Slipping and Sliding : The State of the Press in Southeast Asia (2008)

2008_annual_report_sDeclines, continuing threats to press freedom in Southeast Asia

This report is based on SEAPA’s “Southeast Asia Free Expression Report 2007”, and is updated through the first four months of 2008. Published in time for the celebration of World Press Freedom Day 2008, the report is intended to give a quick, reliable overview of the state of press freedom and free expression in Southeast Asia. At this, it notes threats to,and backsliding in, the overall environment for free journalistsand independent media in the region.

To be sure, over the past two years there have been positive developments. Indonesia most recently moved forward on its access to information legislation, Thailandmade a peaceful transition from the policies of a coup-installed military regime to the realities of an elected government, and Malaysia has undergone a stunning electoral exercise that may allow for more checks and balances and meaningful opposition participation in government, and thereby more chances for political and media reform towards a more open society. Still, the most reliable conclusion for the region and the different countries that comprise Southeast Asia is that the fight to protect and promote press freedom in this part of the world is far from won.

From the freest to the most restricted among them, thecountries of Southeast Asian media continue to operate under environments declining or still under threat.

The situation in Burma—already the worst in terms of environments for free expression and human rights—in the past year alone further deteriorated before the whole world’s eyes. Amid civil unrest exacerbated by rising fuel and living costs in Burma, and following a brutal government crackdown on protesters, students, and religious leaders in September 2007, a regime already notorious for its censorship and tight media controls has further shortened the leash on Burmese media, free expression, and access to information.

Singapore widened the scope of its uncompromising media laws to cover new media—even as citizens are beginning to test what freedom the Internet affords them. A similar development was taking place in Malaysia, where government officials had suggested backing down from a long-standing promise to never censor the Internet. Now both Singapore and Malaysia are taking on bloggers in court.

At the other end of Southeast Asia’s political spectrum, even the region’s freest countries have seen backsliding on the press freedom front. The assassination of another Filipino radio broadcaster in the final week of December underscored yet again the continuing impunity by which media and press freedom remained under attack. More than this, the Philippine press in 2006 and 2007 came under direct pressure and legal challenges from government and those close or allied to it. In the last months the Philippine media have been threatened and charged by government for everything from “sedition” to “obstruction of justice”, effectively warned that coverage of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s many critics would be dealt with as criminally contemptuous of government and state.

In Indonesia, progressive developments in the reform of some antiquated laws in the Criminal Code were cause for celebration, but these, too, were tempered and at times overshadowed by the uneven, unpredictable, and surprising application of laws to the detriment of press freedom. The country’s promising Press Law remains under-utilised, leaving journalists vulnerable under the Criminal Code. The Indonesian Supreme Court, meanwhile, ordered “Time” magazine to pay former president Soeharto the staggering figure of US$106 million for a 1999 article that supposedly defamed the fallen dictator who died in January 2008.

Such developments as above give a quick and reliable overview of how the press freedom situation worsened in the region through 2007. Even a newly ratified Constitution and post-coup democratic elections in Thailand could not mask a slew of hastily passed laws under what is supposedly a temporary and self-limited military junta—some of which could severely undermine human rights and democracy and keep a dark cloud over the press and Thailand’s electronic media in particular. The newly elected prime minister of Thailand, Samak Sundaravej, ostensibly stands as evidence of the return of democracy after Thailand’s one year under a coup-installed military dictatorship, but so far the prime minister’s harsh and combative words against the scrutinising press have been dismaying and discouraging, and cause for serious concern given his stature and influence, and the chilling effect his hostility may have on journalists.

Indeed, the passage of laws on “national security” and Internet-related crimes in Thailand was a familiar theme in 2007 to all countries in Southeast Asia, from Vietnam to the Philippines and Malaysia to Laos. All carry implications for free expression and press freedom, particularly in the realm of new media where, in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, many flashpoints on free expression are taking place. All highlight the uncertainties the Southeast Asian press will continue to face in the days, months, and years ahead.