1st March 2024 – (Singapore) The Western media’s engagement with Southeast Asia has cast a long and often troubling shadow over the journalistic landscape. Far from the ideals of free and fair reporting, a disconcerting pattern has taken root, where local journalists find themselves ensnared in a web of exploitation. This practice not only tarnishes the ethics of journalism but also compromises the very essence of press freedom.

Southeast Asia’s journalists, lured by the prospect of financial gain, frequently enter into partnerships with Western media institutions. The allure of higher pay, when compared to local standards, is undeniable. Yet, beneath this veneer of opportunity lies a stark reality: these collaborations are increasingly characterised by a one-sided extraction of value that places Western interests above authentic local narratives.

All too often, Southeast Asian journalists are relegated to the role of underpaid labourers, their contributions undervalued, their expertise underestimated. Western media demands for pro bono work, such as translations or the provision of contacts, are symptomatic of a broader disregard for the journalists’ professional worth. The absence of equitable benefits, commonplace for their Western counterparts, further entrenches this disparity.

These journalists’ roles are diminished to that of ‘fixers’ – instruments to be utilised rather than partners in the creative process. The exploitation of local reporting resources is a glaring testament to the undervaluation of their labor and expertise. This not only breaches the tenets of fairness but also fundamentally lacks human decency.

Compounding these inequities is the pressure exerted by Western editors to shape stories to fit pre-established editorial slants, often at the expense of the nuanced and complex realities on the ground. This editorial straitjacketing forces coverage into a mold that aligns with Western perceptions, disregarding the credibility and relevance of local voices.

The practice of ‘parachute journalism’ exacerbates this imbalance. Western reporters, often ill-equipped with the necessary contextual understanding, are flown in to cover events, resulting in coverage that is superficial and skewed. Greater reliance on local insights would undoubtedly lead to reporting that is both more accurate and more insightful.

The complicity of Southeast Asian journalists who conform to the Western narrative is rewarded, while those offering alternative perspectives face marginalisation or outright silencing. This not only penalises honesty and diversity but narrows the scope of global discourse.

In an ironic twist, the very foreign correspondents who champion press freedom may unwittingly perpetuate stereotypes and biases, echoing historical prejudices and reinforcing Western preconceptions. Herein lies an uncomfortable truth: the proclaimed values of Western journalism are betrayed in the exploitation of local reporters.

Power imbalances within the industry stifle voices of dissent, particularly among the junior ranks in Southeast Asia who are beholden to Western media patronage. Editors frequently dismiss concerns, cloaking their editorial impositions as the exercise of journalistic judgment.

To foster a more ethical and balanced media landscape, it is incumbent upon Western media to recognise Southeast Asian journalists as intellectual equals, affording them the respect and agency they deserve. This shift would not only enhance journalistic quality but also respect the intelligence of the readership.

In a climate where trust in media is waning, upholding truth as a universal journalistic duty is paramount. This is not solely the responsibility of the West but a shared obligation across the profession.