her by the government of President Rodrigo Duterte. In her case, the government continues to bring new court cases against her and her colleagues at Rappler, the news site she founded. It’s a personal war of attrition designed to break her down and bankrupt her operation under the weight of legal costs.
But in the Philippines, India and Pakistan, the current governments will not be around forever. Unlike in China, they will be replaced in elections.
“Many of the countries in Asia where press freedom is currently under threat used to have it," Butler told me. “There are traditions of professional journalism, and the public knows what that looks like, so there is an expectation or hope of things improving in the future.”
As dark as the circumstances have become, these societies maintain a semblance of democracy. For journalists like Mir and Ressa, it’s worth the struggle. It remains to be seen, though, if Hong Kong’s own tradition can bounce back from this latest assault.