A lot has been written about press freedom in Japan. Some commentators correctly point to short-comings in the Japanese press system, in particular to the infamous press-clubs. Many –  predominantly foreign – critics however are simply wrong.

They do not understand the structures of Japan’s media system and mistake business-driven self-constraints of most mainstream media with outright restrictions of press freedom by the government. Today, I will not comment on that. Neither will I speak about the U.S., Trump and the state of fake news over there.

Let us rather look at Southeast Asia, the traditional stronghold of Japanese business in Asia. All 10 ASEAN countries fall into the bottom third of the press freedom league table annually compiled by the Paris based organisation Reporters Without Borders.

This ranking covers 180 countries and regions. While the U.S. comes in at No. 43 and Japan and Hong Kong fare at 72 and 73 respectively, Indonesia is the best ASEAN ranked country at an unimpressive 124 while Vietnam is at the far bottom at 175.

Probably the most famous examples of restricting press freedom stem from Myanmar and the Philippines. Long-time media darling Suu Kyi from Myanmar has clearly shown a different face over the Rohihgyas issue and the related arrest of two Reuters journalists.

Even more striking is the situation in the Philippines, which can be simply summarized by the infamous quote of President Rodrigo Duarte “Just because you are a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination if you are a son of a bitch.”

The situation in Cambodia and Vietnam is similar. Critical media organisations have been driven out of business by retroactive tax bills and other measures. Employees of Radio Free Asia RAF have been detained and jailed with one reporter sentenced to seven years in prison.

Even in Thailand, once regarded as the freest press in the region, the situation has worsened considerably. The country slipped from No. 66 in 2002 to 142 in 2017 in the press freedom ranking. The first Japanese company directly affected is Nikkei, the country`s famous business media conglomerate. Nikkei Asian Review, Nikkei`s flagship English-language media, is headquartered in Bangkok and runs its business from there (in addition to Tokyo, of course).

But the implications for Japan and Japanese business are much larger. So far, the general and simple view has been: China is difficult and sometimes hostile to the Japanese firms, Southeast Asia on the contrary is easy and welcoming to Japanese.

Lesser press freedom is not directly changing this, it can even cement existing structures. But if you think longer term and more regional/global it can become a problem.

If national governments in Southeast Asia continue to oppress freedom of press and turn nationalistic , it will definitely bring disadvantages to those players that have regional networks and depend on a free regional flow of goods, services, people and information.

These are predominantly Japanese firms, which should make the recent developments a major concern for business and political in Japan alike.


Jochen Legewie

Jochen Legewie

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