SEAPA World Press Freedom Day forum highlights importance of journalists

Source: Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)

SEAPA held a forum on the World Press Freedom Day theme of “Press Freedom, Safety of Journalists and Impunity”, with the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), Indonesian Press Council and the support of UNESCO in Jakarta, Indonesia, on 2 May 2007.

In his welcome address, SEAPA Executive Director Roby Alampay explained the choice of the venue, away from the organisation’s base in Bangkok, Thailand.

“We recognise Indonesia as an important country, not just in Southeast Asia, but for press freedom. For good and bad, Indonesia has provided models and bad examples,” Alampay said.

He said while the Philippines was leading the region and had more than a free press with enough legal guarantees for press freedom, it is now notorious for attacks against journalists and backsliding

In Thailand, another leading Southeast Asian country as regards media freedom until the 19 September 2006 coup d’etat, Alampay said the environment remains unstable.

“A lot of people said the coup was to rescue democracy. SEAPA has been consistent in our stand. There is no constitution since the coup. At best, we have a tolerant regime: Journalists are free to talk to sources and there are critical views in mainstream media, although alternative media face pressure. But tolerance is never a good enough environment for media and press freedom. As in the banning of and the Internet crackdown, it is given to oversensitivity,” he said.

Indonesian Press Council Vice-Chairperson Drs Sabam Leo Batubara underscored the importance of press freedom to democracy, saying it has “contributed significantly in serving the public with accurate information, stimulating debates of relevance and creating a platform for progress”.

However, he cautioned, “in many countries, those who have conducted wrongdoing in public duty have learnt that with press freedom the press can expose their wrongdoing, and are thus retaliating using threat, intimidation, lawsuit, physical measures, kidnapping, and even murder”.

Ichlasul said the fact that the majority of journalists who died in 2006 – the bloodiest year with over 100 deaths – did so in circumstances other than armed conflict “speaks of the need to address the safety of journalists”.

He said while the situation in Indonesia improved after the fall of Suharto in 1998, with the creation of the Press Law and Press Council, to name a few strengths, there remain impediments and threats to organisations and journalists, such as those found in the draft criminal law.

Such obstacles can be overcome through the establishment of laws and regulations that support press freedom, a serious effort on the part of the media in following up stories of abuse of power and society’s willingness to take part in efforts to ensure the safety of journalists and end impunity, he concluded.

UNESCO National Professional Officer Arya Gunawan, relaying the message of Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura, explained that the theme this year was chosen in view of “violence against media professionals constituting today one of the greatest threats to freedom of expression”.

“The safety of journalists is an issue that affects us all. Every aggression against a journalist is an attack on our most fundamental freedoms. Press freedom and freedom of expression cannot be enjoyed without basic security,” he said, calling on governments to “fulfil their responsibility to ensure that crimes against media professionals are investigated and prosecuted”.

Responding to the issue addressed, members of the floor gave further views. One said an important key to journalists’ safety is awareness of their rights, and that includes media companies being cognizant that it is in their interest and that of the public for journalists to return from their assignments alive. Another pointed out that in the case of the Philippines, where the rambunctious media can go beyond the limits of free speech, the best protection is good journalism.

Speaker Meutya Hafid of Jakarta-based Metro TV, sharing her experience as a kidnap victim in Iraq in 2005, said the hardest part in keeping safe is knowing when to stop taking risks in chasing a story, as one gets caught up in the excitement.

In his presentation on journalists’ safety, Redmond Batario of the International News Safety Institute (Southeast Asia) gave pointers on precautions fot every imaginable situation, from dealing with surveillance and death threats, to arrests and abductions.

In the Philippines, where journalists face increasing physical threats, the killing of political activists is also treated as a violation of press freedom because many of the activists are organisers of communities, speaking out for them, said Jose Torres, Jr, of the National Union of Journalists. Some 800 activists have been killed since Gloria Macapagal Arroyo became president, he revealed.

Also speaking at the forum, Don Pathan of Thailand’s English-language newspaper “The Nation” spoke on the southern Thailand unrest, while Rien Kuntari of Jakarta’s leading newspaper “Kompas” related her field experiences as a woman journalist.

A screening of the “Requiem”, a Frontline/World video essay by Sheila S. Coronel, a SEAPA founder, paid tribute to those working in the Philippines, Russia, Turkey, Zimbabwe, China and Iraq who have been killed, jailed, or exiled.

The event ended with the launching of “Philippine Press Freedom Primer: Quick Answers to Your Questions” by Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR). The booklet provides a quick introduction to the state of press freedom and an overview of press conditions in the country.

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