Reporting the ASEAN: No Qualitative Change in ASEAN Media Repression

(Second of 3 parts)

This is a slightly revised version of the author’s presentation in Jakarta, Indonesia on July 29 and August 26 during the training of journalists from member-countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) organized by the International Institute for Journalism (IIJ) of InWEnt-Germany.

Vol. VIII, No. 32, September 14-20, 2008

The title of a study of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) in May 2008 on the state of the press in Southeast Asia may give one an idea of what is happening to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) media today: Slipping and Sliding.

On a positive note, the SEAPA reported that there have been “positive developments” in the past two years. (2008, p. 2), noting the following developments:

Indonesia most recently moved forward on its access to information legislation. Thailand made 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. (“Slipping and Sliding”, 2008, p. 2)

The recent passage of “national security” laws was said to be a “familiar theme” in 2007 to all countries in Southeast Asia, from “Vietnam to the Philippines and Malaysia to Laos.” The SEAPA acknowledged that the Southeast Asian press will be uncertain in the years ahead, mainly because such laws have dire implications on free expression and press freedom. (2008, p. 2)

In the case of the Philippines, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo enacted into law the Human Security Act (HSA) of 2007 (Republic Act No. 9372) on March 6, 2007. It took effect on July 15, 2007, about two months after the 2007 national and local elections. In a paper I wrote titled “The Human Security Act and Philippine Journalism” (February 2008) published by and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), I explained:

A person is said to commit a crime of terrorism if he or she engages in piracy in general and mutiny in the high seas or in the Philippine waters; rebellion or insurrection; coup d’etat, including acts committed by private persons; murder; kidnapping and serious illegal detention; and crimes involving destruction.

With regard to crimes involving destruction, these refer to violations of Presidential Decree (PD) No. 1613 (The Law on Arson); RA 6969 (Toxic Substances and Hazardous and Nuclear Waste Control Act of 1990); RA 5207 (Atomic Energy Regulatory and Liability Act of 1968); RA 6235 (Anti-Hijacking Law); PD 532 (Anti-Piracy and Anti-Highway Robbery Law of 1974); and PD 1866 (Degree Codifying the Laws on Illegal and Unlawful Possession, Manufacture, Dealing in, Acquisition or Disposition of Firearms, Ammunition or Explosives).

The law’s Sec. 3 qualifies that, to be considered acts of terrorism, these crimes should sow and create “a condition of widespread and extraordinary fear and panic among the populace, in order to coerce the government to give in to an unlawful demand.”


The opposition to the HSA mainly rests on the law’s broad definition of who is a terrorist. The so-called “condition of widespread and extraordinary fear and panic” among the people that may result from the identified crimes is so broad that anything and everything can be interpreted as such.

Comparing the findings of the KAF in 1998 and the SEAPA in 2008, there is clearly no qualitative change in the media situation. The SEAPA notes the following situations in ASEAN member-countries:

Burma: “With the people of Burma repressed and suppressed more than ever, Burmese journalists say international pressure on the junta must not let up.” (p. 8 )

Cambodia: “Cambodia appears to have in place all the laws ensuring media freedom, but the reality is a different matter altogether. The constitutional provision for press freedom is ironically often invoked to restrict this very right, for it says, rather too broadly, that the exercise of this right must not infringe upon the rights of others, `affect good traditions of society’, and violate public law and order and national security. xxx Another restrictive constitutional provision that has been repeatedly invoked is Article 7, which states: `The King shall be inviolable’.” (p. 10)

Indonesia: “The press in Indonesia…is backed by Constitutional guarantees for freedom of expression and press freedom, a progressive Press Law and Human Rights Law, and by the 2005 Ratification of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Law. (p. 18) xxx While the courts may need a compelling mechanism to apply the Press Law, Indonesia’s media community faces the continued challenge of defending the ground it is gaining against government offensives and extremist pressure out to undermine its independence and plurality.” (p. 22)

Laos: “Although Article 44 [of the constitution] accords citizens the right to freedom of speech and the press, the role of the press is also outlined constitutionally as a link between the [Lao People Revolutionary Party (LPRP)], the state and the masses. Hence, all publications in Laos must be approved by the Ministry of Information, which issues them with publishing licenses, and newspaper editors and broadcast producers are appointed mostly from the party.” (p. 23)

Malaysia: “Contributing to the lack of media freedom is the general political and civil rights environment in Malaysia, which has the mechanisms of a democracy but not the substance. Article 10 of the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech but also allows Parliament to impose restrictions for security reasons.” (p. 29)

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