The challenge and promise of World Press Freedom Day for Southeast Asia

World Press Freedom Day was first celebrated in 1993, established as a day not only to acknowledge the importance of free, independent media, but also to highlight the struggles and dangers journalists face to inform and empower their publics.

This year, WPFD is observed at a crucial moment for Southeast Asia. While the creation of a new human rights body for ASEAN invites hope and options for action, difficulties and challenges faced by governments, people, and communities in the region are stretching political leaders’ confidence in, and commitment to, free, independent and pluralistic media. With elections looming for Burma and the Philippines, debates about defamation of religion coming to fore in Indonesia and Malaysia, a political crisis festering and turned violent in Thailand, and national security concerns being invoked to trump all other concerns throughout the region from Vietnam to Singapore and East Timor, the values and principles that underlie this day’s annual commemoration are being tested.

The murder of 31 journalists in Maguindanao, the Philippines, last November (and some dubious turns in the still tenuous prosecution of the suspected masterminds behind the massacre) provide the most graphic backdrop to how vulnerable the region’s media and journalists remain. And yet the murder of journalists is only one form of violence against the free press that we decry on this day. Throughout the region journalists and media workers suffer physical threats, social ostracism and deionization, imprisonment, detention, and legal harassment. 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.

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 in Thailand) are abused and 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.

All such laws are now being transposed (if not strengthened) to be applicable over online and/or mobile news and commentary, in a region wide (if not worldwide) concern among governments to stem an overwhelming flow of information facilitated by new media. As journalism, media, and access to information are revolutionized in the digital century, so, too, are government efforts to control information frantically redoubling.

To make matters worse, the threats to the region’s press come not only from states, but also from non-state actors, driven by religious, ethnic, cultural, and political intolerance, as well as a general breakdown and weakness of the rule of law. Impunity in the Philippines, where more than 100 journalists have been killed since 1986, remains attributable as much to government failures as a complex web of weak justice systems and unbridled powers on the local and community levels.

A general lack of media literacy throughout Southeast Asia has also made journalists vulnerable to public misunderstanding, making them targets of mob anger as well as the wrath of public officials and politicians. In Thailand recent skirmishes between soldiers and anti-government protesters have literally caught media workers in the crossfire—and not necessarily inadvertently. Foreign and local journalists have been the direct victims of hostility from officials as well as protesters who want them to choose sides. Rather than encouraging its independence or protecting its diversity, therefore, the opposing forces in Thailand are treating media as a weapon to be fought over and used to destroy the other.

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.

Still World Press Freedom Day 2010 was not founded 17 years ago just as an exercise in lament. It is also there to prompt everyone to consider where we can move forward—or at least hope to—in protecting and promoting free expression, press freedom, and access to information for all Southeast Asians.

This very month, the Philippines is teetering between the last-minute passage of a landmark legislation that will strengthen Filipinos’ access to information, or its last-minute wasting. Indonesia’s own version of a Freedom of Information Act will finally be in force this year, joining Thailand as the only countries in Southeast Asia to fully implement such rules and mechanics for government transparency. Even Vietnam in 2009 started consulting with international agencies to start exploring options to raise its people’s rights to access to information. And in one of the little-noticed developments of 2009, Laos ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, including Article 19, which recognizes free expression and access to information as fundamental right for all peoples.

And then there is 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 for invoking the “fundamental freedoms” the region’s governments commit themselves to.

To be sure, 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 coming years. But it will be crucial to everything from having a credible roadmap to democracy for Burma and addressing impunity in the Philippines to protecting the integrity of the Internet as a democratic medium throughout the region.

It will be crucial, in other words, to determining whether or not the people of ASEAN will in fact enjoy any form of human rights. On World Press Freedom Day, especially, the region’s leaders must take time to acknowledge what the international community has long formally embraced: that without press freedom, free expression, and access to information, any guarantees of rights and all efforts for development and good governance are stunted and potentially destined to fail. Without transparency, pluralism, and independent media, all programs and advocacies—from environment and women and children, to governance and ending corruption—are intrinsically and externally compromised, as citizens would essentially be prevented (and indeed, even penalized) from taking part in the building of their own lives and societies.

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SEAPA (www.seapa.org) is a coalition of journalist and press freedom advocacy groups from around Southeast Asia. Its founding members are the Alliance of Independent Journalists (Indonesia), the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (Philippines), the Institute for Studies on the Free Flow of Information, ISAI (Indonesia), the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), and the Thai Journalists Association. Founded in 1998, SEAPA is the only regional organization with the specific mandate of promoting and protecting press freedom in Southeast Asia.

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