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THE FIRST ISSUE OF FIHRM-AP - Fighting to Write and Writing to Fight: Journalism as Discursive Resistance

Author Profile – Fadhilah Fitri Primandari

Fadhilah Fitri Primandari is a democracy researcher at New Naratif. Together with her research team at New Naratif, she is currently researching on media freedom in Southeast Asia. Her analyses of Indonesian politics have appeared on notable platforms including the Australian Journal of Human Rights, East Asia Forum and New Mandala. Her research interests centre on the gendered aspects of democratisation and democratic consolidation, discursive institutionalism and feminist methodology.

About New Naratif

New Naratif is a movement for democracy, freedom of information and freedom of expression in Southeast Asia. We aim to make Southeast Asians proud of our region, our shared culture, and our shared history. We fight for the dignity and freedom of the Southeast Asian people by building a community of people across the region to imagine and articulate a better Southeast Asia.

New Naratif’s Research & Advocacy Department is currently carrying out a research project on media freedom in Southeast Asia. In December 2021, we published our first original research report, titled Envisioning Media Freedom and Independence: Narratives from Southeast Asia, which can be accessed at https://newnaratif.com/mediafreedom/


Independent journalists in Southeast Asia face various challenges, ranging from safety risks to censorship, to financial challenges to limitations imposed by their own newsrooms.[1] Our team’s discussions with 37 independent journalists and representatives of media outlets covering and/or from 8 Southeast Asian countries (Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) throughout July and October 2021 revealed that many of our research participants attach meanings to their writing due the challenging terrains that they need to navigate. In this article, I argue that independent journalists in Southeast Asia engage in a discursive fight to write stories and at the same time, use their news stories to fight for a freer and more inclusive media space.

Firstly, it is useful to decouple individual journalists from the publication outlets that they write for. They may not always be on the same page regarding stories that should be covered. Power dynamics within newsrooms also matter; usually it is the editorial boards who get to have the last say on what gets published and does not. A Malaysian journalist who writes about environmental issues in Malaysia and Indonesia told us that not many Malaysian editors are interested in publishing articles about the environment and, when such articles are published, they are very rarely placed on the front covers of newspapers.[2] An Indonesian journalist shared that some “established” Indonesian newsrooms are reluctant to publish news stories that expose prominent political figures’ wrong doings due to these figures’ ties with the newsrooms, usually through investment and/or ownership.[3]

Filters on what stories can get published also exist at international outlets, though in a different way. Submitting stories about Southeast Asia to international outlets often means that those stories are evaluated and filtered through a reductive understanding of the region. A freelance journalist with experience writing about Asia recounted the difficulties of making local environmental news global,

“… making the case that an environmental story in Southeast Asia matters to a global audience is really, really tough. I was pitching a story that was about Sulawesi and Mindanao, and editors didn’t think that was an important story because … it’s too regional … it’s really, really hard to prove that it’s a global story … because editors have so little knowledge about, especially remote regions of Southeast Asia.”[4]

Additionally, environmental problems are oftentimes judged through a black and white lens. This pushes aside other complex and nuanced issues, such as those pertaining to local people’s livelihoods.[5] Further damning, some international publications place a quota on the number of stories that could be published about certain countries, especially when they are not viewed by the editors as “prominent”.[6] This practice does not only result in fewer stories (and likely less so for marginalised communities) but also exacerbates a reductive depiction of Southeast Asia, usually focused on high politics and economic growth. Media outlets, therefore, can be part of the problems that impinge media workers’ freedom to write and the public’s right to information.

Secondly, due to the challenges and dangers of writing critically, many of our research participants regard activism as an integral part of their work in media. An owner of an independent media company that covers the region said,

“…if a media organisation doesn't fight for freedom of expression, how on earth is it supposed to operate? … a fish needs water to breathe, media organisations need freedom of expression to operate.”[7]

An Indonesian freelance journalist told us that although national or local outlets offer lower pay for his pieces, he sometimes still chooses to write for them when the coverage is about human rights such as freedom of expression and concessions of indigenous lands.[8] For him, it is important that such issues are circulated and read by people at home. A participant from The Online Citizen, an independent news outlet which was banned by the Singaporean government in September 2021, said that writing about injustices and repression holds significance as it contests authoritarian governments’ efforts to curtail the flow of information and distort public discourse in their favour.[9]

Thirdly, who gets to write matters. An Indonesian freelance journalist complained about some international editors’ preference for choosing foreign (Western) journalists rather than local journalists to cover news stories about Southeast Asia.[10] It is not just about what gets written but also who gets to have the voice; our participant stressed the importance of local journalists writing and reclaiming stories about their own communities, countries and the issues that affect them.[11]

Writing, for many independent journalists in Southeast Asia, can be a political act as their stories serve to tell marginalised and unheard perspectives, challenge hegemonic narratives and broaden the discursive space in and around the region. Through writing, they also negotiate their position as independent voices, signifying that they too have a say about the issues and problems happening in their homes.

The challenges described above prompts the question of how to improve the media ecosystem to accommodate more critical stories from Southeast Asia. As fighting for critical issues must begin with the ability and opportunity to speak about them, we must employ a broader perspective on what it takes for such ability and opportunity to materialise. In addition to pushing for political reforms that enshrines freedom of the press, we need to recognise the importance of spaces where critical stories about Southeast Asia are valued. Therefore, it is important that newsrooms and funders, both local and international, value stories beyond their prospects of generating profit and clicks, and realise the role that the media has in sparking as well as shaping public discourse. One of our Malaysian participants reflected on the recent development in the Malaysian media landscape, where investigative coverage about corruption are increasing, leading to more people subscribing to and engaging with investigative and data-driven stories.[12]

Simply waiting for media outlets to change their approach to pitches or stories, however, is wishful thinking. The reality is many news outlets rely on profit to operate, and it is difficult to expect outlets to completely change business models. Given news outlets’ or funders’ tendency to reflect on what potential readers demand, it seems that a public that realises the need—and demand—for these stories could also help encourage more outlets and funders to accept and publish more critical stories about Southeast Asia. The discursive fight for a space where these stories are valued should not only be fought by journalists; it is our fight too.

 

Illustrators: Amita Sevellaraja

Illustrators: Amita Sevellaraja

Illustrators: Marvinne de Guzman

Illustrators: Marvinne de Guzman

[1] Burrett and Kingston, Press Freedom in Contemporary Asia; Reporters Without Borders, ‘2021 World Press Freedom Index’; Primandari, Hassan, and Melasandy, Envisioning Media Freedom and Independence: Narratives from Southeast Asia.

[2] Focus group discussion, 27th July 2021.

[3] Focus group discussion, 13th July 2021.

[4] Personal interview, 28th July 2021.

[5] Focus group discussion, 27th July 2021.

[6] Focus group discussion, 27th July 2021 & personal interview, 9th September 2021.

[7] Personal interview, 28th September 2021.

[8] Focus group discussion, 6th July 2021.

[9] Personal interview, 3rd August 2021.

[10] Focus group discussion, 13th July 2021.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Focus group discussion, 27th July 2021.


References

Burrett, Tina, and Jeff Kingston, eds. Press Freedom in Contemporary Asia. London New York, NY: Routledge, an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, 2020.

Primandari, Fadhilah F., Samira Hassan, and Sahnaz Melasandy. Envisioning Media Freedom and Independence: Narratives from Southeast Asia. Media Freedom in Southeast Asia Series. New Naratif, forthcoming.

Reporters Without Borders. ‘2021 World Press Freedom Index’, 2021. https://rsf.org/en/ranking.