The months ahead will hold much peril and uncertainty for members of thepress in Southeast Asia.
The years 2009 and 2010 will be highly charged, for starters, anticipatingnational election seasons for most countries in the region. Even without the chaosand violence attendant to electoral exercises in countries like Indonesia, thePhilippines, Cambodia, Thailand, and Burma, the unpredictability of the contestsand the inevitability of uncertainty will give the region’s journalists not onlycompelling stories and issues to follow, but also dangerous times and situationsto navigate.The coming months will also be a crucial period for ASEAN itself—in particularwith respect to how the regional body proves and demonstrates the value of a newcharter that came into force in December 2008.Beyond rules of membership and the vision for forming an ASEAN Communityby 2015, the ASEAN Charter arms that among others, one of the Association’spurposes is “to strengthen democracy, enhance good governance and the rule of law, and to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms...” TheCharter’s outline of Principles emphasizes the need for “adherence to the rule of law,good governance, the principles of democracy and constitutional government” aswell as for the community’s “respect for fundamental freedoms, the promotionand protection of human rights, and the promotion of social justice.”Article 14 of the ASEAN Charter goes as far as to commit that “ASEAN shallestablish an ASEAN human rights body.”The mechanisms of such a body, however, have yet to be spelt out andnalized. Indeed, analysts and critics of the Charter stress that the stated principlesand purposes relating to human rights and democracy must be weighed againstASEAN’s historical emphasis on “non-interference” and on its tradition of movingby consensus.
The region’s press, meanwhile, must note for itself: “press freedom” is noteven mentioned in the Charter, nor, for that matter, “free expression”.How it all plays out for press freedom, therefore, is uncertain.To be sure, 2008 saw a lot of promise for change on this front. Or “promises”,at least. Singapore promised to relax its Films Act. Laos introduced a new medialaw that promised to allow more private sector participation in its state-dominatedmedia landscape. East Timor promised to decriminalize defamation. The PhilippineSupreme Court didn’t quite decriminalize libel, but it essentially encouraged lowercourts to ignore options to imprison journalists over defamation. Meanwhile, seachanges in the political environments of Malaysia and Thailand have caused peopleto assume that changes in the environments for media and press freedom.But assumptions are one thing. How it all actually falls into place—or fallsapart—must yet be seen. For all the above promises, after all, little has actuallychanged in the laws that govern the media in Southeast Asia.Indeed, if anything denes the media situation in Southeast Asia, it is thelarger political considerations of the region’s governments and political powers.Upcoming elections are but one factor that pulls for the status quo. From EastTimor to Thailand, the agenda of recapturing “stability” is overwhelming, and in2008, it was often used to rationalize a low prioritization—and even a sacriceof—the press freedom agenda.Looking back on the year that was, therefore, is crucial to anticipating andunderstanding how much journalists will be allowed to do their job in 2009 andbeyond.In the following pages, SEAPA provides a country by country recap of thepast year’s considerations, and what the respective national experiences maymean for press freedom and free expression in the months ahead.
Southeast Asian Press AlliancePress Freedom in Southeast Asia 2009