Joseph Barratt
Sep 7, 2018

Why we should all care about the decline of press freedom

The backslide in press freedom that we are seeing across the region has broad consequences. And as marketing and communication professionals, you should care about it.

L-R: Journalists Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone after their sentencing in Yangon on 3 September. (Photo: Ye Aung THU / AFP)
L-R: Journalists Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone after their sentencing in Yangon on 3 September. (Photo: Ye Aung THU / AFP)

On Monday, two Reuters journalists—Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo—were found guilty of breaching a law on state secrets in Myanmar and have been jailed for seven years. The landmark case not only questions the Southeast Asian country’s ‘progress’ towards democracy, but shines a light on the abuse of power that comes with jailing journalists for doing their jobs. Arresting them for investigating the state’s involvement in mass murder isn’t great, and convicting them despite the transparently flimsy and fabricated evidence that was ripped apart in court is also not a great look for the blossoming market.

Markets don’t just happen, they evolve. One the greatest drivers behind the most powerful markets in the world was the concept of freedom—freedom of speech, commerce, press and people.

As the United States pulls back from its role as global champion for democracy and freedom, we see priorities across Southeast Asia shift. It was never a perfect system, but it was better than the absence of it.

As marketers we shouldn’t ignore that. In two decades, we’ve seen globally unprecedented growth, the lowest level of global poverty in history, and an explosion in technology, which has created opportunities for people that never previously existed.

How different would a global economy look that doesn’t offer true consumer choice? In short, markets would only open to brands with enough cash to buy their way in.

A part of me mourns for Myanmar and what it could have become.

A decade ago, Ann Siang Suu Kyi was the shining light of democracy and freedom. Now she’s head of a government that stands accused of ethnic cleansing and leading some of the repressive control she suffered under for decades.

I visited Myanmar undercover as a journalist in 2008, shortly after the Saffron Revolution and the nation-wide crackdowns. The people I met and the stories from everyday people opened my eyes to a world where we were not free to stay, or meet who we wanted.

In Pakokku, the epicentre of the revolution, we met the monks who suffered at the first protests when the military cracked down. Clandestine meetings at monasteries under the pretence of prayer, lying to the one-bedroom motel owner, keeping false diary entries in case they were checked—for us, this was all a taste of repression; for the people we met, it was life.

Beyond powerful industrialists and politically aligned corporates you don’t see the varied businesses and commerce flourishing in these markets.

I cherish freedom more than most ideals. Freedom of speech, movement, goods, and commerce have empowered and changed the world for the better. The press is the Fourth Estate and the guardian of that progress.

In a world of newsrooms under commercial pressure to compete with online clickbait, it’s easy to forget the critical role journalism plays in society.

I’ve met plenty of people who become cynical, but our roles work best alongside a free and open media. Consumer choice is key for a modern economy and our role as marketers plays into that. We communicate and educate the public on brands and offerings, while good journalism holds that in check.

Now we see Myanmar sentencing journalists to jail, Cambodia going from a thriving press to barely even pretending to have an open media, and the Philippines’ attacks on journalists. Even in Singapore, my adopted country, media remains closely regulated. Malaysia is one of the few markets that has progressed, following the last election.

As marketers and public-relations professionals, it’s easy to forget about the importance all this plays. But a free press is the backbone of consumer choice and creating flourishing markets that are accessible to everyone.

To steal a line from Huxley’s Brave New World, “most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted”.

Our careers and livelihoods have been built on the back of the an increasingly free press, which is now falling backwards. We might not be ones always in power, but we are often in the same room. These critical conversations are regularly ignored by our industry. It's time to speak up.


Joseph Barratt is the CEO of Mutant Communications in Singapore.

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