From Fri Jan 31 14:00:14 2003
Date: Fri, 31 Jan 2003 13:17:39 -0500
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From: Elliott Parker <elliott.s.parker@CMICH.EDU>
Subject: Fwd: [do-asia] Dark days for Asian journalism

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>From: Bala Pillai <>
>Date: Fri, 31 Jan 2003 11:31:08 +1100
>Subject: [do-asia] Dark days for Asian journalism (fwd)
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>Subject: [sangkancil] [ATimes] Dark days for Asian journalism (fwd)
>Date: Fri, 31 Jan 2003 05:42:15 +0800 (MYT)
>From: M G G Pillai <>
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Dark days for Asian journalism

By Alan Boyd, Asia Times Online, 30 January 2003xo

Globalization pressures and the war against terrorism have brought an abrupt end to the new information age that accompanied the democratic revival of 1997-98 in much of Asia.

Human rights groups have charted a steady tightening of media controls since the Asian economic tigers emerged from their worst financial upheaval with an enhanced commitment to individual liberties, including free expression.

There are more reporters behind bars than ever before. Newspapers are being closed at an accelerating rate and radio and TV stations gagged in the name of national unity. Even the cyber jockeys are being pulled from their seemingly unassailable pedestals.

Media watchdogs fear that the brazen manner of the latest purge could point to a hardening of official attitudes toward information flows in both the established democracies and their less-developed neighbors.

The situation in many parts of Asia remains bad, with China confirming its position as one of the biggest jailers of journalists, Bangladesh continuing to prove extremely dangerous, Vietnam still giving no place for press freedom, North Korea being as closed a society as one can imagine, Nepal ranking first in the wake of the harsh crackdown on the Maoist insurgency... Burma [Myanmar] still a highly repressive regime, and regular attacks on press freedom in the Philippines ... , the World Association of Newspapers warned in its annual review of press freedom.

Only five years ago, new magazines and newspapers were hitting the streets daily in Indonesia, as expression flowered under the patronage of interim leader Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie following the ousting of hardline president Suharto in May 1998.

Evergreen political weekly Tempo was allowed to reopen, with founder and chief editor Gunawan Mohamad pledging to develop a culture of transparency and accountability in the government [and] become a place that will help defend and expand our freedoms.

Malaysia’s muted opposition media bloomed in the same year, as the persecution of fallen deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim triggered a massive backlash against state-owned newspapers and broadcasters. Reporters took a rare political stance, resigning en masse from the official media to set up boisterous internet sites that were able to circumvent the government’s information laws by exploiting regulatory gaps.

Cyber networks proved equally difficult to contain in socialist China and Vietnam, posing a bigger threat than traditional radio broadcasts from the BBC and Voice of America, hitherto the main source of external news.

External opposition groups took full advantage of the initial indecision over how to control the Internet. Myanmese exiles were able to reach their repressed compatriots through alternative websites. Right-wing Laotian emigres in France and Australia vented their displeasure with the communists in Vientiane.

Only in South Asia, with its perpetual security overtones, did conditions worsen. Pakistan suspended all constitutional safeguards after detonating a nuclear bomb, while Sri Lanka imposed military censorship on reporting of its civil war.

The liberal breeze elsewhere was not felt only at a consumer level. Lured by International Monetary Fund (IMF) cash offers for their beleaguered financial systems, East Asian states began to alter the entire culture of suppressing official data.

Thailand became the first Asian country to incorporate freedom of personal information in its constitution, establishing a public channel for accessing government documents and dismantling state communications monopolies.

Indonesia scrapped security laws that had been used to silence reporters for four decades. South Korean president Kim Dae Jung, a former political prisoner, loosened operating restrictions and installed a long-time critic as head of the government news agency.

Taiwan legislators launched a campaign for the review of criminal libel statutes that were hampering the island’s 300 newspapers, four TV networks and 74 radio stations from offering one of the freest information sources in Asia.

But there were signs as early as 1999 that it wouldn’t last. As the IMF and other lending agencies shifted their gaze to new challenges in Russia and Argentina, the reluctant hand of Asian autocratic reform stilled and was replaced by a jarring note of political realism.

The flow of information became a crucial variable as governments responded to the social and political dislocations of the economic crisis; some leaders lifted virtually all restrictions on freedom of expression, while others tightened their hold on what was reported and how it was presented, noted the Committee to Protect Journalists.

By 2001 the trend was definitely towards the latter, as reporters learned, often at heavy personal cost, that pluralism and politics do not mix.

Nor could the media remain impervious to the nationalist outpouring that followed the IMF’s departure, as critics took aim at the ostensible foreign bias of the structural reforms packages it had demanded in exchange for financial bailouts.

Globalization became an emotive issue as multinationals bought up ailing financial institutions in fire sales, transformed retail markets and forced the dismantling of state cartels across East Asia.

Newspapers, the only media to gain a large measure of independence in the reformist spring, were cowed by an insidious strategy that now viewed commentary critical of the authorities as an attack on the national interest. With the onset of the global terrorism alert, reporters found their access to state information blocked on flimsy security grounds.

Many governments stepped up and justified their repression of opposition or independent voices using anti-terrorism as an excuse, reported Reporters Without Borders, the French-based media watchdog. This included journalists accused, often without proof, of supporting Maoist ’terrorists’ in Nepal ... Chechen ’terrorists’ in Russia and Tibetan and Uighur ’terrorists’ in China.

Indonesia, widely viewed as the litmus test of press freedom due to its transformation since 1998, drew heavily on the security card as conservative Megawati Sukarnoputri brought a pro-military platform to the presidency.

In November 2001 the Indonesian parliament established a national broadcasting commission with the power to revoke licenses or censor content, and stopped TV and radio stations from re-broadcasting foreign programs.

With its provincial insurgencies in Aceh and West Papua, Indonesia had ample scope to use these laws. Media monitors were worried that some of the more liberal governments in the region might follow suit. In some countries of Southeast Asia where press freedom is usually respected, there is a fear that restrictions might come back, like in Indonesia, noted the World Association of Newspapers.

In the Philippines, journalists are especially vulnerable in the island of Mindanao where separatist Muslim guerrilla groups are battling the Philippine army. Three journalists have already been killed there [in 2002] and the Philippines, which has an outstanding tradition for investigative journalism is, at the same time, a very dangerous place to practice this discipline, the association reported.

Philippine newspapers have been at the forefront of Asia’s liberal media since they played a pivotal role in the overthrow of dictator Ferdinand Marcos and helped block his attempted comeback in the mid-1980s.

With their Thai and Indonesian colleagues, Philippine journalists formed a Southeast Asian Press Alliance in 1999 to maintain the reformist momentum, and sought a similar pact within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). But both fell victim to the changing domestic climate of press information. Thai reporters walked out of the ASEAN grouping in late 2000, complaining of a lack of accountability and transparency.

Thai journalists had their own problems at home, with political leaders drawing increasingly upon legal avenues to silence critics for the first time since the end of the military era in the late 1980s. Bank accounts of senior staff at one newspaper were probed by graft investigators in an apparent bid to lodge fraud charges that could be used to suppress reports critical of the government. Journalists were sacked from a TV station owned by the prime minister’s family.

In the Philippines, president Joseph Estrada, later hounded from office by media coverage of his alleged corruption, brought an opposition newspaper to heel with a tax blitz, a freeze on state advertising revenues and an interview ban on its reporters.

Elsewhere, the pattern has been depressingly similar.

Two conservative journalists were jailed and a right-wing magazine temporarily banned in South Korea after they published separate articles questioning the political leanings of senior government leaders.

Vietnam acknowledged in October that one man had been under house arrest for two years and another was being investigated for criticizing the government on the Internet. Access to overseas websites has been restricted.

Malaysia forced the resignation of an independent newspaper editor and suspended two of his colleagues last year for publishing an article on a stalled plot, that was never officially refuted, to kill prime minister Mohammad Mahathir. Police in Malaysia forced the temporary closure of website in January after it published a letter questioning the special economic rights accorded to native Malays (See Malaysia: Raid bad news for free media January 22, 2003).

Burma briefly banned two privately-owned magazines last year—in one instance, for carrying an advertisement for a company in neighboring Thailand, with which it has a strained relationship.

Reporters have been beaten up for writing articles critical of political leaders in Cambodia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and India. China has singled out reporters from ethnic minorities for harsh treatment and Laotians are required by law to write stories favorable to politicians.

In all, Freedom House rated only five countries, or 21 percent of all Asian states, as having a free press in 2002, and the same number as partly free. The remaining 13, representing 54 percent of the total, were not free.

There were 11 killings of reporters, making Asia a dangerous news beat to cover. As of December, another 53 reporters were being held in Asian prisons, led by Nepal with 18 inmates, Myanmar with 16 and China with 11.