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Message-ID: <199712060833.DAA19941@access2.digex.net>
Date: Sat, 6 Dec 1997 03:33:25 -0500
Reply-To: Southeast Asia Discussion List <SEASIA-L@msu.edu>
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From: Alex G Bardsley <bardsley@ACCESS.DIGEX.NET>
Subject: Fwd: News coverage depends on where you live (Asiaweek)
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Publish and Be... News coverage depends on where you live

By Roger Mitton, Asiaweek, [December 1997]

WHEN THE MALAYSIAN NEWSPAPER editor was summoned to the Home Affairs Ministry, he knew to expect a lecture. The deputy minister was polite, but he said: You should not have reported this the way you did. I want you to do it this way. The editor knew it was pointless to argue, but he gave his usual speech about officials not telling journalists how to do their jobs.

These days editors are being told what to do as much as ever. In part, this is due to the prevailing economic environment; governments hope to prevent downbeat headlines that fuel irrational panic -- or even just reflect badly on the government.

Take your pick: ASEAN -- at least, its more developed nations -- is divided between two camps. In Manila and Bangkok, the media is wide open and wacky; in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, newspaper stories are vetted and predictable (the vetting mostly done by journalists who long ago learned what will fly and what will not). A regional survey:

Malaysia The press is surprisingly critical of certain policies and ministers (basically anyone but the prime minister). Nonetheless, a pro-government line persists. Since the currency and stock market crises began, authorities have warned finance houses not to make bearish soundbites. I'm happy to talk, says one KL analyst. But I don't want to be quoted. Officials also urged academics not to talk about the haze from Indonesian forest fires. The spin went like this: the government was not muzzling the press per se, merely preventing spurious reports that could scare off tourists and investors. The government has an array of legislative weapons to use against journalists, say editors, so why intimidate potential sources? On sensitive subjects, intimidation is largely redundant (as it is in Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei) because most people refuse to talk on the record.

Singapore The government has been famously successful in cases against both domestic and foreign journalists in the courts. In a high-profile case in 1992, local journalists were investigated under the Official Secrets Act for publishing (in advance of an embargo date) economic figures (which were proved to be accurate). The government periodically warns people about comments they have made and that it might be best not to make them again. As in Malaysia, journalists in Singapore are routinely briefed and told how to report (or not) a certain event. But this applies only to domestic coverage of sensitive issues. For foreign coverage, practically anything goes. It is a paradox that the Singapore and Malaysian press have more substantive foreign coverage than the comparatively open Philippine and Thai press.

Brunei Authorities follow Singapore's example in almost all things, and none more so than the media. But despite regular official visits, The Borneo Bulletin pushes the envelope craftily in its letters page -- publishing critical comments that it would not feel comfortable using as a story. Brunei TV never runs anything critical, either of Brunei or any of its ASEAN neighbors -- this is official policy.

Thailand Apart from criticizing the King (it's a crime), Thai reporters can write pretty much what they please -- even if that means dressing up opinion as fact. Last month, papers called for PM Chavalit Yongchaiyudh to step down (he did) in front-page headlines. And forget ASEAN solidarity. Thai papers have lambasted Malaysia for building a wall along the border, Myanmar for thuggery and Indonesia for East Timor. Not that harping on the neighbors is confined to Thailand. In 1994, the Manila media ran amok when Filipino domestic Flor Contemplacion was hanged for murder in Singapore. And in the more controlled environments, it sometimes seems like newspapers have been let off the leash to score hits on so-called ASEAN allies. Witness the war of words earlier this year between Singapore and Malaysian newspapers when Lee Kuan Yew made his famous comments about Johor Bahru.

The Newcomers Nowhere are the media more restricted than among ASEAN's newest recruits -- Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar. In Yangon, the press fare is usually Minister X received a delegation from Y. In Vietnam, the government has forbidden journalists to give information to foreigners without sanction. An editor there was charged with revealing state secrets after he reported a dubious purchase of patrol boats. Though Cambodia is not yet a member, its press is quite free. Still, it doesn't pay to tangle with the wrong person -- as editors discovered recently when a grenade was lobbed into their office. Not that strong-arm tactics are confined to ASEAN's new members. Last year, 10 journalists were arrested in KL for covering a conference on East Timor that was disrupted by government-aligned youths. The reporters were never charged, nor given any explanation -- but the message was loud and clear.