The Philippines is consistently ranked among the top countries unsafe for journalists and media makers. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), for instance, ranked the country as second most unsafe location in the world for journalists .
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), seventy-seven journalists have been killed in the Philippines since 1992, seventy-five of whom were murdered and sixty-eight of whom killed with impunity . The Centre for Media Responsibility and Freedoms (CMFR) maintains a database on the killing of journalists in the Philippines since 1986. The database reports 151 work-related killings since 1986  of which sixty-eight work in radio and fifty-eight work in print . 57 percent of the killings happened in the Mindanao region.
The most notable case of impunity in journalist killings in the country is the Ampatuan Massacre (or the Maguindanao Massacre) in which 58 people were killed, 32 of which were journalists, on 23 November 2009. As of 5 January 2016, 113 of the 197 accused of being involved in the massacre have been arrested but the trial is still on-going and fraught with delays .
In order to begin exploring this topic, from June to July 2016, interviews were conducted with journalists in the Philippines to explore how they perceive their security and safety as journalists, and their strategies to keep themselves secure.
About the respondents
- The journalists that were interviewed was a mix of full-time employed and freelance journalists. Ten journalists employed full-time with different news agencies, one TV show host, and three freelance journalists who contribute regularly to both mainstream and independent news agencies.
- While eleven of the journalists work in online news, and four in radio, most of the journalists have experience in print, broadcast, video and radio newsroom.
- There is vast journalistic experience among the respondents. Six respondents have been working as journalists for ten to sixteen years, four have over twenty years of experience; while only four have less than ten years of experience.
- Most of the respondents cover multiple geographical locations within and outside the Philippines. Twelve cover Metro Manila and the National Capital Region; six cover the Central Philippines region – The Visayas (Bacolod, Iloilo, Tacloban); and three cover Mindanao. Three of the respondents also cover countries outside of the Philippines.
- Beats and thematic focus was also varied among the respondents. Six covered politics (elections, government, local government, and laws); another six focus on human rights (labour rights, indigenous people´s rights, women´s rights, and children's rights); five respondents cover peace and conflict issues, specifically the Bangsamoro, and the National Democratic Front (NDF) negotiations with The Philippine government.
On the value of sources and communicating with them
All the respondents were unanimous on the importance of having first-hand, direct sources. Some mentioned about getting leads from social media to get to first-hand sources or to cover events.
They were also unanimous in saying that getting and maintaining good sources takes a lot of work and perseverance.
All respondents prefer to have direct contact: face-to-face interviews with sources. However there are instances, when the safety of both the source and the journalists is at risk. In these cases they opt to use phone calls and SMS. Increasingly, they are using social media (private messages on Facebook or direct messages on Twitter) to initiate contact with sources, or to set-up meetings with them.
All of the respondents use a mix of different tools to store the information that they gather from their sources. None of them use encryption tools.
One of the challenges, according to some of the respondents, is the lack of open data available and the difficulty in getting statistics and other information from government agencies in The Philippines. Having contacts in government agencies to get information is important, but not always possible.
A respondent says (paraphrased and translated): ¨Usually our struggle is actually with government offices. But other than that, nothing serious. With official documents, sometimes we also ask other organisations if they have one. For official denial, I remembered that Noynoy Aquino administration denied us media accreditation for his inauguration. You need a great amount of patience. I’ve experienced being asked to wait for six hours for a fifteen-minute interview. You just have to be pushy and do everything that you can, and always call and ask.¨
There is a specific challenge to journalists not based in urban centres in the Philippines. One respondent says (paraphrased and translated): ¨ …the common ones that we get here when you’re in the periphery is that if you want to get information from official sources, you have to go to the urban centres. Sometimes, even if the event has happened here in our area, and we need to get official statements from sources, it’s the media from the urban centers that get the stories ahead of us. There’s also this norm that they only give the stories to media they know. I’m also referring to the police and to the military, where they want the sources to centralise their statement to their chief information officer, who’s usually in the center. It’s difficult for us to get that information that’s why we capitalize in our access to the grassroots communities. There are also agencies where they don’t have regional offices here in the provinces. You need time to access them, but if you’re pressed for time, we rely on colleagues based in the urban areas. If you want to get statement from Commission of Human Rights, they don’t have offices here in the provinces, so we have to use our connections to reach them, and if you’re able to reach them, it’s difficult to earn their trust, since they don’t know us. If we try to access materials on their website, since they’re supposed to make information accessible there, they’re not there.¨
Perception of security and mitigation strategies
When asked about the threats that they face as part of their work, the journalists had varied responses:
- Physical security was a priority. Not surprising, given that he Philippines is constantly on the list of countries where journalists are likely to get killed on the job.
- One respondent talked about their news agency being directly hacked.
- Some talked about being trolled, stalked online, and threatened.
Some have received security training from other organisations, so there is awareness of risk and a few mitigation tactics exist. For mitigating information security threats, most of the respondents have basic awareness of personal and digital security tactics. They share a range of tactics for both physical and digital security.
One respondent says: (translated) ¨I try to, but it´s hard. I try to always, at least regularly change my passwords. Using different passwords for different accounts. It helps that there are different layers -- like the accounts through your phone, like with email, there are several ways to verify your accounts. I´m not comfortable leaving my laptop open when I'm in public. Because your work files are there, even your personal accounts. And there have been incidents when people have been hacked, and they [hackers] post on their Facebook profiles. For me, that's really tragic. Even if it's not deliberate, like if your phone gets stolen. Even just losing a device, that's such a big deal for both professional and personal reasons. Even your personal photos, right? Why will you want anyone to have access to that?
And I think we should be careful about clicking links. You get this email that you have a message from a third party site, before I would open it, but now I never open them. Well, we're more familiar with spam, and when your friends get stolen from (through that).¨
Another one focuses on physical security tactics: (paraphrased and translated) ¨If the area is high risk, we have to have a buddy when covering. Like for example in Hacienda Luisita, we should always have a pair when covering, and we don’t stay overnight in the area. We should be on our way home before it goes dark. We also update our friends and family through texts like “we’re already here in the area” or “we arrived safe.”
When asked if their perception of risk due to their work as journalists, most of the respondents mentioned the increasing risk of online surveillance. Most of them were sure they were somehow being watched online. The online risks that they have faced or heard about include: their news agency website being hacked, being trolled online, having their accounts suspended through a mass of complaints whenever they publish anything against the current government, and being cyberbullied.
All the respondents understand that their work comes with risk. One particular respondent had an insight about information security that encapsulates the challenges faced when it comes to securing journalists: (Paraphrased and translated) ¨We have had training to be more careful and aware. Encryption -- although you need competence in that. With everything we have to deal with to get our stories out, I can´t build skills in encryption. Why would I want to develop skills to hide information when it´s my job to share information? That´s a paradox. Just think that you have to be careful with the information that you get and the information that you get out. For as long as what you do is for the common good.¨
Although, for some of them, they believe that they are not specifically in any kind of physical danger. Upon asking why, no clear explanations were given. Meaning it’s likely to be a perceived sense or feeling of security.
The 2016 interviews are useful baseline information for how journalists perceive their safety and security online. But the interviews took place more than one year ago. Since then, the political climate and situation in the Philippines has changed significantly. So has the social media landscape, behavior and to some extend the culture in the country. It would be interesting to explore with the same respondents, perhaps even with a bigger sample size, how journalists perceive their safety and security in 2017.
When it comes to journalist safety and security, the digital aspect of their work is left out and unexplored – which is a gap in understanding the full risks that they face. From the interviews, we learned that most journalists had an awareness of digital and online risks, but haven't made clear connections between how they communicate online vis-à-vis their physical safety as journalists. This connection needs further exploration.
As an organisation that provides digital security training, this research has yielded some insight that will be valuable in designing workshops for journalists. Specifically:
- Ensuring that the connection between digital communication risks and physical risks are made clear and are also based on the actual experiences of journalists;
- Making digital security as convenient as possible, given that it tends to fall by the wayside when the journalists become concerned with their stories and their work;
- For any digital security training to focus on securing communications with sources, and securing archiving practices for journalists.
 “PH 2nd most dangerous country for journalists – IFJ”' Philippine Daily Inquirer, http://globalnation.inquirer.net/135916/ph-2nd-most-dangerous-country-for-journalists-in-past-25-years-ifj
 Committee to Protect Journalists: https://cpj.org/asia/philippines/
 CMFR Database on Killing of Journalist in the Philippines http://cmfr-phil.org/mediakillings/charts.php
 CMFR Database on Killing of Journalist in the Philippines (by medium) http://cmfr-phil.org/mediakillings/charts.php
 “No justice yet for victims of Maguindanao carnage”' Philippine Daily Inquirer, http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/752535/no-justice-yet-for-victims-of-maguindanao-carnage
By Yerry Borang and Egbert Wits
Earlier in 2017, in collaboration with Citizen Lab, we spoke to journalists from Papua, Aceh, and Central Java in an effort to find out the current situation regarding the safety of journalists there. In total, 16 journalists were interviewed, with a focus on digital security and how journalists (safely) use technology. Besides Indonesia, this research was also conducted in the Philippines.
Although there’s a growing number of websites that can help you work more safely, a larger narrative discussing the pros and cons of digital security for journalists and the digital security challenges they face in today’s fast-paced, “instant deadline” world is missing. We hope that sharing the outcomes from our research in Indonesia can help contribute to this discussion. Let’s start by looking at journalistic education.
10 out of the 16 interviewed journalists have received journalistic education. While physical safety in the field was given ample attention in their curriculum, information on digital security was completely absent. "There was no attention on digital security during my journalistic education" (Jakarta no.2). When looking into journalistic education at several Indonesian universities in Java  today, we found that none of the institutions have an introduction to digital safety or security for journalists. On the job training perhaps? That was also not the case. None of our interviewed journalists’ employers had offered an extra training on security or safety issues. Existing knowledge on digital safety is minimal and comes mostly from peer sharing among journalists. A general rule of thumb we discovered from the Indonesian journalists is that they start learning or searching for information after they felt threatened, abused or were otherwise negatively impacted as a result of their journalistic practice.
The lack of training on online and offline safety is an alarming fact given that the safety of journalists in Indonesia is precarious, to say the least. Human Rights Watch reports  that violence against journalists in Indonesia is on the rise. The Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), an Indonesian non-governmental union, reported that there were 78 incidents of violent attacks on journalists in 2016 , including those by security forces. A stark increase compared with 42 in 2015, and 40 in 2014. AJI found that attackers have been brought to justice in only a few of these 78 incidents. And even though there are several laws  protecting Indonesian journalists, access to justice is still difficult.
All the journalists in our research primarily rely on their smartphones for communication and the recording of interviews. Contacts of sources are saved in the device and Whatsapp chat groups are important sources of information and a place to share. Only 3 out of 16 journalists believe the data in their mobile phones are secure if used properly. Methods like encrypted messaging are not widely known, although most realize that sending sensitive information is better not done through mobile chat applications or regular text messages. "Important messages are better not sent by regular sms. Just to be safe." (Papua no.1).
Remarkably, most journalists realize that they are prone to outsiders tapping into their phones or investigating the data in them. Yet, they do little to prevent it, and some just hope for the best: "I just hope it's safe to use Whatsapp. I use it as there's no other alternative" (Jakarta no.2). Others just try to be cautious: “We have to be more cautious in using application and digital devices” (Jakarta no.7). But generally speaking, journalists do too little. With 6 out of 16 answering “yes” to being asked if they suspected that they were under any kind of digital or physical danger due to their work, their lack of preemptive action comes as a surprise. It’s almost as if they take the current situation for granted.
Keeping the Personal Separate from the Professional
11 out of 16 journalists regularly use their personal numbers and/or social media accounts for their work. Although many stated that it is better to keep personal social media accounts and phone numbers separate, a variety of reasons led them to abandon this principle. Convenience, frequently working outside of office hours, close ties among journalists, and the lack of office equipment were the reasons most mentioned for using personal accounts and numbers while performing professional duties.
Due to journalists’ inability to separate the personal from the professional some have had to discontinue or even entirely delete their social media accounts. "I have deleted all my social media accounts. No more Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for me. Just to be safe." (Jakarta no.5) Journalists also mentioned being bullied or receiving threats through their social media accounts. An additional danger is that journalists’ private details (family members, addresses, favourite hangouts, etc.) are can be easily discovered online. It’s a big question if this is preventable, as journalists’ names are often mentioned alongside articles in Indonesia. A simple Google search based on someone’s name often reveals quite a lot about their private life.
Safety of Data
Only 5 out of 16 journalists mentioned that their companies had specific policies on the use of software, online administration, and saving data. Upon further questioning, this mainly referred to naming files (archiving and database storage) and having access to passwords which allow for articles being published. Most journalists use personal laptops, smartphones, SD-cards or other devices to store interview data. Almost all use online storage software (Google Drive or Dropbox) for backing up their data.
Regarding the safety of data, this comment is exemplary: “No matter how good we save our data in electronic devices, it still can be hacked by certain people” (Jakarta no.10). Journalists seem to be aware of the danger, but feel there is little they can do about it. The convenience of, for instance, saving information on a personal smartphone, and lack of (more secure) alternatives are the comments that are most often heard. None of the journalists’ employers have strict safety procedures and sharing computers at the office is commonplace. Even login passwords to computers are shared in case there is a problem or if certain files need to be accessed. In general, the safety of stored data is not considered an issue.
Jakarta versus Outer Regions
A stark contrast was seen between journalists operating in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, versus those active in the outer regions of the archipelago. Journalists in Jakarta feel much safer and often mention that working in more remote locations is more dangerous. “Working in other places outside Jakarta is still dangerous. My fellow journalists there often get terrorized. But in Jakarta, we are still reasonably free.” (Jakarta no.3) The biggest threats mentioned are local actors. For example, local industries, local government officials, entrepreneurs/companies working in resource extraction industries and (extremist) civil society groups.
We suspect that this contrast between Jakarta and the outside regions is largely due to varying degrees of internet access and civilians’ access to information. Additionally, any event taking place in Jakarta quickly becomes national news. In the outer regions, internet penetration is lower and having access to news is more difficult. What happens local, often stays local; allowing local actors more freedom to act "unnoticed".
Getting Indonesian journalists to use legitimate operational software is a challenge. Almost all use pirated copies, meaning they don’t receive regular security updates and live malware protection is missing.
Besides providing original copies of operational software, employers should provide more assistance to the journalists. A monthly working group comprised of journalists to discuss and investigate digital security issues could make a difference. Again, there’s plenty of software and online courses out there, but if employers are not encouraging their journalists to upgrade their level of security, the existing status quo is likely to adhere.
The conclusion of our interviews with Indonesian journalists is that they take digital security very lightly. Combined with the perception that there is little they can do about it, the current situation is not a good one. Most importantly, journalists will have to become more aware that lax digital security can have a very negative impact. Not only for the journalists themselves, but also for their sources, families, employers and the public.
1 Amongst others, we looked at UGM (Yogyakarta), UNPAD (Bandung), UI (Jakarta). Here a link with an example of a representative curriculum. Communication Studies at the Journalist Dept of Atma Jaya University (Jakarta).
3 This number only captures the violence faced by “professional” journalists. There are many more unreported cases where victims were citizen journalists or freelancers.
4 Some examples: Article 28 of the Indonesian Constitution (1945), grants the Freedom of expression to every human being. Human Rights Law, UU No. 39 (1999). Press Law, UU No.40 (1999). Broadcasting Law (UU Penyiaran).
EngageMedia, the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) along with key regional allies, will be hosting COCONET, a Southeast Asia Digital Rights camp.
COCONET, named after the coconut plant that is widely grown and used in the Southeast Asian region, also means Connecting Communities & Networks as it aims to enhance regional networking, and to build collaborations with organisations that can help expand and popularise digital rights issues. We hope to connect members of the digital rights community to media and technology-makers, as well as to grassroots digital activists, as a way to expand the social reach, and social movements, engaged with digital rights issues.
EngageMedia, APC, and SEAPA have brought together a regional consortium to co-design and host the camp. This consortium includes SafeNet (Indonesia), Empower (Malaysia), Thai Netizen Network, Witness, Myanmar ICT Development Organization, and the Cambodia Center for Human Rights.
EngageMedia has previously organised six similar camps: four in Indonesia, one in Malaysia and one in Myanmar. These camps focused on bringing together video-makers and technologists and resulted in both short-term and ongoing networks, as well as innumerable post-event collaborations. The camps range from three to seven days and are set in a remote location where participants quickly move out of their comfort zones, and develop trust and relationships with their co-campers. You can read about the most recent camp in Myanmar here.
The camps are organised using a participatory methodology to generate ownership over the process, content and outcomes, and to encourage everyone to take responsibility for the event's success.
Who can participate?
Please note that this camp is specifically targeted to people from Southeast Asian countries (Brunei, Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam), but we're also open to participants from other countries in the Asia-Pacific.
We're looking for the following kinds of people to join us:
- Internet Rights advocates
- Activists (those who are working with grassroots communities' issues and are using online platforms)
- Techies (who are aware of political issues of technology and are interested in embedding themselves in social movements)
- Media Makers (creative content creators who advocate social change – journalists, bloggers, video-makers, photographers, theatre practioners, painters, etc.)
When: 22-26 October 2017
Where: Bali or Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Deadline: 10 August 2017
EngageMedia, the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), are pleased to announce a call for applications to COCONET: Southeast Asia Digital Rights Camp.
COCONET (Connecting Communities & Networks) aims to enhance regional networking, popularise digital rights issues, and expand digital rights campaigns and movements by connecting policy advocates, researchers, digital campaigners, media-makers, and technologists.
COCONET is a peer-based event where everyone will participate: bringing knowledge, experiences, and skills to share.
A full description of the event can be read here.
Who can participate?
We're looking to gather 75-100 participants for the camp. Whilst Southeast Asia (Brunei, Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam), is the key target, the event is also open to participants from other parts of Asia and the Pacific. Please note that scholarship support will prioritise applicants from Southeast Asia.
The following are highly encouraged to apply:
- Activists working with grassroots communities with strong experience in using digital platforms
- Activist technologists, open source advocates and digital security trainers
- Internet Rights policy advocates
- Researchers and academics
- Social change media-makers including film-makers, journalists, bloggers, photographers, designers, and artists.
Applications are now closed.
1. Tell us who you are as a filmmaker and how you began your career as one. What first attracted you to work with documentary film?
I studied visual arts but cinema is my first love, so to speak. Then it also became clear to me that in Singapore, art remains a relatively elitist activity, while cinema is the mass medium of choice. I try not to make a distinction between fiction and documentary. A documentary film is a fictional construct. And there’s as much truth in fiction films as in documentaries. You could also say that truth is an effect of fabrication.
2. Can you tell us about some of your more notable films?
The film I’m currently working on has a 54-minute version that was awarded Best Southeast Asian Feature at Freedom Film Festival back in 2015. It’s based on the arrests of 22 people by Singapore’s Internal Security Department in 1987. The detainees were accused of being involved in a Marxist conspiracy, physically and psychologically tortured, and then coerced into making public confessions.
3. Which would you say is your favorite, among the films you've made? What is the background to its story?
It’s not exactly a favorite, as you’ll see why, but back in 2014, I was asked to make a short film to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the May 13th, 1954 student movement in Singapore. On May 13, about 1,000 middle school students had gathered at the foot of Fort Canning Hill. They were there to support a student delegation that was calling for a postponement of compulsory military conscription. The student delegation was scheduled to meet with the British governor at the Istana (Presidential Palace) nearby. Unfortunately, riot police was called in and around 30 students were injured.
However, the short film dramatizes not the events of May 13, but the subsequent student occupation of Chinese High School a few weeks later in June. In these three extraordinary weeks, the students not only took over the school but organized themselves for communal living. To do this, they set up groups and committees to take charge of matters such as academic studies, recreation, art, food, laundry, sanitation, medicine, security, public relations, etc.
The student occupation exemplifies to me the collective spirit of the May 13 generation. The events of May and June 1954 went on to serve as a catalyst for the anti-colonial struggle that ultimately set Singapore on its road to independence. That such an unprecedented historical episode has been falsified or whitewashed from our school textbooks is a travesty.
I have to say though, that the short film was hastily made in the space of two months and, in my opinion, does not express adequately the complexities of that period. But it’s such an important event that I plan to turn it into a feature film in future.
4. What have you learned through the process of making films?
What I’ll like to say here is a quote from Sokurov’s Moscow Elegy: “It's cinema that makes use of you, not vice versa. I think one's got to learn how to serve film, not to be its victim. It makes use of you, not vice versa.”
5. What are the challenges for you working in Singapore, especially with its current social-political situation?
If I had to isolate a single concrete challenge or obstacle, I would say that it has to be the absence of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
The FOIA is crucial not just for documentary filmmakers but for every citizen. Because without equal access to proper information, how are we equipped to make decisions that affect all aspects of our lives – from housing, food, health, business, arts, education, etc.?
A FOIA is a fundamental pillar of any true democracy. With a proper FOIA, researchers would have much needed information for informed analysis, and citizens would be able to scrutinize how government policies are decided. Imagine being able to read the minutes, or watch a live telecast of policy meetings at government ministries. That is when we would have taken a real step towards transparency and accountability.
6. How does online distribution help your work, and what are your thoughts on online and offline distribution?
I’m still trying to figure out this aspect of being an independent filmmaker. My strategy now is this: I try to focus my energies on making the film. The other aspects, I try to do as little as possible but enough to get the ball over the line.
7. Do you believe that films can change society?
I would like to say “Yes, otherwise, what’s the point?” But in a situation like Singapore, real change, which is change in terms of what’s inside people’s heads, that may not happen overnight, or even in 5-10 years. It may not even happen in my lifetime.
On the other hand, there’s a real urgency that change is needed. Just to cite an example taken from the economy: as ex-GIC chief economist Yeoh Lam Keong has mentioned, up to 500,000 people live in poverty in Singapore [out of a population of about 5.5 million] and the weakness of labour laws perpetuate the exploitation of even more low wage migrant workers.
8. What are you working on now and what do you have planned for the future?
Besides the projects already mentioned, I’m developing a film based on contemporary activism in Singapore.
Find out more about Jason's work at the 'Untracing the Conspiracy' project site.
From March 6-10, EngageMedia attended the Internet Freedom Festival in Valencia, Spain.
As one of the few global, civil society focused events, the festival was a refreshing change from the often highly branded multi-stake holder conferences. Here, amongst allies, the conversation went much deeper across a range of topics from digital security, free software, free media, journalist safety, policy issues and more. It also provided the opportunity for long conversations with allies, partnership development, and the hatching of plans.
EngageMedia was part of several discussions and presentations including ‘Exploring secure and anonymous video capture and distribution’, ‘Architectures of Internet freedom movements in Southeast Asia’, and ‘Research on security digital perspective of journalist in Indonesia and Philippines’. It was gratifying to see such large representation from Southeast Asia, with a host of organisations from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Myanmar and more.
I led a session on secure video capture and distribution with the Guardian Project, Open Archive, Freedom of the Press Foundation and Small World News. The session explored the privacy and safety implications of commonly used video sharing sites, and the challenges of scaling open source alternatives. Sites such as YouTube have carved out a defacto monopoly on video distribution, one that is built on advertising and the collection of users’ data, or Surveillance Capitalism, in the words of Shoshana Zuboff. This creates insecure systems for those working in sensitive environments, and brings users into a web that doesn't respect their privacy. Using distribution platforms that are secure and anonymous to break important stories is increasingly difficult.
There have been various attempts at creating more secure and anonymous systems, EngageMedia’s Plumi platform being one of them. In the larger game, however, we are massively out-gunned. The problem is difficult to solve given the large amount of resources required to build alternatives of that scale.
The need and desire for such alternatives was clearly present in the session, and whilst the know-how is there, fundamentally the question is one of resources. Everyone involved will certainly be continuing their work to chip away, but we need to move beyond proof of concepts to much larger audiences to provide the secure and anonymous services journalists and activists need. This will require a lot creative organising, more collaboration and funders and others to come on board.
The Internet Freedom Festival also saw us connect with our fellow Association for Progressive Communications (APC) members, always an enjoyable and productive experience. EngageMedia and APC are currently collaborating to produce CoCoNet, a Southeast Asia digital rights camp that is in many respects similar to the Internet Freedom Festival, however on a regional basis.
If you are thinking of attending the Internet Freedom Festival next year we’d very much recommend it!
Tell us about the people behind The Isaan Record. How did you start out?
The Isaan Record is an online news magazine that tells the stories of Northeastern Thailand. Over the past six years, our small team of Thai and foreign journalists has published a wide range of news and feature stories, as well as number of short video documentaries.
We are committed to delivering well-balanced stories with a focus mainly on human rights, democracy, development issues, and local politics in the Northeast of Thailand. We believe that a well-informed public is the foundation of a healthy democracy.
Most of our stories are translated and published in both Thai and English. Recently, we have begun publishing articles in the local dialect, setting an unprecedented example in Thai media.
Why did you choose to work with documentary films and what first attracted you to it?
We have been producing short documentary films since the early days in 2011 when The Isaan Record was just starting off. Although our current team of in-house journalists focuses on written news and features stories, we regularly invite documentary filmmakers to contribute short pieces. We want to provide a platform for young video journalist to present their work to an online audience.
In the past, the Northeast had a tradition of mobile cinemas and we recently started discussing the idea to bring documentary films about the Northeast to an audience in rural areas of the region.
What is your favourite film among those you’ve worked on and what is the background to that story?
Fields of Mine is one our favourites. It tells the story a rural community in the beautiful mountains of the Upper Northeast that is fighting against a gold mine project. On the one hand, Na Nong Bong Village is a fascinating example of community-based activism with a strong female involvement. On the other hand, the case represents many of the grievances faced by villages in the Northeast today including the exploitation of the region's natural resources by private companies and the state, the use of violence and legal mechanisms to suppress dissent, and the lack of public participation in development projects. The film is one of our very first documentary pieces, produced by Glenn Brown and Lizzie Presser, who founded The Isaan Record and managed it until 2012.
Another film that has been popular with our audience is The Master Plan, a guest contribution by two American students, Paul Sullivan and Wilder Nicholson. The documentary addresses the long-standing issue of land rights in the Northeast and shows how the military government, that came to power in coup d’état in 2014, has been using deforestation policy as justification to evict forest communities across the region.
What are the challenges for you working in Thailand or Northeast Thailand?
Reporting from the Northeast of Thailand has been a very rewarding experience for our team. For our journalists it often seems easier to gain access to news sources here than in Bangkok. Organisations, government agencies and people are less used to media attention and usually people are forthcoming and easy to talk to.
But we notice that things have been changing since 2014. The military regime not only suspended democracy and rolled back decentralisation that gave more autonomy to the provinces but it also put a lid on all forms of dissent. A climate of fear makes it more difficult to get peoples’ opinion on the record. We used to interview people on the streets on various political topics but these days everyone seems to be much more cautious when speaking out in public.
What are you working on now and what’s your next project?
We are running a three year project to build a journalism network in the region. The Isaan Journalism Network Project is a journalism program that trains northeastern Thais with the skills and capacity needed for rigorous, local citizen journalism.
Thailand’s media landscape is skewed towards Bangkok and tends to represent the interests of the urban middle class. We want to encourage a shift in the Thai media’s focus from one that deals almost exclusively with Bangkok-centric news to one that more meaningfully incorporates the largest and most populous region in the country, the Northeast.
We are also looking into ways to build partnerships with media outlets in other regions in the country, and hope that in the next few years we can be part of a network of progressive, non-Bangkok news organizations that as a whole would present a very different picture of Thailand.
Access more content by The Isaan Record here.
In February, a collaborative project between EngageMedia and Viral Strategies launched an anti-tobacco campaign in Kampung Kali Code, Yogyakarta. This event was organized by health experts and media campaigners in reaction to the tobacco industry, which exploited the village for their advertisement media without monetary compensation.
A few months ago, a tobacco company painted the village in red, blue, yellow and white for a project called “Show Your Colors”. A conservative analysis by Vital Strategies estimates that the company has enjoyed brand exposure worth more than US$220,000 per month as a result. According to a 2011 survey, Indonesia is the second-largest cigarette market in Asia after China, and has the highest male smoking rate in the world at 67% of the population (Asian Tribune).
“Show Your True Colors” is a counter-campaign against aggressive tobacco marketing by re-painting the village with anti-tobacco, glow-in-the-dark graphic murals, that were designed by graffiti artist Koma. The murals were painted on the walls and rooftops of houses, so that pedestrians on the bridge above of the village can easily view them. This initiative aims to not only raise awareness about healthier environments and the risks of smoking, but also to remove the exploitative tobacco branding in Kali Code.
As part of the community empowerment agenda, activities were not only undertaken by the campaign organizers and artists, but also involved the people of Kali Code. Teenagers from the village participated in a video workshop for three days at EngageMedia, and produced six videos that were screened on the night of the launch event.
Now, Kali Code is showing its true colors – the color of its people, and not of the tobacco company.
Eight journalists from eight Indonesian media outlets traveled to West Papua last week to investigate media freedom and the safety of journalists in the region, after an international delegation called on Indonesia to address press freedom violations in 2015.
The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) launched the investigation on January 30 in Jayapura, Merauke and Timika, where the Media Freedom Committee-Indonesia followed local journalists from Papuan news organisations for five days.
WAN-IFRA’s Asian Regional Manager Eko Maryadi said: “We expect the program to send eight reporters from Jakarta, from non-Papuans to do reporting, that they can understand the issues, difficulties, and problems faced by journalists in Papua.”
The Committee reported eight key findings:
- Government officials and security personnel are discriminatory towards OAPs (“original Papua persons”)
- Journalists are stigmatised as pro-independence or pro-Homeland, leading to intimidation and fragmentation among the journalist community
- Environmental damage through development programs are underreported due to heavy restrictions on the press
- Strengthening journalism in Papua relies on an improved code of ethics, understanding of the journalist profession, use of technology and a business model that maintains the independence of the press
- Journalists need to actively change the media perspective of Papua
- 11 out of 16 foreign journalists who recently gained access to Papua were monitored by intelligence officials
- Sexual harassment of female journalists in Papua is underreported
- The quality of public services and competition depends on equitable access to communication infrastructure and information technology
More detailed reports were documented on the Committee’s blog, featuring daily updates and interviews with journalists from Tabloid Jubi, Papua Salam, Mongabay.co.id and many more.
Journalists from the Papua South Post shared stories about police and government intimidation, including two publication bans in 2007 and 2008, being threatened with criminal law, and a prohibition on reporting on President Joko Widodo’s Merauke investment program.
A journalist in Timika recalled a terrifying experience of being held at knifepoint and then stabbed. Another pointed to the difficulties faced by female journalists and the prevalence of sexual harassment.
The investigation marks one month before Indonesia will host the World Press Freedom Day in Jakarta on March 3, an honourable hosting position that the Pacific Freedom Forum (PFF) criticised Indonesia for holding due to ongoing restrictions and violations in Papua.
In July 2016, PFF Chair Titi Gabi urged Jakarta to “ensure that there is open access to West Papua for foreign media, and an end to abuses against local media.”
Whether any changes will be made in the near future is questionable. Just recently, Suara Papua’s website was blocked for SARA and publishing “negative” content, despite the government insisting that it does not censor journalistic websites.
Tell us who you are as a filmmaker and how you began your career?
Before joining Papuan Voices, I made videos in my hometown which were mostly recordings of Christian songs, as well as some indigenous songs. My early works in 2011 were more like video clips, and produced my first documentary only when I joined Papuan Voices in 2014.
My first film was about a report for Forum Masyarakat Jayawijaya on the denouncement of the erection of a military building in Wamena - A movement I was also involved in. I also did photo documentation, shot demonstrations, and the activities of my friends, all of which I put together as a video report.
In the beginning, I made films without any training. I just made them spontaneously, acted based on my own plans. I made them by simply putting content together such as text with photographs. After I joined Papuan Voices, I started to understand the steps needed, such as writing a script beforehand and all sorts of other techniques.
Can you tell us about the video production scene there?
Now, we have so many Papuan children studying outside of this island. But there rarely are any who study music or film. They mostly apply for degrees in Law or Economics, but don't have links to this kind of work. So it's only us (in Papuan Voices) who maybe understand about the situation here. This is why we try to teach our brothers and sisters, based on what we know from our experiences. That is very important.
What do you think about Indonesian audiences in relation to Papuan issues?
On one occasion, I held a screening in University Negeri Jakarta where I played several videos. And I played one film about Freeport (a mining company). At that time, in Papua, many indigenous people held demonstrations about police brutality towards protesters, some of whom had been shot by the police.
After that event, I began to understand that the people in Jakarta don't know anything about the situation in Papua. I mean the real situation. They have the idea that Papua is very rich and all that the people in Papua live in luxury, especially seven tribes which receive yearly donations from Freeport. So they think they must be wealthy, have fancy houses and cars, all those sorts of things.
These mindsets emerged because Freeport broadcasts their own information and only present the good side of things, and ignored all the bad things that happened to ordinary people. But yesterday we had a screening in Bali, and then in Yogyakarta, after which people (Indonesian audiences) began to understand that the situation in Papua is not like what they think it is.
National and local media in Papua are privately owned or owned by the government. We call it "red plate" media because it only publishes beautiful images of Papua. They rarely expose the many failing policies of the government. My films are about these failures, all the lesser known issues, and there are so many. This is so we can expose the failure of their policies in Papua and outsiders can see what's really happening in Papua.
Do you agree that video has the power to persuade and change people?
I think using film is much more suitable for that nowadays because most of the younger generation who are still studying in University, let alone those who don't have any high education or drop out, don't read much. If they've dropped out, they won't read books but they do like watching films. From my analysis, people enjoy watching films about issues and they quickly understand them. Its ability to influence is much more than with reading books. It's much slower with books.
Finally, what's your message to young Papuan artists out there?
In Wamena for example, there are not many people who make their own videos or songs as I have. It's still hard to find this kind of people, so for now I think it will need and go step by step. I produced songs, made them into a DVD, and sell my own music. For most people, even if they can write music, they still need people from outside Papua to help them to record and produce their albums. Everything for the music video, shooting and editing must be done outside Papua.
I've recently watched films that have been produced by young locals. Even though they are still very rough and elementary, it's still progress for youth in Papua. If you compare us with elsewhere, we have a delay of access to information and technology. It's very slow. So to be able to compete with others, we need to go step by step, slowly. If we force it to be quick, it's only going to make things more difficult.
Read more featured filmmaker interviews from the Asia Pacific region here.