In Southeast Asia, journalists’ experiences vary considerably. In some, repressive regimes clamp down hard on press freedoms through the passage of restrictive laws, the practice of intimidation, and the control of advertising dollars. In others, technology that is available through the Internet and cell phones challenges government control of news and allows communication to leap over the customary gatekeepers. And in nations in which more press freedom exists, awareness grows of the need to improve the investigative skills of reporters.
As a way of broadening our understanding of the opportunities and challenges journalists have in Southeast Asia, Kavi Chongkittavorn, a 2002 Nieman Fellow and managing editor of The Nation in Bangkok, Thailand, contacted colleagues in the region and invited them to write about their experiences. From seven nations—Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam—came stories of what it is like to be a reporter or editor working there and an examination of what is being done to try to gain more press freedoms.
Opening this section is an overview by Chongkittavorn of what is happening with the press in Southeast Asia. Disheartening at times, uplifting at others, he presents a compelling portrait of journalists who are seeking an independent voice in a region of the world where even democratic governments have grown fearful of a free press. “In Southeast Asia,” he writes, “the notion that democratic governments would support free media is now seen as an illusion.” Perhaps the greatest challenge journalists here face is “to improve the quality of their reporting and strengthen their capacity for distributing independent news.”
From the Philippines, Sheila S. Coronel, executive director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, writes about how new technology—most of all, mobile phones with short message service—altered the transmission of news during the 2001 impeachment trial of then-president Joseph Estrada. She writes, “…the key role these new technologies played in the revolt was due in part to the restraint the established media initially showed in their reporting on Estrada, who had intimidated journalists and vented his ire on media outlets that were critical of him by closing down newspapers or threatening libel suits against them. Only when the anger on the streets was palpable did many news organizations become bold enough to print or air critical reports.”
Coronel’s account comes as no surprise to Drew McDaniel, author of “Electronic Tigers of Southeast Asia: The Politics of Media, Technology and National Development,” who explores the many ways in which media technology affects the uneasy relationship that has developed between governments’ impulse to censor news and the press’s inclination to publish it. “[T]he steady march of electronic technology,” McDaniel writes, “made it difficult for governments to sustain their censorship policies.” And as some governments, such as Malaysia, sought foreign investment to use this new technology as an engine of economic development, international pressure has forced them to ease restrictions on Internet communication, for example.
Steven Gan, who is the editor of Malaysiakini, describes the press environment in which he publishes Malaysia’s most widely read online publication. Given the hostile situation that most Malaysian journalists face because of highly restrictive laws and government licensing, Gan says that a lot of media organizations “are, not surprisingly, obsessed with self-censorship.” Though he describes cyberspace as “the only democratic space left in Malaysia,” Gan explains how journalists with Malaysiakini still deal with government interference: they are banned from reporting on government functions, including the Parliament, and pressure is applied on the site’s advertising clients.
Aung Zaw, who is editor of Irrawaddy, a magazine about Burmese and Southeast Asian affairs, reminds us that this country, still ruled by generals, “remains one of the region’s most restrictive and repressive countries, and the effect of this repression is felt by journalists.” Even storms and fires are considered off-limits as press stories out of fear that a government agency might be faulted. Because the Press Scrutiny Board, what Zaw calls Burma’s “media police,” are always watching, “reporters in Burma must have great courage to adhere to the principles of journalism,” Zaw asserts. In news coverage of Burma, the country is, at times, referred to as “Myanmar,” a name given to it by its military government in 1988, or as “Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.” Nieman Reports’ writers chose to use “Burma,” as do many news organizations.
Los Angeles Times writer David Lamb, whose book “Vietnam Now: A Reporter Returns” was published this spring, witnessed some advances in press freedom, though observes that in Vietnam “the media remain an arm of the government.” He quotes a Vietnamese editor as saying “reporters like to see how far they can push and still get their stories published.” However, Lamb writes, “the last thing Hanoi wants is feisty, challenging reporters intent on practicing real journalism.”
A. Lin Neumann, a longtime Asian journalist who consults on the region’s issues for the Committee to Protect Journalists, notes that the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal campaign rid Cambodia of nearly all of its journalists. With its new generation of unseasoned reporters, Neumann observes that the “Cambodian press today may not be particularly responsible, but it is lively and largely fearless. Given the recent history of Cambodia, this is an achievement itself.” And the print press is now largely free of government control due to international pressure.
Andreas Harsono, the managing editor of Pantau magazine, a monthly publication about media and journalism, describes Indonesia’s freer environment for journalists in the years after President Suharto’s fall from power in 1998. But, Harsono writes, “what is clear today is that most in the Indonesian media still grapple with basic journalistic questions as well as economic difficulties.” Charges of corrupt practices by journalists linger in a nation where it is difficult to find a profession not tainted by corruption. And, in the wake of terrorism, there are new threats to press freedom.
Suthichai Yoon, group editor in chief of Nation Multimedia Group in Thailand, opens his story by presenting a paradox: In Thailand, where protection of journalists is clearly addressed in the Constitution, “doubts are growing as to whether the government is serious about reform. In fact, there have been clear signs that the press reform agenda has been derailed.” At this time, the Thai press—one of the freest in Southeast Asia—is, in Yoon’s words, “under threat” from an elected civilian government that appears eager to silence its critics through intimidation and actions aimed at the press’s economic well-being.