The impunity situation in 2013 remains bleak in Southeast Asia with the same problems in the same countries highlighting state inaction to violence and state suppression of free speech.
BANGKOK, 23 November – The Philippines and Vietnam are again at the top of countries of concern related to the continuing problem of impunity in Southeast Asia, says the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) as they marked today the International Day To End Impunity.
The day was commemorated in Bangkok during a meeting of activists and journalists from across Asia with the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression Mr Frank La Rue.
SEAPA executive director Gayathry Venkiteswaran said that the “situation remained unchanged” in the region, especially in these two countries where the same trends were observed last year.
Violence and state violations of freedom of expression remain pressing in the problems in the region, and paint a continuing bleak picture of impunity in Southeast Asia in 2013.
“These twin sets of actions remaining unpunished or unaccountable represent the very definition of impunity that SEAPA is campaigning to end,” says Gayathry.
SEAPA collected the information from news and reports of media advocacy and human rights groups.
“There were six killings and at least eight incidents of attacks and violent threats to journalists in the Philippines,” Gayathry said. “This country has consistently been the most dangerous place for journalists in the region over the past few years.”
The total number of killings is now up to 19 since July 2010 when President Benigno Aquino III took office, according to the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), a SEAPA member in the Philippines.
Continuing violence remains a problem owing to the weak law enforcement, government corruption, a slow justice system and a pervasive gun culture, says CMFR. Violence against the media is an easy response of persons whose illegal activities or vested interests are exposed in public.
CMFR has recorded 137 journalist killings in the Philippines since the group started counting in 1986.
The anniversary of the Ampatuan massacre four years ago in the southern Philippines’ Maguindanao province was selected by free expression activists as the International Day to End Impunity (IDEI) since it is the worst act of violence against media workers, with 32 out of the 58 killed coming from the sector.
Freedom of expression advocates have dedicated the date for a concerted worldwide push to end the problem of impunity faced by journalists and activists worldwide.
Until today, the criminal case on the massacre has not completed arraignment for the 105 suspects currently in custody. This means the court’s to evaluation of the evidence against suspect has not yet even begun and may take decades.
The slow pace of the judicial process in the Ampatuan massacre is an important reason for the high level of violence against journalists in the Philippines. “It sends the message that killers will never face justice,” Gayathry said.
Meanwhile in Vietnam, the government continued its crackdown on bloggers with at least 12 incidents recorded involving attacks, arrests and jail terms for bloggers who serve as alternative channels of information for the population.
“It is a very dangerous place for bloggers and the danger comes from the government,” Gayathry said, referring to a SEAPA report on how the government maintains its tight grip by criminalizing acts of free expression.
Articles 88 and 258 of the Vietnam Criminal Code are the main weapons of government to crackdown on bloggers and free speech, according to the report. Article 88 criminalizes conducting propaganda against the state, while article 258 prohibits the “abuse” just about any other democratic right of citizens.
“The problem is that these laws give the government a very broad scope to include any action as long as it’s interpreted as an act against the state,” Gayathry explained.
By contrast, state actions against the media are limited, due to the strict regulation of the press in Vietnam.
The situation should be viewed in the context of the equally deplorable situation of press freedom in the region. For example, although SEAPA was not able to record any violent incident in the media in Brunei, Singapore and Laos, it does not mean that citizens are free to speak out against the government.
“Like in Vietnam, their media is very quiet,” noted SEAPA campaigns coordinator Kulachada Chaipipat who said that the only incident of violence recorded in Laos since the IDEI last year was the disappearance of development worker Sombath Somphone on 15 December 2012.
“Community development work is the only activity of civil society allowed in Laos,” Kulachada explained. “Sombath’s disappearance sends a strong threat to the rest of civil society about speaking out on social issues.”
Sombath’s disappearance happened after he led an international meeting between ASEAN and European civil society groups to discuss cooperation issues between the two regions. The meeting was a rare opportunity for Laotian communities to raise issues they face, much to the embarrassment of the government which later hosted a meeting with officials from the same regions.
SEAPA reports that in 2013, there were very few positive developments on impunity cases related to journalists.
In Thailand, the case of the 2010 killing of Italian news photographer Fabio Polenghi moved a bit forward after a court inquest ruled that the bullet that killed him came from the army side.
But because the inquest stopped short of pinpointing the soldier or the unit responsible, it is not clear how the case will move forward.
In Cambodia meanwhile, the court has absolved the suspected killers of Rattanakiri journalist Heng Serei Oudom who was bludgeoned to death the day after he disappeared in September 2012.
Heng’s case was the only one in the region with any hope of achieving justice when SEAPA marked the IDEI last year. “Now, it seems even this hope has vanished,” said Gayathry.
In the Philippines, leaders of indigenous peoples and trade unions have also fallen victim to violence.
The global campaign has been organized since 2011 with the aim of raising public awareness on the continuing threats of impunity in media killing and to call for stronger state actions to end impunity.
[Please click the link to download a compilation of SEAPA’s IDEI 2013 report]