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FOCUS September 2006 Volume 45

Threats to Southeast Asia's Media: An Overview*

Southeast Asia Press Alliance

Press freedom and access to information face uneven and inconsistent realities across Southeast Asia. From Burma to the Philippines, and from Brunei and Singapore to Thailand and Indonesia, the region represents a full spectrum of experiments or repudiations of the value and virtues of free expression and accessible information.

At one end, free, independent journalism and unfettered access to any kind of public document are virtually nonexistent in Burma, where a military junta jails and tortures journalists, stifles dissent, and refuses to release any public document for review or questioning. On the other end, eager but vulnerable democracies in Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines are putting unbridled press freedom up for public disillusionment and scorn. Between these two sets of examples are countries like Cambodia and East Timor which are trying to open up their press to more liberty, and the ironic situations of Malaysia and Singapore, where evident economic strength stands starkly against highly restrictive environments for free expression.

From an alarming rash of assassinations of media practitioners in the Philippines and the media ownership patterns that render the free press vulnerable to intertwined business and political interests in Indonesia and Thailand, to the improbably worsening military conditions in Burma, Southeast Asian nations experience in one region the various trends and means by which journalists and societies in general are being forced to surrender their rights to information, and the free dissemination of news and opinions. Across the region then, there is as much an appreciation for the need for more freedom, as clear lessons that also raise the demand not only for a free press, but also responsible journalism. Put another way, the different and uneven realities spell different needs, demands, and capabilities among the region's media groups, practitioners, and advocates.

Before the mid-1980s, all the countries of Southeast Asia were run by autocratic rulers who suppressed civil and political rights, including freedom of the press and the right to information. Draconian laws ranging from those that justify detention without trial to those that outlaw and severely punish "rumour mongering" were the norm across the region that is now home to about 530 million people.

Today the conditions in the authoritarian states of Southeast Asia - Burma, Vietnam, Laos and Brunei - remain as rigid as ever and reforms from within appear unlikely without a change of regime. But there has been a dramatic sea change elsewhere in the region, with dictatorships tumbling down and democratic reforms being introduced in the biggest countries: the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia. In addition, advances in technology and the integration of regional economies into global trade and finance have helped loosen restrictions in the semi-democracies of the region (Singapore, Cambodia and Malaysia) - albeit slowly and in small measures, and with the danger of reversals rather real. Certainly, Southeast Asia has more democratic states than it had two decades ago, and citizens in these countries enjoy more freedoms than ever before.

The changes in the media and information landscape in these countries have been dramatic. Media controls were dismantled, leading to the removal of state censors and the cancellation of licensing requirements for both the print and broadcast media. Ownership of the media fell increasingly into the hands of the private sector. The resulting media boom fostered competition among journalists and led to a more inquisitive press.

Today, the free press in Southeast Asia is a powerful institution. Policies have been changed, reforms initiated and corrupt officials - including presidents - ousted partly because of media exposes. An adversarial press is part of the political process and it is hard to imagine how governments in the region's freewheeling democracies would function without it.

That is the good news. The bad news is that the free press in Southeast Asia is under threat. Journalism is a dangerous profession in the region's democracies. In the Philippines, which has enjoyed a free press far longer than its neighbors, nearly 60 journalists have been murdered since 1986, the year strongman Ferdinand Marcos fell. Most of the killings took place outside Manila as there is less tolerance for critical reporting in the provinces, particularly in areas where political bosses or clans have ruled for decades. A similar situation prevails in Thailand, where local political bosses are prickly about critical reports. Things are not much different in Indonesia, where journalists on the outlying islands of this vast country say that death threats and intimidation are a fact of life, especially when their newspapers tackle corruption and criticize local authorities unaccustomed to the free media that has emerged after 32 years of dictatorship.

The lesson from Southeast Asia's new democracies is that even if constitutions and laws guarantee press freedom, reversals can take place. In Thailand, which has enjoyed a free press since 1992, (then) Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has used advertising withdrawals and threats on press proprietors to silence critical sections of the media since he assumed power in 2001. In Indonesia, angry mobs have attacked the offices of media agencies that have reported adversely on them.

This year, a Mafia lord sued a major newspaper for libel and managed to get a court ruling seizing the assets of the newspaper and its publisher. In Indonesia as elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the judicial and law-enforcement system is weak and prone to pressure from the wealthy and powerful, providing little protection for risk-taking journalists. For this reason, those who muzzle the press and silence journalists can operate with impunity.

The situation is much worse in the authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes in the region. In Malaysia and Singapore, authorities have used onerous laws and the threat of legal action to clamp down on reporting on politics and politicians. In Singapore, the courts have imposed stiff fines on Western news organizations that report critically of the government. Singapore's leaders are notorious for filing defamation suits under a regime where the independence of courts especially in politically charged media cases are debatable at best. All Singaporeans, from academics to writers, journalists, politicians, and plain citizens, are then left to risk raising questions and issues in a city-state where all of mainstream media is state-owned, and where the political and judicial processes have demonstrated capacity to systematically ridicule, demonize, isolate, and finally bankrupt government critics.

Cambodia remains partly free but suffers from a chaotic, politically manipulated press and a tenuous commitment to the rule of law. Elsewhere, Burma, Laos and Vietnam remain harshly authoritarian, restricting the press to a severe degree. In East Timor, the promise of freedom is there but the reality may be painful as political transition is underway and close monitoring and support is needed. In addition, in many countries in Southeast Asia, authorities have taken advantage of the post-11 September hysteria to put restrictions on reporting. While the most blatant cases have taken place in Singapore and Malaysia, similar tendencies are apparent in the democracies of the region.

Throughout the region, meanwhile, there are from both the side of media and the State-simultaneous recognition of the power of new media. Consequently, there are now also new battles being waged in cyberspace: to exploit its powerful new and alternative medium for free, borderless expression on the one hand, and to keep it under a lid on the other. Even as Southeast Asia now sees an explosion in the phenomenon of blogging, podcasting, and online news in general, the same notorious tactics long applied against traditional media from the wielding of Internal Security Acts to threats of criminal defamation - are being transported to cyberspace.

For further information, please contact: Mr. Roby Alampay, Executive Director,Southeast Asia Press Alliance (SEAPA) Headquarters, 538/1 Sam-Sen Rd. Dusit Bangkok Thailand 10300; ph/fax 66-2-243-5579 e-mail: seapa@seapabkk.or; www.seapabkk.org


* The following article is excerpted from the introduction to a strategy paper for promoting and protecting press freedom in Southeast Asia, as prepared by the Bangkok-based Southeast Asian Press Alliance. SEAPA Executive Director Roby Alampay has authorized its publication.

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