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NOVEMBER 24, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 46 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

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 Malaysiakini.com 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 Malaysiakini.com 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.

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