Exactly 20 years ago today — on 8 November 1998 — journalists from Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand made a bold, pioneering step and established the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA).
Their collective goal: To work together in promoting and protecting press freedom in the region.
These countries then were in the midst of transition, euphoric over the toppling of dictators and their authoritarian regimes — the Philippines’ People Power Revolution in 1986, the uprising and restoration of democracy with the general elections in Thailand in 1992, and the Fall of Indonesian President Suharto in 1998.
Representatives from five independent media professional and development groups from Indonesia: the Aliansi Jurnalis Independen (AJI, Alliance of Independent Journalists) and Institut Studi Arus Informasi (ISAI, Institute for the Studies on Free Flow of Information), the Philippines: the Center for Media Freedom & Responsibility (CMFR) and Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), and from Thailand: the สมาคมนักข่าว นักหนังสือพิมพ์แห่งประเทศไทย (Thailand Journalists Association, TJA), along with international organizations as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), IFEX (International Free Expression eXchange), and World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC), began the discussions “to band together for mutual benefit.” With a signed “Statement of Intent: Building A Southeast Asian Press Alliance for Press Freedom,” SEAPA was born.
SEAPA now boasts 12 member organizations from seven countries in the region, including Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Timor-Leste, and the three others represented by the five founding members.
As it turns two decades old today, SEAPA remains steadfast amid the ebb and flow of democracy and freedom in the region.
While Southeast Asia’s socio-political and media landscapes have changed, a number of issues confronting the region tend to echo those of the past. Not least of these are the shrinking civic space, poor governance, and the rise of authoritarian populism. The relentless onslaught against the media, now confronted with the disruptive and polarizing impact of new technologies and the declining credibility and public trust — harks back to an era when oppressive states thought nothing of muzzling the proverbial fourth estate.
As SEAPA looks back on its beginnings, it also renews it collective commitment to defend and uphold media freedom, free speech, and the people’s right to know. Together, SEAPA, along with its members, network, and partners, rises to this formidable challenge.
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Lin Neumann is the Managing Director of AmCham Indonesia. Prior to that, he was a well-known writer, editor and communications consultant in Asia for over 30 years. He was the founding editor of the award-winning Jakarta Globe daily newspaper in Indonesia from 2008 to 2012. A leading press freedom advocate, Lin co-founded the Southeast Asian Press Alliance in 1998.
Goenawan Mohamad is an Indonesian poet, essayist, playwright, and editor. He was the founder and editor of the Indonesian magazine Tempo, known for its critical stance against the government.
Sheila Coronel is Director of the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism and Toni Stabile Professor of Professional Practice at Columbia University in New York. She was the Executive Director of Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), a press institute championing for investigative reporting in the Philippines and in Asia, when she subscribed to the idea of banding together the journalists in the region to form an alliance for the advocacy and protection of journalists.