Doors close on free press in Southeast Asia

John Aglionby
The Guardian
1 January 2004
Posted by The Optical

There is no end in sight to the dangerous restrictions facing journalists in south-east Asia, reports

A former Vietnamese journalist, Nguyen Vu Binh, who used the internet to criticise his country’s government is sentenced to seven years in a trial closed to foreigners. Zaw Thet Htwe, the editor-in-chief of Burma’s First Eleven Sports Journal is sentenced to death for alleged treason after he published a story about the reported misuse of an international donation to promote football in the military-run nation.

One of Indonesia’s most prominent news magazines, Tempo, is being constantly victimised by the courts after it wrote several critical articles about a powerful businessman with close ties to the ruling elite. Meanwhile a senior editor at the Rakyat Merdeka newspaper is sentenced to six months for approving headlines that, amongst other things, likened President Megawati Sukarnoputri to diesel fuel.

The Philippine press appears free, but more journalists are being killed than ever before and few thorough investigations have been made into their deaths.

Meanwhile in Thailand, the creeping authoritarianism of the prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, and his party cronies is taking its toll. They are steadily increasing their control over the country’s media – with the latest conquest being interests run by a cabinet minister taking a controlling stake in one of the most critical news organisations, the Nation Media Group.

There has been little to cheer about elsewhere in the region in the last few months. The new Malaysian prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, has put his own people in charge of the sycophantic mainstream media while the most critical news outlet, the website Malaysiakini has an unresolved year-long police investigation hanging over it.

Despite government claims of a new openness, few Singaporeans are brave enough to speak out. One young filmmaker who made a movie about teenage gangs was dumbfounded to have it banned for reasons of “national security”, while almost everyone I interviewed on a recent trip to the island republic pleaded to be quoted in a positive light as they feared Big Brother’s seemingly ubiquitous reach.

Lin Nuemann, a regional adviser to the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists, says his organisation’s forthcoming annual report is going to be pessimistic about the state of press freedom in the region.

“What we’re saying is that virtually every place is getting worse,” he said. “Although you can’t really say Burma is getting worse, because it’s not got far to go.”

This is all a far cry from the optimism that swept the region six-and-a-half years ago following the Asian financial crisis that mushroomed into political turmoil in several places, most notably Indonesia.

The crisis prompted a sweeping liberalisation of the press in Indonesia and significant moves elsewhere. But that momentum has dissipated and is now going into reverse. The open window that allowed a fresh wind to blow through the region’s media is being steadily closed.

In a recent survey of global press freedom in 166 nations, Reporters Sans Fronti?es ranked south-east Asia’s media as follows: Cambodia (81), Thailand (82), Malaysia (104), Indonesia (110), the Philippines (118), Singapore (144), Vietnam (159), Laos (163) and Burma (164).

“The elites are regrouping and there’s much less patience for a vibrant free press now,” Mr Neumann said.

The CPJ is most disturbed about Indonesia, according to Mr Neumann, where the pendulum appears to have swung most dramatically. “You have a combination of military and national security pressures and a not very well-organised court system,” he said. “If it means an organisation like Tempo gets scared then you know the situation is serious.”

What’s worrying analysts and diplomats around the region is that with elections due in Indonesia (both parliamentary and the first ever direct presidential poll), Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines this year and a probable change of prime minister in Singapore, the room for alternative opinions to receive a fair airing is becoming increasingly limited.

The status quo is almost certainly going to remain, if not become more entrenched, in Malaysia and Thailand. Meanwhile the gun culture is so strong in the Philippines that no one will be surprised if journalists start to pull punches. Indonesia is a different situation, where anything could happen, although journalists know that no one will be on their side in the likely event that the politicians start playing dirty as the stakes mount.

Little change is expected elsewhere. Amnesty International is unsurprisingly gloomy after its recent, second, visit to Burma, while organisations such as Forum Asia are not holding out much hope for reform in Vietnam and Cambodia.