Reporting from the Frontline: Possibilities and Limits of Southeast Asian Media Responses to Covid-19
On 11 March, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS-CoV-2) had become a global pandemic. To date, over 31 million people have been infected with 970,000 confirmed dead (as of 23 Sept, 2020). Southeast Asia, close to the epicentre of the outbreak, has not been spared from infection nor the effects of the ongoing pandemic. As a result, it is now experiencing its worst economic, financial, and social crisis in decades. Nations have reacted to outbreaks across and between countries through the imposition of curfews, partial and full lockdowns and the closing of borders impeding human flows. Southeast Asia is no stranger to pandemics and has been attuned to the exigencies of coordinated and swift responses after its experience of the 2003 SARS outbreak. However, the current crisis has made clear the varying levels of preparedness and vulnerabilities of health-care systems and government responses to ever evolving dynamics at a local level.
In spite of these, social distancing, the closure of public spaces, and harsh punishments for violating isolation decrees have highlighted varied political responses. These reactions have had a devastating impact on a region that is characterized by variegated economies, large informal sectors, disproportionate inequality, continual political instability, and weak forms of governance. The resulting pandemic has laid bare the challenges the region faces and the capacity of states to manage the ongoing crisis either individually or through cooperation. It has also exacerbated existing issues that arise out of the region’s unique set of experiences; ongoing Islamification in some nations, novel politico-economic engagements with a rising China, the weakening of democratic processes, the acceleration of urbanization, and the rise of new technologies and digital classes.
Within the current fluid context of the pandemic, reporters have been on the frontline gathering and presenting insights on what the region is experiencing. They have also asked many difficult questions under trying conditions. What have been state’s response strategies to the pandemic? What types of discourses have been formulated and mobilized to justify control and governance over communities? What national and regional emergency measures, laws and provisions have been put into place and have they been proportional? What new technological regimes have come into play in the management and surveillance of populations and what will be the long-term impact in terms of changing their behaviour? In what ways have reporters and the media been able to freely cover and respond to the ongoing situation? And, what geopolitical relations will emerge with neighboring nations in South and East Asia post COVID-19?
The Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) in conjunction with the Japan Society for Southeast Asian Studies (JSSEAS/Tōnan Ajia Gakkai) will hold a special meeting with five prominent journalists from the region to engage in some of the above questions and hold a dialogue on the current situation in the region. An online meeting, open to all, will be held in English with speakers from the region and five commentators to stimulate debate on the direction of Southeast Asia during this time of uncertainty.