ad info

 > magazine
 web features
 magazine archive
 customer service
  east asia
  southeast asia
  south asia
  central asia

Other News
TIME Europe
Asiaweek Services
Contact Asiaweek
About Asiaweek
Media Kit
Get up to 3 months of Asiaweek free when you subscribe online!


Viewpoint: Battle for the Media
A growing 'free press' is challenging ASEAN's old order
KAVI CHONGKITTAVORN is managing editor of The Nation newspaper in Bangkok and chairman of the alternative media organization SEAPA

Like ASEAN itself, ASEAN's journalists are divided. It is increasingly difficult to forge any kind of consensus among the region's reporters and press organizations. Just as governments range from the dictatorial to the democratic, press practices in the 10 nations of Southeast Asia vary from freewheeling in the Philippines and Thailand to totalitarian in Vietnam and Burma. In between are Singapore and Malaysia, where the semi-controlled press has long been in vogue.

In the last few years Cambodia and Indonesia have joined the "free press" club. Long suppressed and inexperienced, their journalists are eagerly exploring a world with fewer limits. Sometimes criticized for being overly cynical and negative, they will improve in time. Filipino and Thai journalists themselves aren't exempt from criticism. Too often those who have enjoyed a tradition of freedom resort to shallow or sensational reporting. They have been accused — sometimes rightly — of distorting complex issues and inflaming public passions.

But the Filipinos and Thais are the region's most combative and best organized reporters. Over the last 30 years they have fought dictatorial regimes in order to gain their freedom. In all four "free press" countries, despite public criticisms, journalists continue to receive wide support in showdowns with government or corrupt officials. At a regional level, the struggle is on as never before between journalists of the free press and the restricted press.

Least free are Burma, Laos and Vietnam, which use the media as tools of state propaganda and "nation-building." Political discussion is forbidden but these nations recognize that in order to lure dollars, economic information must flow a little freely. So they permit tame English-language publications to be published — often ventures with foreigners — to persuade outsiders that these places are good for investment.

More sophisticated are Singapore and Malaysia. They use the media to manufacture consent, exercising strict press licensing and directly or indirectly controlling most news outlets. People read the papers to find out what the government thinks and wants them to think. In both countries, mainstream press reports are closely scrutinized and self-censored. Online newspapers like are an exception. Because it wants investment in information technology, Malaysia allows freedom on the Internet and a few sites are providing balanced and courageous coverage. What is worrying, however, is that the semi-controlled model is moving beyond Singapore and Malaysia. They believe that a semi-controlled press is good for business and government and their media establishments have invested in Thailand and Cambodia as well as Hong Kong..

These different traditions make it difficult for journalists in the region to cooperate. For 25 years, they have been linked through the Confederation of ASEAN Journalists (CAJ), brainchild of Harmoko, Indonesia's minister of information at a time when its press was controlled. A quarter-century ago, Indonesia wanted ASEAN journalists to network, not to promote press freedom but consensus within ASEAN and information about the grouping, which was establishing its identity. The region has changed but the CAJ has not.

Independent journalists in ASEAN are increasingly frustrated with the old network of journalists, which has failed to respond to regional dynamism and join forces with the free press. The CAJ remains a monolithic organization, specializing in so-called development journalism and lackluster conferences. Illustrating the division was a walkout by Thai journalists at a CAJ assembly in Singapore last month.

The Thais accused the host of lacking transparency and accountability and failing to discuss a Thai proposal to amend the CAJ charter, including abolition of the secretariat office in Jakarta and the post of permanent secretary. The changes, which would allow each country to help determine CAJ directions and core activities, are pivotal to its rejuvenation. The protest in Singapore has sparked spirited discussions about the very existence of the CAJ.

As the "free press" grows, its journalists are establishing local and regional associations. The sea change in Indonesia following Suharto's departure in 1998 and the country's burgeoning free press have inspired the independent media to unite. In Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, they joined hands to form the Southeast Asian Press Alliance in 1998. An alternative forum for the independent media, SEAPA will soon be joined by Cambodia and East Timor.

SEAPA has taken bold steps to fight for press freedom. It helps fund as well as projects to promote access to information and combat corruption. Its Jakarta office is at the forefront of efforts to protect the press from abuse by police and mobs. SEAPA is also helping journalists in East Timor to rebuild their media infrastructure. Region-wide, the media "gap" is likely to grow wider as the semi-open press continues to assert itself as a viable choice. A new generation of ASEAN journalists is emerging with the vision to challenge old ways of doing things. In the long run, the only viable press will be a free press.

Back to the top

Write to Asiaweek at

This edition's table of contents | Home


Quick Scroll: More stories from Asiaweek, TIME and CNN


U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

Launch CNN's Desktop Ticker and get the latest news, delivered right on your desktop!

Today on CNN
Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

25 years celebrating Asia

Go to mini-site

THAILAND: Is Finance Minister Tarrin single-handedly sinking the Chuan government?

TAIWAN: Why is President Chen Shui-bian making moves that are anti-business and hurting the economy? The answer is political

MALAYSIA: A satirical play shows that Anwar lives, and that art is a substitute for politics

Reform: A scandal damages restructuring efforts of the floundering South Korean economy

Mines: Violence and strife are serious obstacles to the success of a viable nickel mine in Indonesia

Investing: Why many Chinese collectors shell out outlandish sums of money for jade

Editorial: Politics is out. Business and technology are driving progress in the new Asia

Letters & Comment: Endangered eating

Looking Back: South Korea, June 1987 People Power in South Korea

The Bottom Line: Asiaweek's ranking of world economies

Back to the top   © 2000 Asiaweek. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.