Freedom of the press under fire in SEA
- Freedom of the press under fire in SEA
28 February 2004
26 February 2004
Freedom of the press, which flowered in several Southeast Asian
nations in the 1990s, now appears to be withering under pressure from
authoritarian governments, corrupt judges and corporate interference,
according to journalists and media analysts.
Concern about the future of Thailand's media was already strong when
the editor of the venerable Bangkok Post was suddenly removed on
February 20 amid reports he had incurred the wrath of the country's
media-sensitive prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.
"I would describe the condition of the Thai media at the moment in
the stage of ICU (Intensive Care Unit)," said Kavi Chongkittavorn,
assistant group editor of the Post's cross-town rival, The Nation. "I
would describe the interference by the government as very extensive."
Kavi, the past president of the Thai Journalists Association, said
the Thai media's "golden age" was in the mid-1990s, before the crash
of 1997 made newspapers and TV and radio stations more sensitive to
the "invisible hands" of interference by political and financial
"The climate of fear and self-censorship is much more evident in this
government because the leaders of this government have never made a
vocal, tangible commitment to protect the free press," Kavi told the
Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand on Wednesday.
Bangkok Post Editor-In-Chief Pichai Chuensukswadi agreed that Thai
news organizations were under heavy pressure to print favourable
stories about the Thaksin government and to slant news to make their
advertisers look good.
He said the pressure was likely to intensify in the coming year with
a crucial parliamentary election scheduled for February 2005.
"The prime minister is less tolerant to criticism. He's sensitive to
comments and we're all aware of that," Peechai said, adding, "It's
going to be a very heated year."
Threat from courts in Indonesia
In Indonesia, where press freedom flourished as never before in the
aftermath of former dictator Suharto's fall in 1998, the main threat
to press freedom recently has come from the courts.
Journalists say that if they offend entrenched political or financial
interests they face heavy punishment from some criminal judges who
have shown themselves to be vulnerable to financial influence.
Last October, the South Jakarta district court sentenced two editors
of the Rakyat Merdeka (People's Freedom) newspaper to six months in
prison for insulting President Megawati Sukarnoputri.
Millionaire businessman Tomy Winata has filed seven lawsuits against
the Tempo publishing group for various articles printed over the past
two years accusing Winata of shady business activities.
Winata last month won one of his cases, filed against Tempo Koran
editor Bambang Harymurti. The verdict ordered the editor to pay 1
million dollars in non-material damages for besmirching Winata's
What Indonesian publishers are upset about is not that they are being
taken to court for libel, but that they are being tried for breaking
the country's criminal code rather than the press law.
The government is considering amendments to the Press Law that would
make sentences under it more severe and allow government control over
the selection of a Press Council to try cases.
For many, this seems a step backwards to the bad old days of Suharto.
Since democracy was restored in 1986 with the ouster of late dictator
Ferdinand Marcos, the Philippines has earned a reputation for having
the freest press in Asia, but with a heavy price.
A total of 44 journalists have been murdered since then, seven of
them in 2003 - the highest annual total in 16 years.
Journalists also face the risk of jail in the Philippines, with libel
still punishable by imprisonment despite lobbying by press freedom
advocates for the decriminalization of the offense.
Last year the editor-in-chief and publisher of an anti-government
newspaper was arrested on libel charges filed by a law firm closely
associated with President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
While few journalists have been convicted of libel in recent years,
the charges have often been used to harass the media in an apparent
bid to stop them from exposing anomalies in government and other
Violence against journalists is the most problematic in the
Philippines, which international media watchdogs have described as
one of the most dangerous places for members of the media in the
Most of the murders have remained unsolved, and in at least one case,
witnesses to the crime also were killed. While some suspects have
been arrested in other cases, the masterminds have not been
identified or prosecuted.
Cambodia's rough-and-tumble media is also subject to frequent attacks
by mysterious gunmen and by intimidation from the government and its
backers, while the concept of press freedom is still largely unknown
in neighbouring Vietnam, Laos and in Myanmar (Burma).
Compliant lap dog in Singapore
Authorities in Singapore have had decades of practice in ensuring
that the press remains a compliant lap dog to those in power.
Founding father Lee Kuan Yew transformed the sleepy city-state into
one of Asia's wealthiest countries, but his no-nonsense approach
curbed political and civil rights and neutered the press.
Despite its ambitions to become a "global media city", Lee's
intolerance toward press freedom has continued under his successors.
Despite its great economic strides, Singapore was ranked 144th in the
world in last year's Second World Press Freedom Ranking by the Paris-
based non-government group Reporters Without Borders.
Since coming into power last October, Malaysian Prime Minister
Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has yet to address the issue of his country's
press freedom, or lack thereof, according to his critics.
The new leader has called for a clean, incorruptable and efficient
government, said Lim Kit Siang, national chairman of the opposition
Democratic Action Party.
"However, he has not addressed the fundamental issues of the
deplorable state of press freedom and human rights in this country,"
said Lim. "How can you have a system change when these two aspects
are not dealt with first?"
Local and international critics say Malaysian regulations, which
require publications to hold government licenses, lead to formal and
informal censorship of news content and hamper the free flow of