INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY | To mark International Women’s Day, female journalists across Southeast Asia have documented their personal experiences fighting for press freedom while also struggling against patriarchy.
In a series of letters, six women from Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines underscore the realities women face when speaking about truth to those in power in a region not best known for its commitment to press freedom.
“Each letter tells stories of overt intimidation and subtle forms of silencing. The gendered dimension of these stories could not be more pronounced.
“The letters are written by female journalists for female journalists, although these messages are also for anyone who cares about democratic politics,” said University of Canberra researcher Nicole Curato, who curated the letters.
“They are reminders that the pressing for freedom is a collective yet deeply personal fight.”
Originally published as ‘Pressing for Freedom: Letters in the Field’ on website BroadAgenda, Malaysiakini features here two of the six letters in the series.
To give up is unthinkable
Pia Ranada, The Philippines
I am Pia Ranada, a reporter for Rappler, a news website based in Manila. For almost two years now, I’ve been covering Malacañang and President Rodrigo Duterte.
Two weeks ago, I was barred by the president from entering Malacañang - the Philippines’ presidential palace. A month before that, the government decided to revoke my company’s licence to operate.
All this has happened amidst an environment of hostility towards a free and critical press. For as long as I’ve been covering President Rodrigo Duterte, I have been receiving death threats, rape threats and verbal abuse in varying degrees of offensiveness from supporters of the president.
These online hate messages are complemented by insults, false claims, and thinly-veiled threats from President Duterte himself and other officials in Malacañang.
The head of the presidential guard once told me I should have been thankful that one of his guards did not hurt me when I was pressing him for more details about the president’s order to ban me from entering the palace.
I can take all the other attacks, but this ban from covering Malacañang has affected my work as a journalist. I can’t ask questions during press conferences in person.
I can’t report the actual event of interest. I have limited access to sources of information.
But to give up is unthinkable.
I live in a society where a charismatic president is weakening democratic institutions. The critical press cannot afford to be cowed. We need to keep writing. We need to keep asking questions. We need to keep the government on its toes.
What keeps me going are words of support and encouragement from complete strangers. They take the time to approach me and let me know they appreciate what we are doing.
Some are scared to openly support us because of what might happen to their media company or to their jobs. This gives me more of a reason to keep reporting.
We need to be strong for people who can’t be.
PIA RANADA (@piaranada) covers President Rodrigo Duterte for Rappler.com.
Freedom from self-censorship
Annabelle Lee, Malaysia
My name is Annabelle, and this March marks my first year as a journalist.
I work at one of the few independent newsrooms in Malaysia, a country ranked 144 out of 180 for press freedom last year (North Korea polled 180) and where “mainstream media” is made up of mastheads owned by political parties that form the federal government.
When I began, I was repeatedly warned that I would be barred from events because of the supposedly “anti-government” organisation I represent. I was also told to be prepared for catcalls and sexual innuendos by virtue of being a woman in the “dirty” field of political reporting.
“That’s just how things are,” I was told. Welcome to journalism in Malaysia.
I was “lucky” when allowed into events I was assigned to cover. On more than one occasion, I merely smiled when inappropriate remarks were directed at me.
I would love to say I was unfazed by all this, but the truth is I was constantly considering self-censorship.
This negotiation was tiring and frankly, suffocating. It distracted me from pursuing the truth and held me back from holding those in power accountable.
It wasn't until I shared my frustrations with other women journalists in the field that I stopped worrying so much.
Despite being from different newsrooms, experienced female journalists encouraged me to press harder for answers just when I considered holding back.
They assured me that if anyone at work was inappropriate towards me, they would stand in solidarity when I reported it. Often, when on assignment together, we would work as a team to try and shake answers out from the powers-that-be.
I found a lot of comfort and strength in them. They became my mentors and friends.
Today, I don't feel like I am negotiating press freedom as an individual anymore. We are a tribe, and we are fighting both battles together - for press freedom and against a deeply patriarchal culture.
This International Women’s Day, my hope is that women work together to record history through journalism. Journalism needs to prove that it can be a trusted and relevant source of information at a time when "truth" is an increasingly contested concept.
And as Malaysia decides her 14th government this year, I urge my colleagues to band together as we push harder than ever to deliver truth to the people.
ANNABELLE LEE (@annabellybutton) is a journalist at Malaysiakini.com. She writes about current affairs and politics.
Read the entire series of ‘Pressing for Freedom: Letters in the Field’ here.