Freedom of the press under fire in SEA

26 February 2004

Freedom of the press, which flowered in several Southeast Asian nations in the 1990s, now appears to be withering under pressure from authoritarian governments, corrupt judges and corporate interference, according to journalists and media analysts.

Concern about the future of Thailands media was already strong when the editor of the venerable Bangkok Post was suddenly removed on February 20 amid reports he had incurred the wrath of the countrys media-sensitive prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.

I would describe the condition of the Thai media at the moment in the stage of ICU (Intensive Care Unit), said Kavi Chongkittavorn, assistant group editor of the Posts cross-town rival, The Nation. I would describe the interference by the government as very extensive.

Kavi, the past president of the Thai Journalists Association, said the Thai medias golden age was in the mid-1990s, before the crash of 1997 made newspapers and TV and radio stations more sensitive to the invisible hands of interference by political and financial interests.

The climate of fear and self-censorship is much more evident in this government because the leaders of this government have never made a vocal, tangible commitment to protect the free press, Kavi told the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand on Wednesday.

Bangkok Post Editor-In-Chief Pichai Chuensukswadi agreed that Thai news organizations were under heavy pressure to print favourable stories about the Thaksin government and to slant news to make their advertisers look good.

He said the pressure was likely to intensify in the coming year with a crucial parliamentary election scheduled for February 2005.

The prime minister is less tolerant to criticism. Hes sensitive to comments and were all aware of that, Peechai said, adding, Its going to be a very heated year.

Threat from courts in Indonesia

In Indonesia, where press freedom flourished as never before in the aftermath of former dictator Suhartos fall in 1998, the main threat to press freedom recently has come from the courts.

Journalists say that if they offend entrenched political or financial interests they face heavy punishment from some criminal judges who have shown themselves to be vulnerable to financial influence.

Last October, the South Jakarta district court sentenced two editors of the Rakyat Merdeka (Peoples Freedom) newspaper to six months in prison for insulting President Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Millionaire businessman Tomy Winata has filed seven lawsuits against the Tempo publishing group for various articles printed over the past two years accusing Winata of shady business activities.

Winata last month won one of his cases, filed against Tempo Koran editor Bambang Harymurti. The verdict ordered the editor to pay 1 million dollars in non-material damages for besmirching Winatas reputation.

What Indonesian publishers are upset about is not that they are being taken to court for libel, but that they are being tried for breaking the countrys criminal code rather than the press law.

The government is considering amendments to the Press Law that would make sentences under it more severe and allow government control over the selection of a Press Council to try cases.

For many, this seems a step backwards to the bad old days of Suharto.

Since democracy was restored in 1986 with the ouster of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, the Philippines has earned a reputation for having the freest press in Asia, but with a heavy price.

A total of 44 journalists have been murdered since then, seven of them in 2003 – the highest annual total in 16 years.

Journalists also face the risk of jail in the Philippines, with libel still punishable by imprisonment despite lobbying by press freedom advocates for the decriminalization of the offense.

Last year the editor-in-chief and publisher of an anti-government newspaper was arrested on libel charges filed by a law firm closely associated with President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

While few journalists have been convicted of libel in recent years, the charges have often been used to harass the media in an apparent bid to stop them from exposing anomalies in government and other agencies.

Violence against journalists is the most problematic in the Philippines, which international media watchdogs have described as one of the most dangerous places for members of the media in the world.

Most of the murders have remained unsolved, and in at least one case, witnesses to the crime also were killed. While some suspects have been arrested in other cases, the masterminds have not been identified or prosecuted.

Cambodias rough-and-tumble media is also subject to frequent attacks by mysterious gunmen and by intimidation from the government and its backers, while the concept of press freedom is still largely unknown in neighbouring Vietnam, Laos and in Myanmar (Burma).

Compliant lap dog in Singapore

Authorities in Singapore have had decades of practice in ensuring that the press remains a compliant lap dog to those in power.

Founding father Lee Kuan Yew transformed the sleepy city-state into one of Asias wealthiest countries, but his no-nonsense approach curbed political and civil rights and neutered the press.

Despite its ambitions to become a global media city, Lees intolerance toward press freedom has continued under his successors.

Despite its great economic strides, Singapore was ranked 144th in the world in last years Second World Press Freedom Ranking by the Paris-based non-government group Reporters Without Borders.

Since coming into power last October, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has yet to address the issue of his countrys press freedom, or lack thereof, according to his critics.

The new leader has called for a clean, incorruptable and efficient government, said Lim Kit Siang, national chairman of the opposition Democratic Action Party.

However, he has not addressed the fundamental issues of the deplorable state of press freedom and human rights in this country, said Lim. How can you have a system change when these two aspects are not dealt with first?

Local and international critics say Malaysian regulations, which require publications to hold government licenses, lead to formal and informal censorship of news content and hamper the free flow of information.

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