Press Freedom in Asia to be Hit by Freedom Forum’s Closure of Overseas Office

BANGKOK — The last month’s decision by US-based Freedom Forum to reduce staffs and close its international offices in four countries including Hong Kong will surely hurt efforts in Asia to promote freedom of press and freedom of speech at the time of the global economic downtown.

US experts also predicted other foundations will follow suit if the stock market continues to fall. This they said would significantly hit the non-profit sector at the time of global economic slowdown that worsen by the terrorist attacks on America last month.

Asian media advocates meanwhile have expressed their regret over the decision and urged the Freedom Forum to reverse it or find other solution to keep the press freedom network in Asia alive. But Arnold Zeitlin, director of the Freedom Forum Asian Center & Library told Asian partners that the decision was final and irreversible.

Zeitlin said last week all Freedom Forum activities in Asia will cease on or before 31 December and o further funds for support will be disbursed. He added partners of the past eight years will have to seek support
elsewhere for continuing their programs.

Blasting the decision as being unspeakably shortsighted, Lin Neumann, a media consultant on Asia issues said it took place at the time of economic downturn when its assistance would be needed most. This he said could rob the news media in Asia of its future.

“Freedom Forum’s decision is sending the wrong message at the wrong time,” Neumann said. According to him, it encourages the Forum’s partners abroad to believe that Americans really are short-term friends- happy to be spending a little money when times are good but puling up the drawbridge at the first sign of trouble.

“The future of the news media is in the developing world, perhaps especially Asia, where one-third of the world’s population is concentrated in a region undergoing tremendous political, economic and social change. This is the future out here and you are opting out of it,” Neumann said.

“The challenges for the current era are to be found in expanding international understanding and encouraging greater access to information for more people worldwide. Those of us who truly care about the future of our profession must be engaged internationally,”he said.

Founder of Think Center Singapore and Asia James Gomez said the Forum’s activities in the last years provided opportunities for many new actors to network and share experiences in the field of media and freedom of
expression.

“It is sad that Freedom Forum has to abruptly cease its operation overseas,” said Chairperson of Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) Kavi Chongkittavorn, who lauded the Forum’s past performance as being at the forefront to promote and protect press freedom in Asia.

“The Forum has also helped the Thai journalists through numerous workshops to become more professional; and through the FF funds we have been able to build up media infrastructure that has strengthened access to information and expand local networks,” said Kavi.

Gomez who long campaigned for freedom of speech in Singapore said the Forum also sorted to give opportunities for writers writing in a controlled environment to showcase their publications and speak about their writing experiences.

“Therefore, it’s regretable that Freedom Forum would be ceasing its operations in the region, especially at a time when its work can be most valuable. Ideally this should be avoided,” Gomez said.

Gomez suggested if this decision could not be avoided, measures be taken to ensure that the resources and expertise build up over the last years are “handed over” or shared with local partners in the region.

Charles L. Overby, chairman and chief executive of the Freedom Forum, said in a statement that the stock market downturn, which has cost the foundation $300 million or 30 Per Cent of of the Foundation’s one-billion-dollar endowment forced it to “choose which priorities we will emphasize over the next several years.”

And we choose Washington,” he was quoted in Washington Post on Sep 29.

Overby admitted its efforts to promote world press freedom would suffer most from the cutbacks. By December 31, 2001, four overseas offices _ in London, Buenos Aires, Hong Kong and Johannesburg _ will be closed, according to a statement released on Sep 28.

The foundation’s First Amendment Center in New York will also close, but operations will be shifted to the Washington headquarters.

The Freedom Forum was established in 1991, succeeding the Gannett Foundation, established by Frank E. Gannett in 1935. The Forum focuses on four main areas: the Newseum (an interactive journalism museum), First Amendment issues, newsroom diversity and press freedom around the world.

Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, a District-based trade publication, predicted that other foundations would also soon reduce spending. “As long as this stock market downturn continues, foundations will be forced to cut back,” Palmer said. “Almost all foundations invest in the stock market. Mostly what they have is stock.”

The Chronicle of Philanthropy, in its annual survey released at the end of February, reported that the asset values of the nation’s biggest private foundations fell slightly in 2000, the first decline in a decade.

But Rick Cohen, president of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, a watchdog group, urged foundations not to cut back as the needs of nonprofit organizations rise in slower economic times.

“If foundations reduce their grant-making, the nonprofit sector is going to take a significant hit,” Cohen said.

He added, “Foundations have benefited from a 20-year boom market. Their asset growth has been so large that they could withstand some very long shocks.”

Gannett Co. founded the precursor to the Freedom Forum with an initial donation of $100,000 in Gannett stock in 1935. Two years ago, the foundation had amassed a $1 billion portfolio of 200 stocks. [by Kulachada Chaipipat]