Empty Promises: Press Freedom in Southeast Asia in 2009

2009_annual_report_sThe months ahead will hold much peril and uncertainty for members of the press in Southeast Asia.

The years 2009 and 2010 will be highly charged, for starters, anticipating national election seasons for most countries in the region. Even without the chaos and violence attendant to electoral exercises in countries like Indonesia, the Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand, and Burma, the unpredictability of the contests and the inevitability of uncertainty will give the region’s journalists not only compelling stories and issues to follow, but also dangerous times and situations to navigate.

The coming months will also be a crucial period for ASEAN itself—in particular with respect to how the regional body proves and demonstrates the value of a new charter that came into force in December 2008.

Beyond rules of membership and the vision for forming an ASEAN Community by 2015, the ASEAN Charter affirms that among others, one of the Association’s purposes is “to strengthen democracy, enhance good governance and the rule of law, and to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms…” The Charter’s outline of Principles emphasizes the need for “adherence to the rule of law, good governance, the principles of democracy and constitutional government” as well as for the community’s “respect for fundamental freedoms, the promotion and protection of human rights, and the promotion of social justice.”

Article 14 of the ASEAN Charter goes as far as to commit that “ASEAN shall establish an ASEAN human rights body.”

The mechanisms of such a body, however, have yet to be spelt out and finalized. Indeed, analysts and critics of the Charter stress that the stated principles and purposes relating to human rights and democracy must be weighed against ASEAN’s historical emphasis on “non-interference” and on its tradition of moving by consensus.

The region’s press, meanwhile, must note for itself: “press freedom” is not even mentioned in the Charter, nor, for that matter, “free expression”.

How it all plays out for press freedom, therefore, is uncertain.

To be sure, 2008 saw a lot of promise for change on this front. Or “promises”, at least. Singapore promised to relax its Films Act. Laos introduced a new media law that promised to allow more private sector participation in its state-dominated media landscape. East Timor promised to decriminalize defamation. The Philippine Supreme Court didn’t quite decriminalize libel, but it essentially encouraged lower courts to ignore options to imprison journalists over defamation. Meanwhile, sea changes in the political environments of Malaysia and Thailand have caused people to assume that changes in the environments for media and press freedom.

But assumptions are one thing. How it all actually falls into place—or falls apart—must yet be seen. For all the above promises, after all, little has actually changed in the laws that govern the media in Southeast Asia.

Indeed, if anything defines the media situation in Southeast Asia, it is the larger political considerations of the region’s governments and political powers. Upcoming elections are but one factor that pulls for the status quo. From East Timor to Thailand, the agenda of recapturing “stability” is overwhelming, and in 2008, it was often used to rationalize a low prioritization—and even a sacrifice of—the press freedom agenda.

Looking back on the year that was, therefore, is crucial to anticipating and understanding how much journalists will be allowed to do their job in 2009 and beyond.

In the following pages, SEAPA provides a country by country recap of the past year’s considerations, and what the respective national experiences may mean for press freedom and free expression in the months ahead.