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“It is said that press freedom in one country indicates its political regime,” remarks Subhatra Bhumiprabhas, editor of at the discussion on “ASEAN through the Eyes of Media”, as part of the seminar on “Thai - Myanmar Studies in ASEAN Community”, held on 19 December 2014, at Naresuan University, Pitsanulok Province. The seminar was organized by the Toyota Foundation and the Foundation for the Promotion of Social Science and Humanities Textbooks Project.

Press Freedom Highly Restricted in ASEAN Even in ‘Democratic’ Countries

In 2003, the Freedom House, a U.S.-based non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights, and the Reporters without Borders, a French non-profit organization that defends freedom to be informed, reported that countries in the Asia Pacific region, including those with so-called ‘free, democratic political system’, were highly sensitive to criticism.  In some countries, only some issues could be criticised, the editor observes.

“Many reporters were under pressure. In Thailand, lèse-majesté charges have been used as political tool to silent media, including the editor of the Voice of Taksin magazine, Somyos Prueksakasemsuk, who has been sentenced in prison and denied bail, and Chiranuch Premchaiporn of, who has already completed a one-year suspended sentence,” Subhatra points out. 

The situations were very much alike, in Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia, she added. Many Cambodian journalists were threatened and detained. One was killed after reporting about a son of a high-ranking officer being involved in smuggling.  Meanwhile, Vietnam was listed as the second highest numbers of bloggers in jail.  Journalists in Myanmar in the past half century have never had freedom of expression. Some opposition journalists have been put behind bars while others need to submit their original copies of stories prior to publication.

“However, press freedom in Myanmar has lately been improved but there is still censorship on sensitive issues, especially violence relating to religion, the army, and corruption of state officers,” she adds.

ASEAN countries signed an agreement in 1969 for promoting of cooperation in mass media and cultural activities, Supalak Ganjanakhundee, regional news editor of Thailand’s English language newspaper, The Nation, reminds us.  At that time there were only five member countries but the number rises to ten at present and he is not sure as to whether all the ten members have signed the agreement.

“However, state cooperation has been narrowly limited and has had no real impact. In theory, media’s roles are meant to promote freedom of expression and transparency, to protect human rights and to anti-corruption. But, in reality, as Noam Chomsky put it, in countries where the levers of power are in the hands of a state bureaucracy, the monopolistic control over the media, often supplemented by official censorship, makes it clear that the media serve the end of the dominant elite.”

Elite-serving Media Still Prevail. No regional perspectives.

Main characteristics of media in ASEAN include state-run, state-guided, private-owned, and private-owned but state-intervened media, Supalak says. “In Brunei, media are predominately controlled by the government. In Cambodia, there are state-regulated media, serving the state and certain political parties.  There are over 100 newspaper publishers but there are not so many readers.  Some media are mouthpieces of politicians with conflicts of interests.”         

In Indonesia, both state-regulated media and professional media are very active, he adds. “There has been a significant increase of media outlets with greater freedom of expression in the post-Suharto period. I have many Indonesian journalist friends who are very intellectual.”

In Laos, restricted political coverage reflects national interest and propagandas. Meanwhile, in Malaysia, there are combinations of state-run media, government-connected media, and alternative media. In the Philippines, media are predominantly private owned but concentrated in hands of families and big businesses.

As for Thailand, most of the televisions are state-run and state connected while the private run printed media are partisan media, reflecting political interests.  In Vietnam, media serve state interests, reflecting government stance and having restricted freedom. However, there are new challenges from new media.

“All in all, media in ASEAN tend to report for vested interests of particular groups and we hardly see regional perspectives from them,” he comments.

Supalak cites the case of news coverage about the Rohingya people, saying: “Most Thai reporters cover the news in the perspective similar to Thai soldiers’, viewing them as trouble-makers of the state.  Only a few journalists report about their fates.  Meanwhile, media in Singapore have tried to be regional media but in fact they do not really work to promote regionalism.  They avoid criticizing their own prime ministers and criticize Thai prime ministers instead.”      

Hindrances of Media Cooperation

“There has been no genuine cooperation among ASEAN media,” advisor at Matichon TV, Nithinand Yorsaengrat comments.  This is because media have generally been intervened by the states. This couples with main obstacles of ASEAN cooperation, which include lack of skills of other languages, lack of enthusiasm to talk to foreign journalists and not-so-advanced communication technology.

“Media also need to change mindset towards ASEAN and the Asean Economic Community (AEC). Instead of keeping asking what we will gain from the AEC, we need to re-examine what we will contribute to the AEC,” she suggests. 

Two veteran journalists, Sa-nguan Khumrungroj, left, and Nithinand Yorsaengrat, right

Myanmar Media in Transition

For the past three years Myanmar media have undergone significant changes, says Sa-nguan Khumrungroj, veteran independent journalist with over 30 years of experience in various newspapers in ASEAN countries. 

“The number of satellite TVs, for example, has risen from one to 8 channels. There are also 11 free TV channels. A wide variety of programs are on air almost around the clock.  Interestingly, the Myanmar Farmer TV, a community learning channel, has put a focus on sharing knowledge for rice plantation and development of Myanmar's agriculture and farming. The Readers Channel has a mission to raise reading awareness, bringing books to small screens.  And the latest channel, which has just launched two weeks ago, is an entertainment channel, making a debut with a Beijing soap opera,” explains Sa-nguan.

“Contrary to Thai media, which have presently been under surveillance and heavily censored, the overall media environment in Myanmar has tremendously improved and the future is bright.  Although privately-own channels in Myanmar are under state supervision, the situation is not as bad as what happens in Thailand,” he observes. 

ASEAN: through the Eyes of Media