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Media Inside Out with the support of USAID Sapan Program has recently invited five veteran journalists in the region to discuss the state of press freedom in their respective countries. The event was hold at The Westin Grande Sukhumvit in Bangkok, on 19 April 2013.

Moderator Assoc. Prof. Ubonrat Siriyuvasak welcomed the panelists and the audiences with a remark, saying that it was a good occasion to hold the roundtable discussion on “Press Freedom in the Region” as we are entering the ASEAN Economic Community.

Linda Christanty, co-founder and former editor of Aceh Feature, stated that it seemed that Indonesia enjoyed more press freedom in the post-Suharto era. People could express opinions openly, as 42 millions of Indonesians are now on Facebook, being able to post their ideas and opinions freely. However, in reality, in 2012 there were 66 cases of journalists, some of which served up to ten-year sentence for reporting on corruption and exposing secret information of the military and the government.  In Aceh, where she worked for six years, the military had very strong influence on media control.  Investigative reporting could not be done or published.   

She added that the constitutional and legal provisions allow for freedom of speech and freedom of the press. However, recently the Indonesian government proposed that the parliament legalize the Defamation Act Bill. If passed, it will allow the state to imprison anyone who insults, defames or otherwise makes public statements that cause the Indonesian president or vice president to feel uncomfortable.  The Defamation Act Bill was introduced in the Indonesian Parliament initially in 1997, but it was never legalized by the Constitution Court.  Now the government is again proposing to codify into law. This is clearly oppression of free speech. Both the Indonesian government and private actors continues to use their power to obstruct press freedom, using media as tools for upcoming elections.

Aye Chan Naing, Co-Founder and Chief Editor, Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) provided a brief picture on freedom of the press in Burma, saying that he has seen a big change in the last two years.  After 24 years in exile, he went back to Burma in 2012 and had a chance to interview 17 journalists, who was arrested by the previous military regime and served 40-50 years in jail, and now all of them were released. He viewed that the situation would become better and better thanks to the rise in economic investment in Burma and interactions with the rest of the world such as the upcoming SEA Game, which will be hosted by Burma by the end of this year.

In the past, the press in Burma was totally controlled by the state. All the newspapers and TV stations were state-owned.  The government controlled not only the print media but also other media genres, including poems, movies, and e-mails, etc. According to the 2004 Electronic Act, if someone sends an e-mail that tarnishes the government, he or she could end up 3-7 years in prison. However, recently there was a piece of good news that for the first time in 50 years that the government gave a license to a privately-own daily newspaper company and more companies will also be provided in the future.

Aye Chan Naing concluded that although the press freedom situation in Burma seems to go into the right direction, many areas still need to be changed.  

Chhay Sophal, editor-in-chief of Cambodia News (online) stated that according to the 2013 survey by the Reporters without Borders, Cambodia’s press freedom ranked the 143rd among 179 nations, and at the regional level, Cambodia was ranked in the 3rd among the 10 ASEAN countries after Thailand and Indonesia.  In reality, however, the situation was not as good as it seemed.  While there are more than 600 newspapers and magazines, 67 of which are in foreign languages, including English and Chinese, very few people in remote areas can get access to the print media. 

The broadcast media in Cambodia have been booming as the number is increasing from year to year. However, he said that the quality of their news stories is still unsatisfied because “the media control themselves”.  Although the constitutional law provides freedom for the press, most of the TV station owners and businessmen are close to the government. They practice self-censorship in order to avoid problems with the government because they need to get licenses from the government.

On a positive front, there are radio stations such as BBC Live from London, ABC Live from Sydney and Radio Free Asia (RFA), which provide two-sided information flow in their news stories, giving some voices to the opposition parties.  The Cambodia’s Journalist Association supported by Conrad, also conducts monthly roundtable discussions with politicians of all parties. 

He pointed out that although there are very few neutral newspapers and radio stations, they cannot attract large audiences throughout the country.

Gayathry Venkiteswaran, Director of Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), the representative from Malaysia, talked about the global press freedom ranking that the most surprising is the fact that Brunei was ranked the 92nd.  It is most likely that the survey persons did not know what is going on in the country.  She viewed that comparisons cannot be made due to many different factors.  

She provided an overall picture of the press freedom in Southeast Asia, navigating the constraints.  She divided the Southeast Asian countries into four categories: democracies, and facing challenges, which include Thailand, Indonesia, ant the Philippines; aspiring democracies, which include Timor Leste and Burma; elected democracies with restricted regimes, which include Malaysia and Singapore; and restricted regimes, which include Vietnam, Lao, and Cambodia.

Regionally, there are common challenges and threats of freedom of expression, ranging from impunity to physical threats/violence against media from state and non-state actors, and state censorship of print, broadcast and online media to state ownership of media. 

As for media in Malaysia, Gayathry Venkiteswaran was surprised to learn that the media situation in Malaysia has become even worse than that of today’s Burma.  The Malaysian mainstream media are heavily politically controlled. Lacking transparency, they provide biased coverage, including lies and manipulation.  In addition, many media are actually owned by a few conglomerates. The mainstream media are unreliable but still continue to have ruling government supports while harassment and threats against journalists by state agencies are on the increase.

She viewed that media in Malaysia are not ready to change for a more democratic environment because they do not know how to behave themselves.

Pravit Rojanaphruk, senior reporter of The Nation newspaper, Thailand, stated that the majority of Thai journalists think that Thai press is free despite the fact that there are restrictions and censorship imposed under the lese majeste law.  Compared to the 1950s-1960s when Thai media could talk or criticize the monarchy institution openly, today’s Thai mainstream media has become complacent, even outright support of the law, which perpetuates the myth not to criticize the monarchy institution.     In his view, the lese majeste law in Thailand is the hardest in the world, with 15 years maximum imprisonment, and the most anti-democratic law in the world.

While the media freedom situations in many countries are going in the right direction, in Thailand he regretted to say that things are not going in the positive way. He cited a recent case of Ekachai Hongkangwan, who was sentenced to three years and four months in jail for selling copies of DVD of a documentary programme produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) critical of Thai monarchy. Another case is about a magazine editor of the Red-Shirt Group, pro-ex prime minister Taksin Shinawatra, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for two articles someone else wrote on his magazine, that was deemed offensive to the monarchy institution. The editor has been denied bails. 

The Thai mainstream media is not a force for change but has become part of the status quo, he stressed.  He observed that it is a win-win situation because when the mainstream mass media piled excessive amounts of praises and flatters on the monarchy institution, the media themselves gain the benefit.   This is because every birthday of the HM the King, HM the queen and other members of the royal families, media get a lot of paid advertisements and commercials from both private and public firms celebrating the occasion by making birthday wishes.

Q & A Session

Q : Amporn Boontan from Huay Sai Community Radio said, “It is interesting to hear from SEAPA that media in Malaysia are not ready change.  The same situation can be seen in many countries.  Media also have their vested interests.  Press freedom also means freedom of the people. But how do people have media literacy?”

A : Pravit Rojanaphruk said, “people have to be informed about negative sides of media but I don’t see much educational institutions playing a great role in informing people about media. I strongly urged young journalists to stand for media’s rights for society.”

Q : A reporter of Khao Sod newspaper asked, “How do we deal with the situation where editors are reluctant to criticize or report about the monarchy institution?  He cited a case where a poem in a newspaper celebrating the birthday of HM the King was criticized as not good enough. 

A : Gayathry Venkiteswaran said that the situation is similar in Malaysia. However, it is not about the monarchy institution but the government.  The media are strongly control by the government and yet they think news stories are not good enough. “I suggest that media unite, but it may take times.”

Q : Montira Narkvichien from the UN Women asked about the role of media in reconciliation, citing the current situation in the Southern part of Thailand.

“In many circumstance, it is clear that media in the region does not have a ‘total’ independence and often face persecution or perverse incentives for doing their work while producing their work challenging citizens or political readers or the ruling elites. Would the media in the region be able to emerge from being ‘suppressed’ to be ‘change agents’ promoting their right to the maintaining of their editorial independence as equivalently significant as to the sustaining of the public’s right to information and their freedom of expression.

A : Most of the panelists said similarly that many journalists are lazy, and do not care much about conflicts.  Linda Christanty said, “Many are not critical media.  In Indonesia, there is a term called “crab journalism”.  Crabs are always hidden in their comfort zones.  They step back and go into the holes when dangers come, and come back little by little when the situations get better.”  



AYE CHAN NAING                                                                                                     

Executive Director/Chief Editor of Democratic Voice of Burma

He left Burma following the military crack-down against pro-democracy uprising in August 1988. Since then, he worked for information department of the pro-democracy Burmese student organization based along Thai-Burma border until he was recruited to establish the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), based in Norway to start short-wave radio broadcast to Burma in July 1992. He is now Executive Director and Chief Editor of DVB.  Aye Chan Naing plays key role in transforming DVB from activist media to a professional media organization."

CHHAY SOPHAL                                                                                                         

Editor-in-Chief of Cambodia News (online)

Chhay Sophal has had experiences in media and communications since 1994. He obtained “Master of Art in Journalism” at Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines. In his career, he worked for Reuters News Agency for nearly 10 years, a short-term correspondent of radio FM68 for Asia Calling programme in English, Communications Consultant for projects of the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. He is now Editor-in-Chief of Cambodia News, board member of Club of Cambodian Journalists and Board member of Cambodian Journalists’ Council for Ethics.

GAYATHRY VENKITESWARAN                                                                                  

Executive Director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)

Before this, she was director of the Centre for Independent Journalism, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated towards advancing media freedom and people's access to information in Malaysia. She has worked as a journalist and has also taught journalism and media history in several Malaysian institutions of higher learning. She has an MA International Relations from the Australian National University and a Bachelor in Mass Communication from Universiti Sains Malaysia. Her graduate thesis was entitled Public maneuver for political space in Malaysia: A case study of the impact of the 1997 Financial Crisis on civil society movement. She has co-authored chapters on the role of online mobilising in the case of an environmental campaign in Malaysia and analysing internet surveillance and filtering with a gendered lens for international publications.

SEAPA is a network representing media freedom groups in the region.

LINDA CHRISTANTY                                                                                                                                                   

Founder and former editor of Aceh Feature

Linda Christanty is a journalist and award-winning writer of several books. Her essay Militerisme dan Kekerasan di Timor Leste (Militarism and Violence in Timor Leste) won a Human Rights Award for Best Essay in 1998. Linda's novels Tongkat Sultan (Sultan's Stick) addressed the 30-year conflict in Aceh, and socio-political status of the post-Tsunami Aceh peace process that followed; From Java to Atjeh (non-fiction) talks about syaria law, political conflict, ethnic nationalism and homosexuality; and her latest book (non-fiction), Jangan Tulis Kami Teroris (Don’t Write Us Down As Terrorists) talks about religious, political and gender issues in Indonesia and Southeast Asian countries. 

Linda is former editor of Aceh Feature (online news). She is currently works for dewi magazine (women magazine) and also teaches at journalism and creative writing school in Jakarta. Her weblog:

PRAVIT ROJANAPHRUK                                                                                                     

Senior reporter at The Nation newspaper (Thailand)

Pravit also contributes to independent news media, including online newspaper and the journal Fa Diaokan. Pravit holds a Master’s degree in social anthropology from Oxford University and in 2009 was a Katherine Fanning Fellow for Journalism and Democracy at the Kettering Foundation, Ohio. He is author of Wishes and Lies: Feature Stories from Thailand (1996) and Does Press Freedom Really Exist? Lessons on Democracy and Media Culture (2002) [in Thai].


Press Freedom in the Region