Reporting the ASEAN: Repression of ASEAN Media Continues

(First 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 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) uses the term “nations” instead of “countries,” and for good reason. A country is defined as “the land in which one was born or to which one owes allegiance” (“The New Lexicon”, 1990, p. 223). Nation, on the other hand, refers to “a body of people recognized as an entity by virtue of their historical, linguistic or ethnic links” (“The New Lexicon”, 1990, p. 666)

It is therefore possible for a country to be composed of different nations. At the same time, it is plausible for a nation to have different countries. This explains, for example, the use of the term “Arab nation” to refer to different countries in the Middle East and beyond. The use of the word “nation” in its singular form, however, may not apply to the countries of Southeast Asia.

While its official website ( does not readily admit this fact, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) apparently uses the word “nations” to refer to the diversity of cultures among its member-countries. The latter may be “one” in terms of location and the consequent affiliation with ASEAN and other regional and global institutions, but the cultures are diverse, even within each other’s countries.

From an editorial point of view, the word “nations” is crucial to understanding the context in which there is a big difference not only in the different levels of development of their media organizations but also in the overall political and economic situation of each of the member-countries.

While the wide cultural diversity of ASEAN member-countries exists, journalists who write about the ASEAN should realize that the economic diversity is quite narrow – i.e., it confined only to the different levels of development (or “maldevelopment,” depending on one’s framework of analysis) in each of the member-countries.

Membership in the ASEAN requires the opening up of economies and the implementation of policies along globalist lines. Depending on how one analyzes globalization, the latter can have positive and negative effects on the people, particularly the poor.

The ASEAN currently has 10 member-countries. These are Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos (referred to by ASEAN as Lao PDR), Malaysia, Burma (referred to by ASEAN as Myanmar), Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam (referred to by ASEAN as Viet Nam).

One does not need to look far in assessing the situation of the ASEAN media. Several references can provide basic data on each of the 10 countries’ media situation. A high degree of cultural sensitivity (and perhaps some background in political science), however, should be observed in reading and understanding them.

According to The ASEAN Media Directory (1998) published by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAF), the ASEAN media scene ranges “from the very free in the Philippines and the almost totally free in Thailand (where government still controls broadcast media), to the pliant in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, to those strictly following party line as in communist Vietnam, Laos and military-ruled Myanmar.” (p. xii)

This publication may be very informative, but the use of the word “communist” to refer to some ASEAN member-countries is very inappropriate, if not totally irresponsible. Throughout the history of the world, there is no such thing as a “communist country” even if they may be “communist-led” by virtue of the power and influence of their respective communist parties.

The most that so-called communist countries like China have achieved is the economic stage of socialism. A review of concepts of political science would show that communism can only be achieved once the state has “withered away” and rendered itself obsolete. This is clearly not the case in Vietnam, Laos and Burma.

One may argue that the use of the words “communist” and “communist-led” is just a matter of semantics, but the use of appropriate terms can make a big difference in making the people understand the situation in countries called as such.

“Media freedom” is also not clearly defined in the study, and one can extrapolate that it is related to the existence of pertinent laws and the extent of private ownership of media. It is assumed that the provision of free speech and freedom of expression already makes the media free. In addition, the vibrancy of the press is based on the number of privately-owned media organizations operating in the country.

As early as now, it is necessary to stress that media freedom is more than the existence of laws or private ownership of media.

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