SEA media in pathetic state: Press group

Roby Alampay
27 December 2004

Media advocates worldwide have arrived at one unanimous conclusion for 2004: the past 12 months have been among the deadliest for journalists worldwide, with monitored attacks on press practitioners the highest they have been in decades.

Even more troubling for this part of the world, however, is that this conclusion – validated and expressed in separate reports from the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters sans fronti?es, and the International Federation of Journalists – comes with the observation that Southeast Asian societies are particularly illustrative of the problems still besetting journalists and free expression in the 21st century.

From an alarming rash of assassinations of media practitioners in the Philippines and the dusting off of Draconian press laws in Indonesia and Thailand, to the improbably worsening military conditions in Burma, Southeast Asian nations are experiencing 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.

Worldwide and among international watchdogs, for example, the Philippine story was especially highlighted this year. More than a dozen journalists were killed around the archipelago since January – approximately one murder per month – believed assassinated for their work in exposing many social ills, from government corruption to criminal operations of private individuals and syndicates. This adds to a trend that has been accelerating since the late 1980s. In all, since the fall of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986, more than 60 Filipino journalists have been murdered in reprisal for their work. Graver still, note Philippine media groups, not a single person has been convicted for any of the assassinations, fostering a “culture of impunity” that is now believed to have trapped press workers in a violent cycle.

In Thailand and Indonesia, meanwhile, 2004 was notable for the unblinking and unapologetic attitude by which archaic and harsh defamation and libel laws were recklessly wielded both by government and private entities. Business and political personalities with intertwining interests further strengthened their bond by seemingly finding a common threat in an inconveniently aggressive press. In Bangkok, for example, Shin Corp., a telecommunications giant owned by friends and relatives of Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, moved to prosecute a media advocate who questioned the sudden spike in Shin Corp’s profits in the same year that Thaksin became prime minister. In Jakarta, a businessman with known ties to military and government leaders successfully sued a magazine publisher for a story suggesting that the businessman may have improperly gained from a fire that gutted a marketplace.

While both the Bangkok and Indonesian cases are pending review, they – alongside the Philippine problem – clearly illustrate the point that even in new and emerging democracies (and even where the press is more than arguably free), threats to free expression and independent news remain. In such societies, in fact, the threats tend to be more subtle, more insidious, and more complex. Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines now confront motives and enemies beyond that posed by government and the military. In fighting corruption, campaigning for equality and a better society, they now must contend even with private interests, criminal operations, and the press’ss own economic vulnerabilities. As the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) put it, the region’s journalists have quite ironically become “the object of the very violence they are trying to confront.”

That the democratic nations in Southeast Asia – overwhelmingly in the minority – find themselves with such problems offers little consolation for the rest of the region. Outside of the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia, the rest of the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) unquestionably and officially remain intolerant of a free press.

From the region’s economic powers (Singapore and Malaysia) to the impoverished and landlocked state of Laos, Southeast Asia is largely a region where all forms of mass media remain controlled and owned by political and military leaders.

Not even its first hosting of the Asean Summit in November gave Laos any impetus to put up a more tolerant front. Vientiane banned a TIME magazine reporter from even entering the country to cover the event, and then abruptly pulled the plug on the government’s own culminating press conference to the summit after a journalist raised a question about Laos’ human rights record.

In 2004, such allergy to transparency hardly caused embarrassment in Asean’s officialdom. In Kuala Lumpur, in the past year, Malaysian officials threatened to back down on their own vows to never censor content on the Internet – the final promising frontier for independently sourced information in Malaysia. Government leaders said they are considering using the Internal Security Act to punish webmasters who allow “irresponsible” material to be posted on their sites. Meanwhile, in the military-controlled Burma – one of the worst places to be a journalist, by anyone’s standards – things have actually gone from worst to worse. Despite having released one famous dissident, Rangoon has remained iron-fisted as ever, and in the wake of a sudden power-struggle within the ruling junta ordered the indefinite suspension of more than a dozen news publications already tightly under its control.

All of the above Southeast Asian stories come together for a regional picture that typifies the struggles for democracy worldwide, and which can hardly be reassuring for advocates of free expression and a free, vibrant, professional, and independent press. It was a bad year for journalists worldwide, advocates agree. Southeast Asia’s shame is that its nations are being raised as collective proof of a tragic conclusion for the whole world.

Mr. Alampay is executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance.