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Freedom of the press under fire in SEA

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  • Sg_Review@yahoogroups.com
    Freedom of the press under fire in SEA 28 February 2004 DPA 26 February 2004
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 1, 2004
      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
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