Under Fire: Southeast Asia’s Press Freedom Challenges for 2010

2010_annual_report_s(23  January  2010) The massacre of 31  journalists in Maguindanao, the Philippines, on 23 November 2009, most  graphically illustrates the violence and impunity that threaten  journalists not only in the Philippines, but throughout the region.

As in previous years,  journalist killings in 2009 are only one of several kinds of attacks  that illustrate the vulnerability of press freedom in Southeast Asia.  Throughout the region last year, journalists and media workers suffered  from physical threats (as in Indonesia and Thailand), social ostracism  and demonization (as in Burma and Vietnam), imprisonment, detention, and  legal harassment (everywhere from East Timor to Malaysia and  Singapore). Indeed, not only journalists and writers, but even their  defenders (lawyers and human rights advocates) are being arrested and  harassed, from Vietnam, Burma, and Cambodia to Singapore and the  Philippines

This year, in the  first three weeks of January alone, we have already been given a  sampling of the battles that must be waged to defend the press and  journalists of the region. The conviction (after a one-day trial) of  lawyer Le Cong Dinh in Vietnam on 20 January 2010, and the start of the  hearings on the Ampatuan Massacre, signal a long year ahead for those  who would protect and promote press freedom in Southeast Asia.

Anticipated  elections for Burma, violent contentions over the use of the word  “Allah” in Malaysia, the vulnerability of writers, lawyers, and even  legislators in Cambodia—all these are flashpoints that are transposed  from the problems seen in 2009, and for which we must brace ourselves in  2010.

In 2009, the  vulnerability of press freedom remained manifest in the very laws that  govern and impact on journalists and the media. National security  laws—anti-terror, internal security acts, official secrets acts, and the  like—hang above the heads for journalists from Malaysia, Singapore,  Vietnam, Laos, and Burma. Defamation remains a criminal offense  throughout the region. Insult laws (including lese majeste) are wielded  against a broad set of commentaries, rationalized as needed to preserve  stability and/or protect culture and religious sensitivities, to the  detriment of legitimate discussions on matters of public interest in  Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.

And all such laws  are now being transposed (if not strengthened) to be applicable over  online and/or mobile news and commentary, in a regionwide (if not  worldwide) concern among governments to stem an overwhelming flow of  information facilitated by new media. Journalism and independent media  are stifled in every medium, from the traditional print and broadcasting  platforms, to the fringe and new media represented by community and  online news providers. As journalism, media, and access to information  are revolutionized in the digital century, so, too, are government  efforts to control information redoubled.

It must be noted  that in 2009 the threats came not only from state, but also from  non-state actors, driven by religious, ethnic, cultural, and political  intolerance, as well as the general breakdown and weakness of the rule  of law. Impunity in the Philippines remained attributable as much to  government failures as a complex web of weak justice systems and  unbridled powers on the local and community levels. Religious  fundamentalists were among the most aggressive harassers of media in  parts of Indonesia and Malaysia, religious intolerance ironically used  as a pretext to regulate free expression. And the general lack of media  literacy throughout Southeast Asia has made journalists vulnerable to  public misunderstanding making them targets of mob anger as well as the  wrath of public officials and politicians.

Still, 2009 also  hinted at potentials and openings—or at least hopefully more sharpened  campaigns—to force more democratic space. As of the writing of this  report, the Philippines is on the brink of passing a landmark  legislation that will strengthen Filipinos’ access to information.  Indonesia’s own version of a Freedom of Information Act was passed two  years ago, but will finally be in force this year. Even Vietnam in 2009  started consulting with international agencies and even NGOs like the  London-based Article 19, to start exploring options to raise its  people’s rights to access to information. And in one of the  little-noticed developments last year, Laos ratified the International  Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

And then there is  the formation last year, and the formal convening this year, of the  ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights. The very existence  now of the AICHR provides free expression and press freedom advocates in  the region at least some platform and hook for ramping up their  campaigns. Such campaigns, however, will include a testing and  monitoring of the AICHR itself.

With chairmanship  of ASEAN in 2010 transferring from Thailand to Vietnam, the big question  is, how far will ASEAN and AICHR go in recognizing press freedom as a  legitimate agenda for the region’s leaders? The answer to that will only  begin to be hinted at and explored over the course of the coming  months. But it will be crucial to everything, from covering the  elections in Burma and addressing impunity in the Philippines to  protecting the integrity of the Internet as a democratic medium  throughout the region.


For a  country-by-country prognosis of the press freedom and free expression  battles that lie ahead for the nations of Southeast Asia, click on the  following links:

SEAPA acknowledges  the support of its members and partners in the preparation of this  report: The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) and the  Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) in Manila, the  Philippines; the Thai Journalists Association (TJA) in Bangkok,  Thailand; the Association of Independent Journalists (AJI) and the  Institute for the Studies on Free Flow of Information (ISAI) in Jakarta,  Indonesia; Mizzima News, a Burmese exile news agency; the Center for  Independent Journalism (CIJ) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; The Cambodian  Association for the Protection of Journalists (CAPJ) in Phnom Penh,  Cambodia; and the Timor Lorosae Journalists Association (TLJA) in Dili,  Timor Leste.