The massacre of 31 journalists in Maguindanao, the Philippines, on 23 November 2009, most graphically illustrates the violence and impunity that threaten journalists not only in the Philippines, but throughout the region.
As in previous years, journalist killings in 2009 are only one of several kinds of attacks that illustrate the vulnerability of press freedom in Southeast Asia. Throughout the region last year, journalists and media workers suffered from physical threats (as in Indonesia and Thailand), social ostracism and demonization (as in Burma and Vietnam), imprisonment, detention, and legal harassment (everywhere from East Timor to Malaysia and Singapore). Indeed, not only journalists and writers, but even their defenders (lawyers and human rights advocates) are being arrested and harassed, from Vietnam, Burma, and Cambodia to Singapore and the Philippines.
This year, in the first three weeks of January alone, we have already been given a sampling of the battles that must be waged to defend the press and journalists of the region. The conviction (after a one-day trial) of lawyer Le Cong Dinh in Vietnam on 20 January 2010, and the start of the hearings on the Ampatuan Massacre, signal a long year ahead for those who would protect and promote press freedom in Southeast Asia.
Anticipated elections for Burma, violent contentions over the use of the word “Allah” in Malaysia, the vulnerability of writers, lawyers, and even legislators in Cambodia—all these are flashpoints that are transposed from the problems seen in 2009, and for which we must brace ourselves in 2010.
In 2009, the vulnerability of press freedom remained manifest in the very laws that govern and impact on journalists and the media. National security laws—anti-terror, internal security acts, official secrets acts, and the like—hang above the heads for journalists from Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Laos, and Burma. Defamation remains a criminal offense throughout the region. Insult laws (including lese majeste) are wielded against a broad set of commentaries, rationalized as needed to preserve stability and/or protect culture and religious sensitivities, to the detriment of legitimate discussions on matters of public interest in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.
And all such laws are now being transposed (if not strengthened) to be applicable over online and/or mobile news and commentary, in a regionwide (if not worldwide) concern among governments to stem an overwhelming flow of information facilitated by new media. Journalism and independent media are stifled in every medium, from the traditional print and broadcasting platforms, to the fringe and new media represented by community and online news providers. As journalism, media, and access to information are revolutionized in the digital century, so, too, are government efforts to control information redoubled.
It must be noted that in 2009 the threats came not only from state, but also from non-state actors, driven by religious, ethnic, cultural, and political intolerance, as well as the general breakdown and weakness of the rule of law. Impunity in the Philippines remained attributable as much to government failures as a complex web of weak justice systems and unbridled powers on the local and community levels. Religious fundamentalists were among the most aggressive harassers of media in parts of Indonesia and Malaysia, religious intolerance ironically used as a pretext to regulate free expression. And the general lack of media literacy throughout Southeast Asia has made journalists vulnerable to public misunderstanding making them targets of mob anger as well as the wrath of public officials and politicians.
Still, 2009 also hinted at potentials and openings—or at least hopefully more sharpened campaigns—to force more democratic space. As of the writing of this report, the Philippines is on the brink of passing a landmark legislation that will strengthen Filipinos’ access to information. Indonesia’s own version of a Freedom of Information Act was passed two years ago, but will finally be in force this year. Even Vietnam in 2009 started consulting with international agencies and even NGOs like the London-based Article 19, to start exploring options to raise its people’s rights to access to information. And in one of the little-noticed developments last year, Laos signed on to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
And then there is the formation last year, and the formal convening this year, of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights. The very existence now of the AICHR provides free expression and press freedom advocates in the region at least some platform and hook for ramping up their campaigns. Such campaigns, however, will include a testing and monitoring of the AICHR itself.
With chairmanship of ASEAN in 2010 transferring from Thailand to Vietnam, the big question is, how far will ASEAN and AICHR go in recognizing press freedom as a legitimate agenda for the region’s leaders? The answer to that will only begin to be hinted at and explored over the course of the coming months. But it will be crucial to everything, from covering the elections in Burma and addressing impunity in the Philippines to protecting the integrity of the Internet as a democratic medium throughout the region.
For a country-by-country prognosis of the press freedom and free expression battles that lie ahead for the nations of Southeast Asia, click on the following links:
SEAPA acknowledges the support of its members and partners in the preparation of this report: The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) in Manila, the Philippines; the Thai Journalists Association (TJA) in Bangkok, Thailand; the Association of Independent Journalists (AJI) and the Institute for the Studies on Free Flow of Information (ISAI) in Jakarta, Indonesia; Mizzima News, a Burmese exile news agency; the Center for Independent Journalism (CIJ) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; The Cambodian Association for the Protection of Journalists (CAPJ) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia; and the Timor Lorosae Journalists Association (TLJA) in Dili, Timor Leste.
SEAPA is a coalition of journalist and press freedom advocacy groups from around Southeast Asia. Its founding members are the Alliance of Independent Journalists (Indonesia), the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (Philippines), the Institute for the Studies on Free Flow of Information, ISAI (Indonesia), the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), and the Thai Journalists Association. Founded in 1998, SEAPA is the only regional organization with the specific mandate of promoting and protecting press freedom in Southeast Asia.