Looking back, looking ahead: Press Freedom in Southeast Asia

20 January 2009
Source: Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)

The 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 ASEAN’s vision for single free trade area by 2015, the ASEAN Charter affirms that among others, one of ASEAN’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.

Below, a country by country recap of the past year’s considerations, and what the respective national experiences may mean for the months ahead.


PHILIPPINES: Tarnished and compromised environment for the free press

Despite constitutional and legal guarantees for free expression and press freedom, the Philippine press remains vulnerable to legal attacks, repressive policies, and a culture of impunity that continues to see journalists being murdered, particularly in rural areas.

More killings and incidences of harassment continue to dampen the state of press freedom in the Philippines. The number of slain journalists in the line of duty rose from two in 2007 to six in 2008, and SEAPA’s founding member, the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, points out that since President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo came to power in 2001, 39 journalists/media practitioners—practically half of the number since 1986—have been killed in the line of duty.

In 2008, the assassination of two broadcasters from the Radio Mindanao Network (RMN) in the space of a week underscored the continuing impunity by which Filipino journalists are being attacked in the country. On 4 August 2008, Dennis Cuesta of dxMD-RMN in General Santos was shot by a gunman. He died five later. Another RMN broadcaster, Martin Roxas of dyVR-RMN, was killed on 7 August 2008 in Roxas City.

Pushing back
In the face of this, there are heightened efforts to combat impunity in the country. At the initiative of the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ) and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, the prosecution of the killers of broadcasters Rolando Ureta and Herson Hinolan resumed in May. (FFFJ is a coalition of six media organizations in the Philippines.) FFFJ has also continued to assist in the legal battle for the prosecution of the alleged masterminds in the 2005 killing of Sultan Kudarat-based journalist Marlene Esperat. A new case against the alleged masterminds in the Esperat case—Osmena Montaner and Estrella Sabay—was filed before the Tacurong City Regional Trial Court on Oct. 20, 2008, and the court issued warrants of arrest against the suspects the following day.

To discuss solutions against impunity against journalists in the Philippines, CMFR and SEAPA held an international conference on impunity and press freedom in Manila in February 2008. With support from the Open Society Institute (OSI) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the conference drew from international lessons and experiences on impunity—calling in experts and advocates from as far as Latin America—and received overwhelming support from various sectors in the Philippines, from media to civil society and human rights groups, to the legal community and the judiciary.

Meanwhile, Filipino journalists continued to wage their own battles in law and in court. The year 2008 gave them a mixed bag of victories and setbacks.

There were a handful of decisions and directions from the judiciary favorable to the press and the defenders of its rights and freedom. For example, the Court of Appeals in 2008 allowed a case to proceed against the husband of Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo: a class suit in defense of press freedom, and which pushes back against a rash of 11 libel cases the presidential spouse, Mr. Miguel Arroyo, had filed against 46 journalists in 2007. Mr. Arroyo had moved to quash the challenge, but the Court ruled in September that there was enough basis and interest to allow the case to move forward, particularly on questions of abuse of power and moves to undermine Constitutional guarantees to press freedom.

Meanwhile, even as press advocates continued to campaign for the decriminalization of libel in the Philippines, the country’s Chief Justice issued an administrative circular on 25 January, “encouraging” judges to prioritize the imposition of fines over the option of imprisonment in libel cases. A regional court for its part ordered the release of a journalist that had been in prison for two years, and one regional court granted a petition to move the location of a crucial case to a more neutral territory, significantly bolstering efforts for that case and the overall anti-impunity campaign.

Despite these bright spots, however, the Philippine press experienced several setbacks in its fight for the freedom and rights of journalists.

Notably, Amado Macasaet, president of the Philippine Press Institute and publisher of the national daily “Malaya”, was arrested on Sept. 4, 2008 for a nine-year old libel case filed by former Rizal governor Casimiro Ynares and Narciso Santiago Jr., husband of Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago.

Meanwhile, “Tribune” publisher and editor-in-chief Ninez Cachos Olivares was convicted of libel on June 5, 2008 for a 2003 article accusing an ombudsman of hiring people from his own firm to handle his client’s complaint. There are 47 other libel cases filed by the law firm against Olivares pending in court.

Beyond individual cases, the Philippine Supreme Court in September upheld President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s invocation of executive privilege as legitimate grounds to prevent a Cabinet member from testifying on a case involving corruption in the highest levels of government.

Press freedom and transparency advocates say the decision was one of the biggest blows to the causes of the media, access to information, transparency and good governance in 2008. And it illustrates the continuing vulnerability the Philippine media has to atrocious and compromised policies, outright violence against the press, and weaknesses in the rule of law.


INDONESIA: Threats from various camps

Ten years after the introduction of reforms, freedom of expression in Indonesia is threatened by a host of new legislations.

Several laws that have a direct bearing on the media were passed by the Indonesian government in 2008. These include Law No. 10/2008 on General Elections, Law No. 11/2008 on Electronic Information and Transaction (ITE), Law No. 14/2008 on Freedom to Access Public Information (KMIP), and Law No. 44/2008 on Pornography.

The Law on General Elections contains regulations on news publications. Article 99 of Law No. 10/2008 on General Elections provides for a censorship body that can temporarily halt a broadcasting program, reduce the duration and time of news broadcasts, impose fines, freeze a TV program, and revoke broadcasting and publication licenses, among others.

The controversial Law No. 44/2008 on Pornography for its part carries heavy jail terms, and because the definition of pornography is vague, free speech advocates are concerned that criminal sanctions in the law could create a legal minefield for the press.

The other new legislations seem harmless and even helpful at first glance, but deeper inspection show troubling provisions embedded in the laws that could in fact further hamper the flow of news and information.

For example, Law No. 11/2008 on Information and Electronic Transactions (ITE) is primarily aimed at regulating electronic transactions. But it has raised concern among journalists because the law carries possible prison terms for online defamation. Article 27 (3) and Article 45 (1) of the ITE law states that any media which distribute journalistic products containing blasphemy and defamation in electronic form face a prison sentence of up to six years and/or a fine up to a maximum of 1 billion rupiah.

Law No. 14/2008 meanwhile provides legal guarantees for public access to information—but it also comes with the threat of one-year jail terms for anyone who “misuses” the same information. The Law on Transparency of Public Information which was legalized in April regulates confidential information and public information. Public Information should be open for public access, but this law contains the threat that, “those who misuse public information face imprisonment of a maximum of one year.” These articles will hamper the effectiveness of investigative journalism in using public information to curb the corruption of bureaucracy and state-owned enterprises.

Criminal nature
One theme that threads all the above laws is the prevailing atmosphere and conditions for criminalizing controversial speech in Indonesia. There were a number of defamation suits worth highlighting for Indonesia in 2008, including a lawsuit of P.T. Asian Agri against Tempo magazine, a lawsuit of P.T. Riau Andalas Pulp and Papers against Koran Tempo, criminal charges filed against freelance columnist Bersihar Lubis in Depok, a lawsuit of Munarman against Tempo magazine and Koran Tempo, and criminal defamation charges filed against Upi Asmaradhana in Makassar.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court in September sentenced Time Asia magazine to pay damages of more than 100 million US dollars to former dictator Suharto for “harming his reputation and honour”. The case went back to 1999 when the magazine reported the Suharto family had transferred some of the 73 billion dollars embezzled during his 32 years in power from Switzerland to Austria.

Ignoring the Press Law
All the cases above meanwhile cannot help but highlight how alternative, non-criminal mechanisms under Indonesia’s Press Law—such as the Right to Respond—and options for mediation by the Press Council have been ignored by those who have a grievance against the media.

The non-utilization of these mechanisms under the Press Law have deepened the roots and expanded the chilling reach of the penal code as a weapon against the press. At the same time, it has ironically further complicated the task of addressing the very same concerns the public and the press itself would like to see in the media sector – better, more professional, and more ethical journalism, in particular.

Sadly, on August 15, 2008, the Indonesian Constitutional Court rejected the request of a judicial review on defamation articles in the criminal code.

Beyond the issue of criminal defamation and the haranguing of the press in court, Indonesian press advocates in 2008 also raised the alarm over direct violence directed against journalists. The Alliance of Independent Journalists, a founding member of SEAPA, documented no less than 50 cases of violence against the press in the past year, counting physical assaults (21 cases), threats (19 cases), and expulsion and prohibition to cover news events (nine cases). There was also one hostage-taking case.

Perpetrators of the cases came from various groups. They include: supporters of candidates during regional elections, government agents, police officers, members of the Indonesian Armed Forces, and even judges, nongovernmental organization activists, and thugs.

To illustrate how journalists are trapped with nowhere to run, it’s worth noting the predicament of Erwin Arnada, editor of the Indonesian edition of “Playboy” magazine. In April, Arnada was acquitted of publishing indecent photos. More precisely, the judge dismissed the complaint against him, saying it should have been lodged under the press law. The dismissal of the case did not mean an end to his harassment, however. Islamist groups demonstrated throughout his trial and continued to make death threats against Arnada after the dismissal of the case.


MALAYSIA: Will media reform follow political upheavals?

Malaysia’s general elections in March 2008 unexpectedly threw the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN) out of power in five important states, while leaving them with a reduced (and suddenly vulnerable) majority in the Federal Parliament.

The seismic shift in the country’s parliamentary politics creates room and hope for improvement in a restricted media environment defined by laws hostile to press freedom, free expression, freedom of assembly and other civil liberties.

The BN has long refused to introduce reforms in the area of press freedom and freedom of information. It has steadfastly refused to give in to public pressure on reviewing the Internal Security Act, the Official Secrets Act, and the licensing regime that has kept a lid on private ownership of newspapers and broadcasting stations in Malaysia.

In 2008, however, there were some signs that such pressure is increasingly becoming harder to ignore. The BN’s debacle in the last elections and the popularity of the Internet, bloggers, and alternative media clearly have a lot to do with that.

The Malaysian government has therefore promised to relax the licensing requirement for publications. State-owned media—the government’s and ruling coalition’s propaganda tool—in 2008 was given the signal to open its coverage to the opposition. Still, what remains at bottom and in the background are notoriously stifling laws such as the Internal Security Act, the Sedition Act and the Official Secrets Act, all of which are arbitrary and vague. These laws will continue to loom large and define the larger environment for a suppressed media, still overwhelming even government’s promises to promote and strengthen judicial independence. Issues that relate to race relations, religion, and Malaysia’s race-based politics will in particular continue to pose challenges to those who defend freedom of expression.

The most potent law governing the media is the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) which includes a licensing provision for all print media and printer. Violation of the licensing requirement is a criminal offence which can result in imprisonment for up to three years or a fine of up to RM 20,000 (USD $5,300) or both. Other laws governing speech and other forms of expression are the Sedition Act, Defamation Act and the criminal defamation provision under Chapter XXI Section 499 of the Penal Code, and the Internal Security Act. Although freedom of expression is one of the fundamental rights guaranteed under the Federal Constitution (Article 10), security concerns are stipulated to have priority over freedom of speech and assembly.

Fighting for the Internet
It’s in the Internet where change is most palpable. In July, the government issued press accreditation to online news sites such as Malaysiakini and Merdeka Review. Some bloggers are being invited as guests or participants at government functions. Instead of dismissing the online discussion on national issues, the government engages anti-government views on issues such as the petrol price hike in a televised debate that saw Anwar Ibrahim being one of the major speakers.

No less than former Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohammad—out of power and out of favor from the current government, and increasingly isolated by his own partymates—started blogging in 2008, granting interviews to independent news sites like Malaysiakini, and calling out the government for its “repressive” media policies—policies that Mahathir himself, of course, had helped to entrench.

Mahathir can also claim responsibility for a Malaysian law that pledged the government to never censor the Internet, of course, but the larger truth remained that writers and purveyors of news and commentary in any medium remain vulnerable in the country.

On 12 September, Raja Petra Kamaruddin, Selangor state Exco Teresa Kok, and reporter Tan Hoon Cheng were arrested under the ISA for questionable offenses related to race and religion. The government mounted criminal charges and criminal defamation against Raja Petra, blocked his website, and detained him for two months under the ISA for his postings on Islam and the high profile murder of a Mongolian national. In addition, two other bloggers were remanded but later released on bail for satirizing the state’s symbols.

The government in 2008 again floated the creation of a Media Council as part of its “National Media Policy”. Consultation among journalists groups, bloggers and civil society including CIJ was conducted in November for the plan. It seems that the government is adamant in seeing a Council established on top of the existing laws, despite being clearly against the wishes of the parties it consulted. Twenty percent of Malaysians now have access to the Internet, and proposals to regulate content on the Web are thus likely to spark more showdowns over free expression online.

The judiciary
The performance of the judiciary, and its impact on civil liberties, was mixed in 2008. On the one hand, the court in May upheld the detention of seven people who were simply protesting to demand for the release of its leaders detained under the ISA. On the other hand, the court also ordered the release of blogger Raja Petra Kamaruddin from his ISA detention. In October, it also rejected a bid by the police to detain using the same law human rights activist Cheng Lee Whee, who posted a report alleging abuse of police power. On November, after 13 years, the court threw out the charge of “publishing false news” against Irene Fernandez, a migrant rights activist who exposed the poor condition in the state migrants detention camp.

Still, 2008 demonstrated the importance of having a consistent and independent court that can uphold the rights of the people and the press.

Though Malaysian journalists in 2008 continued to be subjected to harassment and physical attacks, usually by political partisans.

At least five journalists were attacked by either political partisans or bodyguards of political figures. Incidents of journalists being barred from covering a news event were also reported. A photographer from Utusan Malaysia, Roy Azis Abdul Aziz and Merdekareview journalist Chow Z Lam was injured on May 27 by a mob as he was covering the demolition of a barricade by residents at the Bandar Mahkota Cheras.

Chen Shi Chuan, a “Sin Chew Daily” reporter based in Sitiawan, Perak, was attacked on June 11 by nearly 30 people while covering a fatal road accident. A photographer from “Guang Ming Daily” was assaulted allegedly by the security officers of PKR while on duty covering Anwar Ibrahim’s speech on August 1.

While covering the Permatang Pauh by-election on August 18, two photographers from NST and HBL Press Agency were beaten by a group, when the former took pictures of them harassing a passing vehicle belonging to BN. The group was believed to be PKR’s supporters.

The year 2008 showed much change—and opportunities for change—in Malaysia. But it was equally clear that many challenges and dangers remain.


VIETNAM: Government goes after online dissidents and journalists

Though the country’s 1992 Constitution gives mention to the right to freedom of opinion, expression and association for all citizens, Vietnam in 2008 continued to provide one of the most repressive environments for press freedom in Southeast Asia.

Eight Vietnamese journalists were arrested for various free expression-related offenses in 2008. A third of them are online writers and journalists. On top of the arrests, four journalists were meted prison sentences averaging two years each.

The country’s Press Law virtually places the entire media sector—the country has around 600 media outlets from the digital, broadcast and print sectors—under the control of the government. Under the current Vietnamese setup, the media is officially tasked to promote and protect “party lines and policies.” Newspapers and journals are autonomously run, but all ultimately trace their ownership and management to various state agencies and people’s organizations.

Vietnam therefore virtually has no independent media sector to speak of.

Outside of this media structure, any and all attempts at independent news and commentary run the risk of reprisal or legal action—as illustrated by the arrests of journalists in 2008. Self-censorship is also inevitable.

Journalists and media groups can be threatened with crippling defamation suits that have little chance of defense in politicized courts.

Hefty fines ranging from US$450 to US$2,000 face journalists who reveal “state secret and harmful information”. Government interviewees are empowered to review articles before they can be published, at pain of fines for the journalist and/or his or her news company. The use of anonymous sources also have corresponding fines.

The attacks on journalists can be literal and physical, on top of all “legal” proceedings. Ben Stocking, an AP reporter, was beaten and detained on September 19. Le Quoc Quan, a poet and writer, was prevented from going to Norway. Bui Kim Than, an Internet writer, was released on August 13 after being confined for five months in a psychiatric ward despite absence of proof that she is mentally ill.

Clashing on the Internet
As with all societies, the Internet offers some potential for more space, content innovation, and even for pushing the envelope on free expression.

A sizeable Vietnamese diaspora in North America, Europe, and Asia are pushing content and discussions that would otherwise be frowned upon or banned inside Vietnam, for starters. Though Vietnam attempts to block many websites, an estimated 20 percent of Vietnam’s 85 million people have access online, and tools like Skype, emails, blogs, and social networking sites provide both room and content to discuss more matters than would be allowed in traditional media.

Even inside the country, and even within government, the envelope is being pushed. VietnamNet, one of Vietnam’s most popular websites, is state-owned, but also an acknowledged platform for forums and social commentary, though discussions are still advised to keep away from sensitive topics such as calling for democracy or an end to the one-party system and/or demands for open elections.

Indeed, while the government is embracing new media as an inevitable platform for world trade and economic development, it is also keeping an ever closer watch on its exploitation for wider political discourse.

Two years ago, the Press and Information Department was taken out of the Ministry of Information and Culture and merged with the Ministry of Science and Technology, a step seen as an attempt to include control of new media under the government’s ambit. Under this setup, the government maintains active monitoring of Internet users, and it has built up its own capacity to monitor, intimidate and arrest dissidents online. ISPs and Internet kiosks are now required to install monitoring devices and must record users’ information. Internet users are also deputized by the government to report fellow users’ anti-government messages online. Websites that are critical of the government are blocked.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, three of the eight dissidents and journalists arrested in 2008 were involved with new media.

All this creates a chilling effect on the Net itself—in terms of both access and content.

The judiciary
Those who would seek to defend the press and journalists typically find themselves in an uphill battle. Vietnam’s courts toe the party line when it comes to free expression matters. In October 2008, Nguyen Viet Chin, a journalist of “Thanh Nien” newspaper, was sentenced to two years in prison for “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon interests of the state”. Somsak Khunmin, a Thai citizen and contributor to Chan Troi Moi (Radio News Horizon), was sentenced in May to nine months’ imprisonment and three years’ probation on terrorism charges. Truong Minh Duc, an independent journalist, was sentenced in March to five years’ imprisonment for violation of Art 258 of Vietnamese Criminal Code. Charges against independent writers are easy to make up and trump up. In September, blogger Nguyen Hoang Hai was sentenced to two-and-a-half years imprisonment for tax fraud.

Journalists, writers, and dissidents targetted by the government say they can also be ostracized when police and the military go so far as to harass their relatives, friends, and neighbors.


SINGAPORE: Allowing space or just making promises?

On Singapore’s National Day Celebrations on 17 August 2008, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong—acknowledging the advent of new media and perhaps recognizing the futility and irony of trying to control all news and opinion in the Information Age—announced that the government will ease a long-standing ban on political films and outdoor public demonstrations.

“An outright ban is no longer sensible,” the Prime Minister said—but he quickly noted that any relaxation of restrictions must still be guided by “safeguards.”

Singapore’s community of bloggers were quick to weigh the sincerity of their leaders to open space for free expression and press freedom. Independent filmmaker Martyn See said there was only one way to find out, and that is to apply for the open exhibition of political films. See himself has had at least two of his documentaries prohibited from public screenings.

It will indeed be interesting to see how the Singaporean government will receive such applications in the coming year. Singapore does not hide the fact that in the city state, civil liberties, especially freedom of expression, take a backseat to economic development objectives.

The Prime Minister’s personal statements notwithstanding, Singapore’s notorious laws impacting on press freedom and freedom of expression will likely remain uncompromising. These include the city-state’s defamation law, the Printing Press Act, the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act, the Undesirable Publications Act, Broadcasting Act, and of course, the Internal Security Act, Films Act, and Official Secrets Act.

The net result of all of the above is that, although the country has 10 newspapers and six magazines, three broadcasting companies that oversee several TV and radio stations, 15 satellite broadcasters and a cable TV provider, they are all effectively monopolized by the government, primarily under the government-owned Singapore Press Holdings and Mediacorp which runs broadcasting operations.

Self-censorship is pervasive and somewhat inevitable. Singaporean journalists, academics, writers, and artists daily refer to “OB markers”—a nebulous, vague, yet all too real concept that is ingrained in the minds of anybody in Singapore who has anything to say. “OB” stands for whatever it is that government may consider “out-of-bounds”, and although (or precisely because) such markers are unofficial, in fact unwritten, its net is cast wide by individual minds, and creates for a suffocating environment where the limits of one’s freedom to express is defined by citizens themselves.

Where OB markers are ignored, Singapore’s defamation laws and their consequent fines are unforgiving. Singapore Democratic Party leader Dr. Chee Soon Juan has been bankrupted at least twice over by defamation suits brought against him by Singapore’s leaders.

Conservatism is a default mode in any medium presuming a Singaporean audience—whether it be television, radio, print, or the Internet. OB markers are often invoked on the strength of Singapore’s laws on national security, official secrets, and social harmony (none of which have actually been changed by the Prime Minister’s pronouncements), and a judicial system that the International Bar Association in 2008 denounced as politicized and partial when it comes to speech crimes brought to court by political leaders.

Even the foreign media are famously vulnerable in Singapore, having already paid in years past millions of dollars in defamation fees to former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his handpicked successors, former PM Goh Chok Tong and Lee’s son, the incumbent Lee Hsien Loong. In 2007 the government revised rules governing the circulation and operation of foreign publications in the Singapore, requiring the appointment of a Singaporean citizen in the management structure that, critics say, was stipulated largely for the purpose of creating a pressure point that makes the threat of litigation that much more intimidating.

In September 2008, a Singaporean court found the “Far Easter Economic Review” and its editor, Hugo Restall, guilty of criminal defamation. The lawsuit was filed by former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and his son the incumbent Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong. That same month, Singapore-based American lawyer Gopalan Nair was sentenced to 3 months’ imprisonment for criticizing a court decision in his blog.

Singapore’s high court in November found the Hong Kong-based Wall Street Journal Asia in contempt of court and fined it 25,000 Singapore dollars (approx.12,700 euros) for publishing two editorials and a letter by an opposition leader questioning the country’s judicial system.

Summary judgments
With the PAP maintaining an iron grip in the city state since it came to power in 1959, the country’s leaders have come up with a panoply of laws to legitimize its suppression of freedom of expression.

Compounding this is the Singaporean judicial mechanism of “summary judgments” where the complainants can petition courts to render decisions without basis of hearings. Summary judgments are perceived to be vulnerable to political bias, particularly when defamation suits, for example, are brought forward by government and/or government officials.

Such cases are in fact not uncommon, with Singaporean government officials winning lawsuits and receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damages.

The new media offers no haven from the pressures. Singapore does not block content on the Net—save for a token 100 websites that mostly have to do with pornography—but in 2007 and 2008, media and information ministers have thought aloud about extending the strict rules applying to the media, from licensing to criminal defamation, to also be applied to blogs and other online media.


CAMBODIA: Stronger government, more vulnerable press

The media situation in Cambodia palpably deteriorated in the runup to the July 27, 2008 elections, with the overall atmosphere marked by violence, and highlighting continuing questions about the environment for press freedom beyond the political season.

Journalist Khim Sambo of “Moneakseka Khmer” newspaper was shot dead on July 12 by still-unknown gunmen. Sambo’s son, Khat Sarin Pheata, was also killed. The Cambodian media saw the murders as a warning to their sector. Earlier, Sambo’s superior, Dam Sith, was jailed for a week for allegedly defaming Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Nam Hong.

Also, in the early part of the year, a local journalist, Khuon Phlaivy, survived a slay attempt. He had received death threats earlier.

Too powerful
For all the violence, however, it was still the elections that served as a portent of the larger issues that confronted the media in 2008, and that will continue to hang over the heads of the country’s journalists.

Prime Minister Hun Sen and his party, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), handily won the elections. They managed to secure more than two-thirds of the National Assembly seats.

The opposition Sam Rainsy Party has been trying to bargain for a power-sharing scheme, but with the CPP holding 90 of 123 seats, there is little leverage in the National Assembly to ensure that a system of checks and balances is in place.

This has gotten the media and human rights groups on edge. The main challenge confronting Cambodian media is a pending bill in parliament with provisions aimed at curbing the activities of local and international non-government organizations operating in Cambodia. Saying terrorists might use NGOs as fronts to penetrate Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen has thrown his full support behind the bill, and backed by a super majority, he is poised to pass legislation that could further dampen the press freedom situation in the country.

Dubious laws, weak courts
Cambodia currently has two Press Laws, the first being the one adopted in 1993 under the UNTAC and the second in 1994 adopted by the National Assembly. Both laws have provisions aimed at curtailing press freedom and hindering the work of journalists. These provisions include Articles 12 and 20 of the Press Law that vaguely define offenses deemed harmful to national security. This ambiguity enables judges and authorities to prosecute members of the media unjustly. The UNTAC law’s Article 62 also has vague provisions against “disinformation”, another matter that can too easily render journalists and their sources vulnerable to unjust prosecution.

Beyond weaknesses and traps in the law, the judiciary itself cannot be expected to remedy such dangers. The judicial branch of government is seen as politicized and inclined towards the whims of the executive branch. Corruption is also widespread, and there are inconsistencies in the way judgments are passed, particularly on matters of political sensitivity, including issues of rights and liberties.

The Internet
New media offers some crucial room for public discussions. Though the Internet penetration rate is only 0.5% of the population, or 40,000 out of the seven million adult population, Cambodia is noted for a burgeoning community of bloggers. Here though, there are also new dangers. The government is now considering how to extend rules governing traditional media, so as to make them apply to online media and platforms as well.

The Ministry of Information is drafting legislation that allows existing print regulations to govern other media, including the Internet, but vows not to curtail press freedom.

The Ministry of Information wants to extend existing libel, defamation and ethics rules applying to print and broadcasting media to web-based platforms.

Officials insist that such proposals are not intended to impact on freedom of the press. Still, control of the Internet recently became an issue when several government officials suggested shutting down a website by Cambodian-American artist Reahu, whose depictions of semi-nude Apsaras were claimed to degrade Cambodian culture.

The Cambodian Association for the Protection of Journalists (CAPJ), a SEAPA partner, says it is troubled by the Cambodian government’s plan to regulate the Internet through the enactment of a law by late 2009. CAPJ appealed to the government to put the plan on hold. The group stressed that “since the Internet became available in 1997, it has been serving the public well despite the absence of laws governing it. Furthermore, no major incidents involving the Internet which caused negative consequences to Cambodian society has taken place.”

With the prospect of the new regulation, CAPJ President Um Sarin said: “It seems the government is applying autocratic rules to control everything about communication. We worry that this law would be used as a tool to control and clamp down on bloggers who harshly criticize the government and we appeal for the government to reconsider its current plan.”


THAILAND: Instability and vulnerability

Thailand ended 2008 with a new government (its fifth in two years), many lingering questions about the country’s stability and, among other uncertainties therefore, the environment for the media and press freedom.

From the deposed government of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a coup in September 2006, to the one-year military regime that followed, and two civilian governments that critics contended were but proxies for Thaksin from 2007 through much of 2008, Thailand’s press had long been under a dark cloud. Constitutional guarantees for free expression and laws strengthening press freedom and access to information were often undercut by hostile posturings from whichever party or entity was in power. Threats and actual cases of defamation hung over government critics’ heads during the time of Thaksin, while lese majeste suits were recklessly abused by all political factions and the military itself, all contributing to a chilling environment for open and free public discourse, particularly where matters of corruption, military coups, or the Thai monarchy were concerned.

The election in December 2008 of a Democratic Party-led government gave rights advocates some room to hope for a change in the atmosphere. New Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is a young, western-educated politician with warm relations with the press. In his time as opposition leader, he had consistently espoused democratic principles, and the virtues of a free press in particular, including open access to the Internet.

But stability is the order of the day in Thailand, and pragmatism a defining character in its fractious politics. No longer an oppositionist, the new prime minister has had to temper democratic affirmations with policy statements that prioritize stability and national reconciliation—and implicitly, cooperation with the military and the establishment—over all else, at least for the short term.

By year’s end, therefore, Abhisit felt compelled to stress that defending the monarchy will be most important to his government. His newly appointed Information and Communication (ICT) Minister, Ranongrak Suwanchawee, said that she herself will make Internet censorship her top priority—she announced that the ICT had in fact already blocked 2,300 websites in Thailand; another 400 sites are awaiting court orders for their restriction—and put her direction specifically in the context of a need to defend the royal institution.

Watching the Internet
A new watchdog organization was thus launched in Thailand towards the end of 2008—the Thai Netizens Network—with the objective of protecting the access to, and free expression on, the Internet. Apart from the broad interpretations of what could constitute lese majeste in the country, the founders of TNN are also troubled by the Computer Crimes Act enacted in 2007, and whose broad provisions had been invoked in the blocking and closure of many websites in 2008.

The sensitivity by which lese majeste and online speech is being handled signals that the larger considerations that impact on press freedom and free expression in Thailand have not gone away, and they remain vulnerable to the political considerations, as well as personalities, of the country’s leaders.

In this environment, self-censorship will remain a given in many media outlets. Blogs and popular aggregators or web-based media such as Prachatai.com often receive “requests” from government and/or military officials to pull down commentary from their sites that are deemed disrespectful to Thailand’s popular and revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Prachatai.com acknowledges that it often complies with such requests. The December 6-12 issue of the British newsmagazine, “The Economist”, was “voluntarily” withheld by its distributors because it featured articles questioning the role of the monarchy in the recent political crises. Meanwhile, lese majeste cases continue to hang over the BBC’s correspondent in Bangkok, Jonathan Head, for stories that inquire about the role or influence of the Thai monarchy to Thailand’s recent coups and political crises.

Outside of lese majeste, the Thai media in 2008 had to contend with violence against journalists and inner struggles to maintain their independence. Continuing uncertainties in the political climate have tempted or pressured media outlets to take sides, and even as journalists have struggled to remain neutral, they have literally been roughed up by all sides in deeply polarizing political events.

In 2008, reporters covering Parliament complained of harassment and threats from irate administration politicians. The People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) which spearheaded the demonstrations against Thaksin’s forces, overran a government TV station in August. The Thai Journalists Association, a founding member of SEAPA, condemned the act, and the PAD apologized, but the tensions and harassment against the press only escalated from there. PAD enforcers in the airport routinely harassed reporters to pressure them to write favorable stories about the demonstrators. Several journalists and photographers were also physically and verbally abused. PAD guards, armed with firearms, shot a TV van in the airport vicinity. Meanwhile, unidentified suspects on board small boats attacked with guns and grenades the head office of ASTV, the satellite service provider owned by one of the PAD leaders. Pro-Thaksin supporters, on the other hand, laid siege on the Chiang Mai office of Thai Public Broadcasting Service (TPBS). A mob lynched the father of the station manager.

Even away from the political crisis, there were other troubling attacks on members of the media.

The threat of defamation remained in 2008, highlighted by a 1.2-billion-baht suit brought against a columnist by international retail giant Tesco Lotus. The writer apologized and the charges were dropped, but not before reaffirming the chilling powers of Thailand’s defamation laws.

Meanwhile, there was a spate of killings of journalists, signaling the return of a phenomenon that had not been seen in Thailand for years. Athiwat Chaiyanura of “Matichon” and Channel 7 in Nakhon Sri Thammarat province was shot dead in his house in August. The following month, Jareuk Rangcharoen, another “Matichon” reporter for Suphanburi province was shot while he was driving home from work. Chalee Boonsawat, of “Thai Rath” newspaper reporter for Narathiwat province was killed in a bomb explosion in Sungai Kolok town in August, while Phadung Wannalak, reporter of ModernNINE TV was seriously injured.

As a sector, the Thai media in 2008 lobbied government to prioritize reforms in the broadcasting sector, to ensure the independence of a new broadcasting commission, as well as to further liberalize the airwaves currently monopolized by the state and the military. They also sought to safeguard and strengthen a national experiment on public broadcasting—an experiment that they accused former Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej and PM Office’s Minister Jakrapob Penkair of trying to reverse.

Meanwhile, the media continues to hold on to earlier reform laws, passed in 2007, which promise to safeguard media ownership independent of political interests.

Current PM Abhisit has pledged to see to the Thai media’s campaigns for media reform. But how his government’s stability or vulnerability to Thai political forces impact on the overall media environment remains to be seen.


BURMA: Still shackled

On September 23, 2008, after 19 years in prison, Burmese journalist U Win Tin was released by Burma’s military junta. Upon returning to his Yangon home, however, he refused to take off his prison uniform. He may no longer behind bars, he explained, but he – and the rest of the Burmese press – remains shackled.

Indeed, things actually got worse for the press and purveyors of independent information in Burma in 2008.

Prior to the release of Win Tin, more journalists, writers, and artists were actually arrested. Most notably, the popular comedian, activist, and blogger Zarganar was in November handed a sentence of 45 years in prison.

Meanwhile, an already notorious censorship regime became stricter.

Aside from government-owned media outlets, there are more than 300 private journals in the country. Every publication is required to submit an advance copy of its forthcoming issue for censorship, and in 2008, the rules for submitting such advance copies actually became stricter. By requiring the submission of more copies for review, the ministry added an economic factor to the system that forces the publishers to self-censor more thoroughly even before they go to the censors board.

Whether any unfavorable writing makes it past the censors or not, meanwhile, Burma has more unrelenting ways of dealing with dissent.

In January, authorities arrested poet Saw Wai for writing a love poem with a hidden message condemning the junta head. “Myanmar Nation” editor Thet Zin and manager Sein Win Maung were arrested in February and charged for possessing a United Nations report on Burma and video footage of the Saffron Revolution. Their publication was suspended for close to three weeks. Even the Burmese-language edition of the “Myanmar Times”, a conservative weekly, was suspended a week in January for publishing a report about higher licensing fees for satellite dishes, a crucial point of access for foreign news and exiled media broadcasts into Burma.

Against this backdrop, on May 10, 2008, Burma held a referendum on a new constitution leading to elections scheduled for 2010. The junta promoted this as a positive step for the easing of political rights in Burma.

But the exercise was clearly a sham for the lack of public participation in the drafting process and the restrictions on discussions. Indeed, authorities threatened to mete jail terms of up to 20 years for those who criticised the referendum or called for a boycott. When Cyclone Nargis struck Burma in May, a week before the referendum, the tragedy only served to further underscore the grotesque conditions for the flow of news, commentary, and information in the country.

Journalists were penalized for helping the relief efforts, reporting on the cyclone-ravaged areas was restricted and censored, and foreign journalists—as well as representatives of various international aid agencies—were officially barred from visiting the devastated regions.

Citizen journalists
In the face these difficulties, however, 2008 also therefore highlighted the alternative forms of media that allow independent information flow in and out of Burma.

A community of exiled Burmese journalists and media outlets, in particular, were crucial to keep the world—and the Burmese themselves—informed on developments inside the country. Linkages and networks between this exiled community and their colleagues inside Burma have always been crucial, but they strengthened in late 2007, after the Saffron Revolution, and further galvanized after Cyclone Nargis. With journalists inside contributing as correspondents and/or sources to the exiled platforms, the separate but related communities complement Burmese-language radio services by international news organizations such as the BBC, Radio Free Asia, and Voice of America. Thus does news and information manage to get in and out of Burma, notwithstanding some of the most daunting barriers to press freedom in the world.

Equally important over the past two years, however, the exiled groups have provided a platform for the emergence of citizen journalists from inside Burma. Exiled media groups like the Delhi-based Mizzima.com, and “Irrawaddy Magazine” in Chiang Mai, and the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma, acted as clearing houses for information, pictures, audio, and video captured by ordinary citizens. That relationship, and the citizens journalism phenomenon, will continue to be key to the relay of Burmese stories to the rest of the world. Equally certain, however, it will not continue without the Burmese government’s attempts at reprisal and further control.

The Internet remains strictly controlled inside the country. It is practically monopolized by the state through two state-linked service providers. And yet despite this, and despite the economic inaccessibility of the Internet and information communication technologies (ICTs) in general—Burma has a national Internet penetration rate of only 0.1%; a SIM card in 2008 went for as much as US$2,000—the junta has grown wary of the technology, and their inability to fully control the flow of information it allows, as proven in September 2007 and by the experience with Nargis.

The government’s attack has been both on the domestic and exiled fronts. In 2008 they rounded up and arrested bloggers like Nay Phone Latt who are critical of the government. Websites like YouTube and web-based email services like Gmail, Yahoo, and Hotmail were blocked.

Meanwhile, the websites of Irrawady, DVB, Mizzima and other exiled media groups repeatedly came under attacks from hackers. The sophistication of the attacks cause experts to conclude that they were sponsored by the Burmese government, and will likely happen again, sooner or later, and with more regularity.


LAOS: New rules for an old regime?

On August 18, 2008, the Lao National Assembly approved the country’s first media law. The passage of the law comes after seven years of several amendments to the draft and, among other things, a crucial debate over whether explicit media freedom should be allowed.

Implementation has been slow, however, and in any case, to many journalists in Laos, the new law—Media Law 2008—is but an extension of the previous Party Resolution No. 36, which already outlines the rights and responsibility of the media. Still, although the new law spells out explicitly what the media can and cannot do, it does make mention of a right to access public information, something previously withheld by authorities.

The law guarantees the right of the media to acquire information and report on malpractices and illegal actions committed by either individuals or government agencies. It also obligates state officials to provide information, though the law also has built in exemptions as to what information must be divulged and shared.

Laos is also introducing a new law for broadcast reform. Under this new law, the broadcast sector remains state-run. Eighty percent of the 6.5 million population has access to radio while 50 percent has access to TV—both of which media are currently monopolized by the state.

The Lao National Radio is by far the only national broadcaster, supplemented by 31 regional and provincial stations broadcasting on AM and FM frequencies.

National TV, or Channel 1 and Laos Television 3, are the two local broadcasters. The first local private broadcaster, Lao Star, was established in 2006. This satellite-transmitted channel is basically to fill gaps of information on culture and entertainment and the manpower the state media could not afford.

Under the reform initiatives, the government will allow private sectors to buy air-time slots in, produce programs and eventually prepare them to invest in new broadcasting outlets.

Local media observers hope that the law will modernize and improve the professional standards of Lao media, especially broadcasting which lags behind in terms of substance, resources, and technology.

Still, Laos remains a country governed by highly restrictive media policies. Notwithstanding a Constitutional provision for “freedom of speech and the press”, the media is subject to numerous rules and policies protective of the status quo. The Lao Peoples Revolutionary Party the only party in the country, holds 98 of the 99 seats in parliament, and is often not tolerant of criticism.

All publications in Laos must be approved by the Ministry of Information, which issues them with publishing licenses, and newspaper editors and broadcast producers are appointed mostly from the party. Local newspapers are required to use reports from the state news agency, Khao San Pathet Lao and adhere to ministry guidelines on “sensitive” topics. News coverage of Laos’ Hmong tribe, for example, continues to be banned. Hmong groups have been rebelling against the communist regime since 1975, and Laos has had to fend off accusations of abuses by the military against members of the ethnic group.

Reports and commentaries about the country’s socio-economic problems, bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption are allowed, but only as long as they fall short of denouncing or causing embarrassment to individual officers and the ruling party. The Foreign Ministry also forbids criticism of “friendly countries”, particularly Vietnam and Burma.

These restrictions ironically come at a time when there has been a marked growth in the Loatian media sector since 2000. There are over 70 publications, in—Lao, English and French—on trade, tourism, lifestyle and entertainment. Most of them are produced in the capital, Vientiane, and each have a limited circulation of about 3,000 copies a day because of the small market.

Alternative media
Outside of state-controlled media, Laotians do have alternative media they can turn to.

Foreign broadcasts from the Voice of Viet Nam, Beijing International Radio, Voice of America, BBC and Radio France International are also accessible. Wealthier residents in the capital and major cities have 24-hour access to some 30 international news and entertainment stations via satellite and cable television, and those close to the Thai border can access programmes from other countries.

The Internet, though introduced in the country in 1997, has yet to have any significant impact for ordinary Laotians. Charges of about 9,000 Kip (approx. US$1) per hour in a country where gross domestic product per capita is US$2,200 limit exploration of the World Wide Web to tourists, entrepreneurs, expatriates, government officials and the media.

As of March, it was estimated that there are a mere 100,000 Loatians with access to the Internet. Some 25,000 users can only access via Internet cafés, most of them found in Vientiane Prefecture.

All Internet providers are controlled by the state and e-mail is monitored. The Prime Minister’s Office requires all Internet service providers to submit quarterly reports and link their gateways to facilitate monitoring, but the government’s ability to enforce such regulations appear to be limited. Two web forums, Inlaonet and Laoupdate, are popular among students, allowing comments about current affairs and common social problems, occasionally focusing on news reports, but never politically sensitive issues. Some blogs and websites of overseas dissidents are blocked.

In general, free expression remain severely hampered by restrictive laws. Defamation of the state and false information are criminalized. Producing “anti-government” propaganda can land one with a one- to five-year imprisonment; “inciting social instability” through demonstrations a five-year term; and committing “crimes against the state” a 20-year term or execution.


EAST TIMOR: Press freedom absent from state priorities

A year after the violence-marred 2007 elections, Timor Leste’s media in 2008 slowly returned to some semblance of normality, though with challenges posed by the new-found requirements of democracy and the limitations of infrastructure of a still fragile country.

In the media sector, there were stirrings for some positive change. In 2008 the government announced its position to decriminalize the country’s Defamation Law, saying this law will be struck out of the Penal Code when a new version is passed by parliament. The statement was welcomed by the Timor Lorosa’e Journalists Association (TLJA), a SEAPA partner. Decriminalization of the Defamation Law has been one of the most urgent issues impacting the Timores media in recent years.

Minister of Justice Lucia Lobato announced to members of the press gathered at the national parliament that the government will remove the Defamation Law from the country’s Penal Code and will treat violations thereof as civil cases. She added that the government will sign into law a revised penal code as soon as the national parliament passes the bill.

However, 2008 ended with the status quo still in place—illustrating a sense that media reform and the needs and rights of the press are still very low in Dili’s list of priorities.

East Timor is not only the region’s youngest nations, after all. It is also the poorest. The infrastructure is poor and the country is drought-prone. But vast offshore oil and gas fields in the Timor Sea hold much potential, and transparency and governance are crucial challenges that must be complemented by free, independent, and stable media.

With support from international development agencies, the basic ingredients for a productive and constructive media sector are in fact in place.

East Timor’s national public radio and TV services was launched in May 2002, replacing the interim broadcasting services operated by the UN.

Public radio is said to reach some 90 percent of the population; public TV has a smaller coverage.

Community radio stations play a key role in the process of national reconstruction. Many of them receive funding, training and equipment from international agencies and organisations. One of these radio stations is run by the Catholic church.

In the private sector, East Timor has two daily newspapers and a number of weekly titles. BBC World Service programmes in English and Portuguese are available in Dili via BBC 105.9 FM.

Internet penetration is still minimal, pegged at 0.1% of the population, or 1,200 users, as of March 2008. There is only one Internet service provider, which provides broadband for about US$250-US$300 while Internet cafes charge US$1-US1.50 a minute, far too unaffordable for Timorese—or even for anybody else in any country of Southeast Asia.

Beyond their fundamental and logistical difficulties, the journalists of Timor also must still contend with an unstable environment prone to violence, says the Timor Leste Journalists Association (TLJA), a SEAPA partner.

TLJA reported that a worker of the East Timor Post was apprehended in February by the military police while he was on his way to deliver the computer files of the newspaper to the printer. The editor was beaten and was brought to the police station where he was attacked again.

The country’s State Security officials issued a formal apology for the incident after a formal complaint was filed by the newspaper and in the aftermath of criticism from international media watchdogs. But not without trying to rationalize the attack. The senior layout editor, Agostinho Ta Pasea, was held for 11 hours, the government said, for breaking Dili’s 10pm-6am curfew during an official state of emergency.

Can’t afford to wait
The challenge for Timor’s media will continue to be dependent on the young country’s instability. The low prioritization for media reform and media rights will keep journalists and the press vulnerable and trampled under government’s resolve for stability and normalcy.

The challenge for transparency and better governance, however—especially in light of East Timor’s need to quickly exploit its natural resources—will not allow the press to wait. Dili therefore must institute reforms and guarantees for press freedom with as much resolve as it has shown for stabilizing the political environment, because more and more they will have to contend with a more active press that will, in turn, be at risk for more violence and litigation.

SEAPA is composed of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (Philippines), the Alliance of Independent Journalists (Indonesia), the Institute for the Study of the Free Flow of Information (Indonesia), the Thai Journalists Association, and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. This report was also produced with the help of SEAPA’s partners from Cambodia, Malaysia, East Timor, and Burma, namely: the Cambodian Association for the Protection of Journalists, the Centre for Independent Journalism (Malaysia), the Timor Leste Journalists Association, and Mizzima.com.

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