Media face growing list of enemies in Asia

Marwaan Macan-Markar
3 May 2004

The media in South-east Asia are coming to grips with a growing list of adversaries that range from the usual suspects – oppressive regimes – to mobs, local kingpins and the captains of capitalism.

Among these, the biggest threats – since the affected journalists have “no answer to” them – are pressures on the media from powerful business tycoons and the forces of the free market.

“Market mechanisms – such as advertising, ownership of shares and payoffs made to journalists – are being used to put the lid on critical sections of the media,” said Sheila Coronel, executive director of the Manila-based Philippine Centre for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ).

“The laws crafted after the fall of authoritarianism provide us little protection against this onslaught,” added Coronel at a regional media conference here Monday to mark World Press Freedom Day on May 3. “State repression is being privatised.”

These challenges are a reality gaining momentum in Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines, three countries in South-east Asia often touted as having the freest press in the region.

In Thailand, for instance, the past year saw intervention “from people in the same groups of business or the same families,” said Boonrat Apichattrisorn of the Thai Journalists Association in a report on the media climate in the country for 2003.

She singled out the successful attempt by relatives of Thai “political heavyweight” Suriya Juengrungruangkit to purchase a large slice of shares in a newspaper group known for its critical reporting – the Nation Multimedia Group.

“Some newspapers had to think twice about publishing critical comments or negative reports about the government due to offers by companies with links to government figures to buy advertisement space in their papers,” she revealed.

Provincial newspapers are the most vulnerable, she added, since they are “prone to intervention from influential groups that offer financial support and buy advertisement space in exchange for reports or editorial content in favour of them”.

Indonesia has its own experience with business tycoons who intimidate journalists.

Some high-profile businessmen are filing cases against the media in criminal courts to silence journalists critical of their dealings, said Lukas Luwarso, who heads the Indonesian branch of the South-east Asia Press Alliance (SEAPA), a regional media watchdog.

“There are now seventeen such cases before the courts,” he told IPS. “Bringing such cases are okay if there is a reason, but it should not be a form of intimidation.” Among those mentioned in a study on the media environment in Indonesia were business tycoons Tommy Winata and Sinevasan Manimaren.

“It is interesting to note that the centre of the threat against press freedom can be found in the group of capitalists (who were) cronies (of deposed President Suharto),” said Indonesian media freedom advocate Tedjabayu in the study, ‘Threats of Press Freedom in Indonesia’.

In the Philippines, the media had to grapple with a more disturbing reality in addition to the censorship that comes with market and business pressure – the number of journalists killed in the line of duty last year.

Seven journalists “were murdered by contract killers,” said Philippe Latour, the South-east Asia representative for Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), the Paris-based international media watchdog.

That brings to 44 the number of journalists who have been murdered in the Philippines since 1986, the year democracy returned to the country after the Marcos dictatorship. “Impunity (has) encouraged the violence against the press,” added Latour. The death toll of journalists in the Philippines has prompted another media watchdog, the New York-based Freedom House, to take this archipelago off its list of countries that enjoy a high level of press freedom. The Philippines had been on that list for the past six years.

In Indonesia, a journalist was killed while covering the separatist war in the northern province of Aceh, states RSF in its annual global report on press freedom that was released Monday.

For its part, Cambodia’s attempt to boast of a burgeoning free press despite its poverty was undermined by the murder of a journalist. The victim, a radio presenter, was gunned down during a “wave of killings of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s opponents,” states the same RSF report.

The region’s dictatorships, such as the ones in Burma, Laos and Vietnam, were also singled out by free media groups for throwing journalists into jail. Burma, according to RSF, was the most notorious in the region and has 10 journalists behind bars.

“In Burma, journalists are tortured during their first weeks in prison. Thereafter, they are held in terrible conditions, like thousands of other prisoners of conscience,” reveals RSF in ‘The 2003 Global Press Freedom World Tour’.

In Vietnam, according to RSF, five cyber-dissidents were jailed last year, and one of them has received a 12-year sentence.

On the other end of the spectrum, media groups have taken to task technologically advanced Singapore for suppressing freedom of expression. Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong was identified among the “sham democrats” in the RSF’s list of predators of press freedom.

This media picture in the region thus leaves little room for comfort, said Filipino journalist Coronel, given that “there are strong authoritarian currents (emerging) in South-east Asian democracies”.

ASIA: Asia’s flowering freedom of the press is being nipped in bud
South China Morning Post
3 May 2004

Airwaves across Asia are buzzing with hundreds of new radio stations and cable television channels, while news-stands are spilling over with magazines and newspapers: it seems the free press is flowering

Airwaves across Asia are buzzing with hundreds of new radio stations and cable television channels, while news-stands are spilling over with magazines and newspapers: it seems the free press is flowering. But consumers do not see the self-censorship and skulduggery behind the scenes.

Media analysts say it is a creeping phenomenon, with journalists living under threats of violence, dismissal or loss of advertising revenue if they break reporting taboos on issues from military corruption to social issues such as homosexuality and forced marriage.

Just 7 per cent of the Asia-Pacific’s population has access to a “free press”, according to a report by the US-based Freedom House global industry watchdog released last week ahead of today’s UN-sponsored World Press Freedom Day.

Although Freedom House said 17 of 39 Asia-Pacific countries surveyed had a free press, most of those were tiny island-nations such as Palau, the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Samoa.

Of larger nations, only Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Taiwan and Australia were classified as having a free press, which is judged by the legal, political and economic constraints on the media.

“If you look at it in terms of the number of countries that are ranked free, 44 per cent is a pretty high percentage,” said Karin Karlekar, senior researcher and managing editor of the survey. “But if you look at the population figures, you get a truer picture of the situation.”

Ms Karlekar said government opposition to a free press – in nations as diverse as prosperous Singapore, the Stalinist backwater of North Korea and Laos – remained entrenched across the region.

“Most of the countries are fairly stagnant in levels of press freedom. In general, it’s slightly more of a negative trend,” she said.

“Many of the countries at the bottom of our scale are there because of the governments that rule them. If there are no political developments … it’s pretty much a lost cause in the short term.”

North Korea and Myanmar are Asia’s perennial press freedom cellar dwellers, but Ms Karlekar said China and Vietnam had also kept tight leashes on the media despite booming economies, foreign investment and the internet.

“It hasn’t led to the changes in the media that one would have hoped for. Media control is an area they continue to exercise,” she said.

Of the Asian countries experiencing changes, Freedom House said most were going backwards. In this year’s survey, the Philippines regressed from a free to partly free press “to reflect the continuing impunity enjoyed by those who threaten and kill journalists”.

Last year Thailand fell into the partly free category because of Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s efforts to take over sections of the media and intimidate the rest.

Indonesia has seen a vigorous press emerge after the end of dictator Suharto’s rule in 1998. But powerful business interests and government officials have tried to counter the trend.

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