Reporting the ASEAN: No Qualitative Change in ASEAN Media Repression

Philippines: “The Philippine media remain vulnerable to laws and policies set by a hostile government, criminal defamation suits from powerful politicians, and contract-style attacks affecting provincial radio journalists in particular. The impunity that continues in attacks against Filipino journalists in 2007 was further complicated by the active promulgation of repressive laws and the restrictive interpretation of existing ones by the [administration] of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Laws on criminal libel, meanwhile, were abused by political figures, most prominently by the husband of President Arroyo.” (p. 32)

Singapore: “Singapore continues to be unblinking and unapologetic in its restrictive rules and policies [with regard to press freedom and free expression]. xxx In the past two years Singapore has put in place stricter guidelines for the foreign media and served notice that it is keeping close watch on the Internet. xxx Intolerant of dissent or alternative views, the government has long monopolized and subjugated a once lively local press and continues to strategize, through new laws and regulations, to thwart any novel attempts to break its stranglehold on freedom of expression.” (p. 37)

Thailand: “In a full year under military rule in 2007, free expression in Thailand was unstable as it hinged on the benevolence and patience of the military. xxx The new Constitution gives the same protections for free expression, and is in areas better at explicitly stating protection for editorial independence, banning prior censorship and barring direct and indirect political ownership of businesses related to media and telecommunication. It also suggests a self-regulatory or an independent body to protect media rights, which includes guarding against political and commercial interference in editorial matters. (pp. 41-42) [T]hreats to Thailand’s free press come not only from government, but also from powerful private interests that can abuse even civil defamation statutes.” (p. 45)

Vietnam: “The country’s 1992 constitution recognizes the right to freedom of opinion, expression and association for all citizens. However, the Press Law puts all administrative aspects of the press, including editorial appointments, under government hands, and spells out the function of the press as protecting `party lines and policies’, as well as detecting and promoting `positive factors’. Hence, the government runs some 600 media outlets from the digital, broadcast and print sectors.” (p. 46)

The SEAPA study unfortunately did not include an assessment of the press in Brunei Darussalam, an ASEAN member-country. It did include, however, an assessment of East Timor’s.

In an article, Sonny Inbaraj, an editor of The Nation (Bangkok), wrote that the media are “not always independent, vigilant and defiant of authority as it should be – more so in Southeast Asia when state and business elites control the press and there exists legislation to jail journalists and editors if they `step out of line’. Conversely, in the West, media campaigns will not be mobilized where victimization, even though massive, sustained and dramatic, fails to meet the test of utility to elite interests – in other words, if the news runs against the interests of the state or economic elites.” (1996)

In any case, the media situation of the 10 ASEAN member-countries shows the uneven levels of development which, at first glance, makes it hard to make comparisons among them. The Philippines and Singapore, for example, are diametrically opposed when it comes to the media’s role in national development and the concepts of freedom of expression. There are governments that look at media as simply tools of the state and that they should only report on the “positive” and the “favorable,” an attitude that is not entirely different from the occasional demand of media consumers for the “good” news.

Regardless of the media diversity among ASEAN member-countries, a clinical study of the recent and past data shows that they actually have the following major points in common:

1. There are threats to freedom of the press in all ASEAN member-countries, whether direct or indirect;
2. New policies are being introduced by governments which may appear harmless to the practice of the journalism profession but, upon close scrutiny, can have negative repercussions on media;
3. Existing laws are being interpreted and implemented to suit the interests of those in power, even at the expense of freedom of the press;
4. Private ownership of media organizations should not be an indicator of a vibrant press because monopoly ownership of the media and business interests of owners must be taken into account, along with the extent of government’s control over them;
5. An increased number of media organizations in a country is not necessarily good for the people because the quality of their content must be duly considered;
6. The media are suppressed in the guise of protecting the State, but the officials do so mainly to perpetuate themselves in power and consequently protect their interests;
7. Gains in upholding and protecting press freedom are products of the journalists’ and the entire people’s assertion of their rights.

The unequal development of the media among the 10 ASEAN member-countries may be rooted in their diverse historical contexts. It is understandable, for example, for the Philippines to have what SEAPA described as a “robust” media because it has a rich tradition of advocacy (even revolutionary) journalism dating back to the 19th century under Spanish occupation. Cambodia, on the other hand, finds it unacceptable for the media to report on anything negative about the King because doing so is perceived to compromise, among others, the culture in that particular country.

It is in this light that the journalists in ASEAN member-countries should do the following courses of action to promote professionalism in the practice of journalism and to protect freedom of the press:

1. Learn, relearn and unlearn the basic concepts related to journalism and its role in social development and change, regardless of the respective country’s political and economic situation;
2. Uphold and protect the highest professional and ethical standards of journalism, on the assumption that there are universal standards that can apply to any cultures of the world;
3. Engage in information sharing and networking with other ASEAN journalists regarding the media and overall situation of each other’s countries;
4. Encourage other ASEAN journalists and ASEAN-based media advocacy groups to help in demanding a government’s lifting of laws and other statutes that infringe on freedom of the press, as well as a stop to the harassment, intimidation and killing of ASEAN journalists by those who wield power and influence;
5. Participate in the people’s assertion of basic rights on the grounds that freedom of the press is part of what they are fighting for in the first place;
6. Continue to report about the situation in ASEAN member-countries and the ASEAN as an organization in particular, focusing on the latter’s actions and their implications on the people, particularly the poor. (

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