[Regional] SEAPA @ 20: Looking back, moving forward amid challenging times for press freedom

It all started with a group of earnest journalists huddled together on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) in 1997. While the region’s state leaders were concerned with issues around the economy, the scribes were preoccupied with something else: “What does Southeast Asia need to protect its journalists from intimidation and government repression?” they asked.

For a region at the crux of political changes and transitions, that question proved pivotal. It became the trigger for a collective action – the formation of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) based on a vision forged just months after the APEC meeting, at a regional gathering of Southeast Asian journalists held on 8 November 1998.

Two decades later, amid the steady decline of press freedom across the region, SEAPA’s aspiration remains as relevant as ever: A region enjoying free expression and that has a truly independent press. Its mission remains as timely as when it sprang into existence: To promote and protect press freedom in Southeast Asia.

SEAPA executive director Tess Bacalla said it was ironic that the alliance’s 20th year comes at time “when much of the region has no reason to celebrate at all if we look at the state of the press and freedom of expression (today).” She cited “the growing number of journalists languishing in jails, or, worse, who have been killed; and the number of media outlets struggling to survive not only their steadily declining revenue but also the onslaught of targeted attacks against the press … online and offline.”

“These distressing realities provide the backdrop to our celebration tonight,” she said, adding “this occasion is not so much about SEAPA as much as it is about what we, individually and collectively, stand for and continue to value amid these perilous times in the region.”

To mark its anniversary, the network’s member organizations, partners, and representatives of select civil society and media organizations from within and outside the region gathered together on 30 October 2018 in Bangkok, Thailand as a demonstration of solidarity with SEAPA.

 

SEAPA members and partners celebrate 20 years of defending press freedom in Southeast Asia.

 

Gracing the occasion, Ambassador Staffan Herrström of the Embassy of Sweden in Thailand highlighted the value of SEAPA’s work amid the myriad challenges to press freedom around the region.

“In these challenging times, the work of SEAPA to protect and promote freedom of speech, transparency, pluralism, and a responsible media culture is more important than ever before,” Herrström said.

The publicly funded Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency is one of two core funders of SEAPA, alongside the Open Society Foundations.

In his keynote address, Dr. Vitit Muntarbhorn, an international human rights expert and professor of law at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, held the audience rapt with his riveting and thought-provoking talk on press freedom, citing Article 19, which upholds the right of everyone “to freedom of expression.” He also cited the role of the media in providing “platforms for peace, sustainable development, and democracy.”

Select guests, including media leaders from the region, reminisced how the network came about as a media advocacy group in the region.

Melinda de Jesus, executive director of the Center for Media Freedom & Responsibility in the Philippines, and Kavi Chongkittavorn, Bangkok Post columnist, shared what transpired two decades ago leading to the formation of SEAPA.

“It’s about time that we had a regional organization to protect our own journalists in our region,” said Chongkittavorn, looking back on their discussions and their collective resolve to set up a regional network that would champion press freedom in the region.

De Jesus added that international organizations and journalists were not getting the context right about what’s happening on our side of the. “The story of the violence against journalists have to be told from our eyes, from those who are working from the ground,” she said.

In less than a year, SEAPA was set up. De Jesus shared what they felt then: “We cannot fail, we will do this, and we could work together.”

De Jesus and Chongkittavorn were part of the founding Board of Trustees of SEAPA.

Video messages from some of the individuals who had been part of the pioneering effort to set up SEAPA, or who encouraged its establishment, were also among the highlights of the SEAPA’s 20th year celebration, held at Mercure Bangkok Siam Hotel.

Lin Neumann, then the Asia director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), and Goenawan Mohamad Susatyo, founder and editor of Tempo magazine, cited SEAPA’s contributions as a champion of regional press freedom.

Neumann recalled being at the same breakfast table during the APEC meeting as other journalists from Indonesia and the Philippines, including Andreas Harsono, then the secretary-general of ISAI (Institut Studi Arus Informasi), a nonprofit institution campaigning for freedom of expression in Indonesia; de Jesus, and Sheila Coronel, then the executive director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. Their conversation soon turned to the idea of having a “homegrown” organization with the same thrust as the New York-based CPJ, which was to protect the rights of journalists.

“What does Southeast Asia need?” someone asked.

“What Asia needs is a committee (of its own) to protect journalists,” came the reply from another member of the group.

Neumann, now managing directors of the American Chamber Chamber of Commerce in Indonesia, recalled the other questions posed during their discussion:

“Why are these issues only taken by CPJ in New York or Reporters Sans Frontieres (Reporters Without Borders) in Paris? Why not by a homegrown organisation?”

About a year later, SEAPA was born.

Now, two decades hence, more fundamental questions may well be begging for answers. For Mohamad: “Now the question is what next — and what is to be expected and what is to be done?”

“Frankly, I have no answer. No easy answer, at least. I have only a vague idea, maybe a wish, or even a wishful thinking, that our societies will demand a different setting for public conversation and commitment.”

Coronel, director of the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism, reflected on the issues confronting Southeast Asia’s media today, and the environment in which they are operating.

“Now, more than ever, we need new ideas, a new coalition, new ways of protecting and expanding the spaces where truth and facts can prevail. This is the challenge that faces, SEAPA, and all of us around the world committed to free and independent press. Let’s work together.”

Echoing Coronel’s sentiment, Chongkittavorn said: “The biggest challenge (today) is to make sure that an attack against any journalist in Southeast Asia is seen as an onslaught (against) all,” referring to the latter’s fundamental rights, including to free expression.

 

Popular Malaysian cartoonist Zunar (second from left) shows off his finished work, a caricature of SEAPA, which he drew on the spot during the network’s anniversary celebration.

 

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