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Press freedom, free expression decline in Southeast Asia in 2007

THE state of press freedom and free expression declined across Southeast Asia in 2007, according to a yearend report of the Bangkok-based regional media watchdog, Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA).

A coalition of press freedom advocacy groups from Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, SEAPA aims to unite independent journalists and press-related organizations in the region into a force for the protection and promotion of press freedom and free expression in Southeast Asia. SEAPA is composed of the Alliance of Independent Journalists (Indonesia), the Jakarta-based Institute for the Study of the Free Flow of Information (ISAI), the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, and the Thai Journalists Association.

Below is the SEAPA media statement:

Press freedom and free expression decline throughout Southeast Asia in 2007

FROM the freest to the most restricted among them, the countries of Southeast Asia in 2007 suffered a weakening of press freedom.

The situation in Burma — already the worst in terms of environments for free expression and human rights — further deteriorated right before the whole world’s eyes. A notorious regime predictable for its censorship and tight controls now plunges into even more uncertain harshness.

Read the full country reports on Southeast Asia here.

Meanwhile, Singapore widened the scope of its uncompromising media laws to include the new media even as citizens are beginning to test the erstwhile freedom found on the Internet. A similar development transpired in Malaysia, which is showing signs of backing down from a long-standing promise to never censor the Internet and looking for ways to take on bloggers in court, while political protests in the last quarter of the year have put the government on edge.

At the other end of Southeast Asia’s political spectrum, the freest countries have seen backsliding on the press freedom front. The assassination of yet another Filipino radio broadcaster in the final week of December underscored yet again the continuing impunity by which media and press freedom remained under attack. More than this, the Philippine press came under direct pressure and legal challenges from government. In the last 12 months the Philippine media have been threatened and charged by government for everything from “sedition” to “obstruction of justice,” effectively warned that coverage of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s many critics would be dealt with as criminally contemptuous of government and state.

In Indonesia, progressive developments in the reform of some antiquated laws in the Criminal Code were cause for celebration, but these, too, were overshadowed by the uneven, unpredictable, and surprising application of laws to the detriment of press freedom. The country’s promising Press Law remained under-utilized, leaving journalists vulnerable under the Criminal Code. The Indonesian Supreme Court, meanwhile, ordered Time magazine to pay former president Soeharto the staggering figure of US$106 million for an article that supposedly defamed the fallen dictator in 1999.

Such developments as above give a quick and reliable overview of how the press freedom situation worsened in the region through 2007. Even a newly ratified Constitution and post-coup democratic elections in Thailand could not mask a slew of hastily passed laws under what is supposedly a temporary and self-limited military junta — some of which could severely undermine human rights and democracy and keep a dark cloud over the press and Thailand’s electronic media in particular.

Indeed, the passage of laws on “national security” and Internet-related crimes in Thailand was a familiar theme in 2007 to all countries in Southeast Asia, from Vietnam to the Philippines and Malaysia to Laos. All highlighted the uncertainties they faced and will continue to face in the coming year.

December 30, 2007 - Posted by | Free Expression in Asia | , , ,

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