Press Freedom Under Attack Across the Region

[Source: Bangkok Post; Story by Nissara Horayangura]

All around the world, press freedom is under attack. How is the press to defend the human rights of a civil society when its own fundamental rights are being violated?

Amid increasingly difficult times for the media in Asia, a group of journalists and human rights activists from various Asian countries convened in Thailand recently to come up with ways to meet the challenges they face at a workshop entitled “Media, Human Rights, and Democracy”, co-organised by human rights watchdog Forum-Asia and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (Seapa), a regional free press advocacy group.

Ideally, the media’s role is to further the cause of democracy by serving both as the voice of the people and as a source of free-flowing information on political, economic, and societal affairs, said Kavi Chongkittavorn, chairperson of Seapa.

It is also the duty of all journalists to promote a civil society by educating the public regarding their constitutionally-guaranteed human rights, highlighting cases of abuse, and showing the public how to defend their rights through the legal system, added Banya Hongsar, managing editor of the Independent Mon News Agency.

But examples abound across Asia of how the media’s ability to promote human rights is hampered by state control, intimidation and persecution.

“We are working under an atmosphere of fear,” said Um Sarin, president of the Cambodian Association for the Protection of Journalists.

Media control in the region ranges from the use of brute force to manipulation by politicians and business elites. As in Cambodia, physical attacks on journalists are rampant in the Philippines and Indonesia. In the Philippines, seven journalists were murdered this past year. In India, the government recently broke into the offices of top English-language daily The Hindu and sought to imprison the senior editors.

Nirmala Lakshman, joint editor of The Hindu reported: “The government regularly invokes `legislative privilege’ and `defamation’ to muzzle the press.”

Meanwhile, journalists in Malaysia and Singapore still do not have the constitutional guarantee of press freedom or access to information. Both countries have laws that allow the government to ban items “prejudicial to the national interest”.

Perhaps the bleakest situation is in Burma, where there is practically no reliable information available. The ruling junta practises severe censorship and has jailed dozens of journalists, many of whom have long been forced to work from the border areas or outside the country.

Even Thailand, which enjoys arguably the freest press in Southeast Asia, is reeling under the all-powerful Thaksin administration. Kulachada Chaipapat, Bangkok director of Seapa said: “Freedom of speech is fully guaranteed by the 1997 constitution, but it can’t be implemented without political will.”

Attempts to set up a commission to transfer ownership of broadcast frequencies to the public have repeatedly stalled, and the state maintains total control of the broadcast sector. The only independent television channel, iTV, has since been taken over by Shin Corporation, controlled by Prime MinisterThaksin Shinawatra’s family.

Ownership aside, many journalists complain the Thaksin government has tethered the media in more sophisticated ways. Kavi Chongkittavorn laments that “Mr Thaksin has broken up the alliance between media and civil society and disarmed both. The model of media being in the middle of a civil society and the government and independently setting the public agenda has been overturned. Now it is the government that sets the public agenda.”

The government, he alleged, is also resorting to subtler methods like controlling access to information and masterful spin-doctoring. Combined, such tactics could have a very detrimental effect on the institution of democracy, he warned.

Nirmala Lakshman of The Hindu noted that apart from political intervention, “big media” is particularly susceptible to the influence of market forces.

“To woo the advertiser and enhance circulation, all sorts of editorial compromises are made. The lifestyles of celebrities increasingly take up more space leaving little space for more serious issues.”

So what to do? Closer regional co-operation is key, the workshop agreed.

“Seapa should play a more proactive role in monitoring the media situation in Southeast Asia,” suggested Aung Zaw, editor of Burmese magazine, The Irrawaddy. The organisation should strengthen its alert network and improve information exchanges to raise awareness of the threats to journalists across the region, he added.

Carlos Conde, a Filipino freelance journalist, suggested issuing a report on the 10 worst places in Asia to work as a journalist, patterned after the worldwide list produced by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Building a freer press is an uphill battle, however. Frustrated by the mainstream media’s inertia, several pro-democracy groups have turned to “alternative” media such as the Internet and community radio to advocate their causes.

In Malaysia, the online newspaper Malaysiakini.com has carved out a space for a free press by taking advantage of a legal loophole _ the Web site is technically not a published paper and thus not subject to Malaysia’s printing press laws.

Pramesh Chandran, CEO of Malaysiakini.com, said that his organisation acts as a check against blatant disinformation in the mainstream news.

“We don’t have a publishing delay. We can get news out faster than the press and TV, which affects what they are able to say.”

On the other end of the technology spectrum is small-scale community radio. Uajit Virrojtrivatt, a longtime pioneer of community radio in Thailand, said that community radio allows the people to be speakers, not just listeners.

But obstacles remain. Malaysiakini’s offices have been searched and its employees harassed. As for community radio, Vinondini Effendi, who works with community radio groups in Indonesia, points out that although community radio is legal, it is only given two percent of available frequencies.

“Many of those frequencies are not good _ such as those in between air traffic control frequencies.”

Despite these political limitations, the media can and should still rethink their work. NGOs and journalists themselves admit the media often falls short in covering human rights abuses and _ and in some cases _ even perpetuate rights violations.

Sunai Pasuk, spokesperson of Forum-Asia, criticised the Thai media’s coverage of the government’s anti-drug campaign.

“The media did not pick up the human rights angle until the King himself said something,” he said.

Kavi Chongkittavorn joined in critiquing the mainstream media. “Journalists need to dare to question, link events to history, and see connections between stories from day to day rather than just chasing 24-hour news cycles,” he said.

Though journalists and human rights activists agreed they need to work closely together to further human rights, Johanna Son, executive director of the Asia-Pacific bureau of IPS newswire, stressed the significance of non-partisan media.

“A journalist is not equivalent to a human rights activist. You have to write critically and independently. You must still be able to ask difficult questions about human rights. Human rights activists and journalists should have mutual respect for each others’ roles and constraints.”

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