Southeast Asian Press Alliance is 16 years old today. It is amazing how a small organization of this kind would be able to survive and prosper amid growing uncertainties within the region. SEAPA really has the resilience to overcome all odds. I am sure SEAPA beyond 2020 will still be a great organization with a good team with strong budget lines. During the first 10 years, some of our colleagues who are here helped to manage and shape SEAPA into what it is today. I am grateful for their contributions.
Before SEAPA came into existence, international media freedom advocacy groups would fight media abuses in our region. Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ) was the most notable at the time. When I was kicked out by Prime Minister Hun Sen from Phnom Penh, Cambodia on 4 February 1988, the first call I received was not from my office in Bangkok but a long-distance call from New York based CPJ. I was flabbergasted. I still remember the caller vividly. Her name was Ann Nelson, who was the Asia Director, CPJ at that time. She said CPJ was worried about “your safety.” If there was anything, she reiterated, that the CPJ could do to help, please let her know. I was so impressed with the kind assistance that I promised one day I wanted to create an organization liked the CPJ to protect journalists within our region.
It was ten years later. On the sidelines of the APEC leaders meeting in Vancouver, Canada in October 1998. I was invited to make a presentation on the urgent need to have a regional organization to promote and protect press freedom in the Southeast Asian region. I did not realize that Lin Neumann from the CPJ was listening attentively. After the end of my presentation, he came to me and said that your wish would be fulfilled. Melinda de Jesus was there to witness. Just a few weeks later, Lin got all his friends from the Philippines and Indonesia to join the planned establishment of SEAPA. Lest we forget, in May 1998, Indonesia just threw out a dictator and became a democratic country. It was an exciting time.
As you can see, SEAPA came into existence by a confluence of factors under a unique circumstance. We started out as a loose organization with the best of intentions. Now after years of hard-work, SEAPA has everything in place, especially its year-long strategic plan. It has been praised as one of leading rule-based media advocacy groups in Southeast Asia. This are not my words. It came from one of the SEAPA’s funders. Now, the funders have even higher expectations of SEAPA. We must not disappoint them.
I must confess when I stepped down from SEAPA, it was not easy. Deep down I did not want to let go, nobody asked me to leave. In our culture, longevity is a good virtue. But I realized that the brighter and younger batch of leaders must be brought into the organization now, if SEAPA is to move forward and be at forefront of promoting media freedom. Today, I am very happy because we will have to opportunity to induct new members and elect new board members including the new chair.
SEAPA must be ready to welcome the ASEAN Community which is coming in 486 days—more challenges await us. SEAPA will no longer deal with the fragmented region as before, therefore it must have a new vision to ensure that media freedom will help to strengthen the community-building in ASEAN, to augment the sense of belonging as well as the respect of human rights and democratic values. In the near future, the SEAPA role will certainly increase as the ASEAN Community is fully integrated.
I am confident, sooner than later, the ASEAN media community will be able to share a common regional code of media ethics. It is a tall order, but it is not impossible. Just looked at the drafting of ASEAN Charter. Ten years ago, nobody thought that would be possible. I think SEAPA can help build bridges to link various standards and practices to form a consensus. SEAPA must become more proactive both as a network and a media freedom defender. SEAPA must look for ways and measures to monitor compliance of media ethics across ASEAN.
Indeed, SEAPA is moving toward a new level playing field. Now we have nine members from six countries. The five are founding members from Indonesia (Aliansi Jurnalis Independen and Institut Studi Arus Informasi), the Philippines (Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility and the Philippines Center for Investigative Journalism) and Thailand (Thai Journalists Association). In 2010, the Kuala Lumpur-based Center for Independent Journalism joined as the sixth member. Recently the SEAPA board also approved the membership of three new organizations–Cambodian Center for Human Rights, the Cambodian Center for Independent Media and the Association for Journalists of Timor Leste–to join SEAPA. More members are expected in the near future with two additional organizations from Myanmar—Burma News International and Myanmar Journalists Network.
I am sure after today’s assembly, SEAPA will become more pluralistic and spread its wings wider. It is only a matter of time when SEAPA will encompass media professional organizations from the 10-member countries. In the future, SEAPA beyond 2020 would be called “SEAPA Plus”. Why? Well, SEAPA will serve as a magnet draws in other members beyond our immediate region.
SEAPA has come a long way and still has a long way to go. I am confident that with new blood, new face, SEAPA will rise and surge ahead. It is a declaration of faith. I have faith in the SEAPA team.
[Opening remarks at the SEAPA Members’ Assembly and Meeting, 8 December 2014, Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Kavi Chongkittavorn is a former Chair of SEAPA.)