singapore – Despite a trend toward greater democracy, press freedom in Southeast and South Asia still has a long way to go, with government pressure and poorly trained journalists just some of the obstacles that stand in the way.
The status of media and democracy varies greatly from countries like Malaysia and Singapore, where authoritarian regimes prevent anyone from questioning the government, to Cambodia and Pakistan, where the broadcast media is dominated by the state despite the relative independence of the print media.
Even the Philippines, deemed Asia’s bastion of democracy, face problems, says Glenda Gloria, editor for the Philippines Center for Investigative Journalism.
The Filipino government wants to “muzzle the press but in quieter and more subtle ways,” she said at a recent conference here.
Philippines President Joseph Estrada sued The Manila Times last year after unfavorable coverage, withdrawing the suit only after the publisher printed an apology, which prompted senior editors and writers to resign in protest.
Almost simultaneously, his friends from the business community pulled their advertisements from the country’s largest newspaper, the Philippines Daily Enquirer, causing revenue losses estimated at around $264,000.
Gloria added that some Filipino reporters abused the freedom of the press after dictator Ferdinand Marcos’s downfall in 1986. The media in her country, she said, is “noisy but vulnerable, powerful but irresponsible.”
Gloria was among a group of 24 journalists, democracy advocates and scholars from Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Pakistan and India who gathered here for a three-day conference, “Media and Democracy in Asia.”
Presentations given at the conference, sponsored by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung foundation and the Asian Media Information and Communication Center, will be published in a book due out in December.
While Cambodia enjoys more press freedom than some of its neighbors, the country has yet to establish a fully free press, despite progress since the country began embracing democratic values after the UN-sponsored elections in 1993.
Due to a pervasive culture of political patronage and the fact that most journalists earn less than a living wage, many Cambodian reporters take gifts or money from officials in exchange for covering their activities.
In a recent interview, one Cambodian reporter acknowledged he was given money for providing media coverage for political leaders. “(I am) quite ashamed of being paid but forced to do it for a living,” he said.
Last month, Prime Minister Hun Sen attacked journalists, saying about 25 percent of Cambodian reporters behave like kidnappers, making officials pay for favorable coverage. But the criticisms were quickly lambasted by local newspapers, including the Chakraval, which countered that Hun Sen’s government is 75 percent corrupt, or three times as bad.
Speakers at the Singapore conference acknowledged the weakness of Cambodian media, citing a low level of training in the standards of independent, objective reporting. A higher standard is set by local journalists who work for international news outlets, who are better paid than local reporters and usually have more professional experience, conference attendees said.
“Many Cambodian journalists are never trained properly about their career. There should be much more training for them,” said Sek Barisoth, director of the Unesco-funded Cambodian Communication Center, which has trained many Cambodian reporters.
On the other side of the equation is Cambodia’s 1995 press law, which hands the government what critics call a “sharp-edged sword” to censor newspapers in Article 12, which addresses published information considered to adversely affect national security and political stability.
Under Article 12, “the employer, editor or author of the article may be subjected to a fine of 5,000,000 to 15,000,000 riel ($1,282 to $3,846), without taking into account possible punishment under the criminal law.”
In addition, the law gives the Ministries of Information and Interior the right to confiscate the offending issue of the newspaper, and it allows the Information Ministry to suspend a publication for 30 days and transfer the case to the court. Meanwhile, Article 13 states that the press shall not publish or reproduce false information which humiliates or is in contempt of national institutions.
Cambodia can also be a dangerous place for journalists, at least six of whom were killed in the past decade. Following the passage of the press law, a number of journalists have been jailed, exiled or threatened for criticizing official policies. Newspapers have been shut down by officials and attacked by mobs.
And yet the new-found political stability and peace are offering Cambodia more opportunities to make the media less politicized and better able to compete in a market system.
For instance, one of the largest daily Khmer-language newspapers, Koh Santepheap or “Island of Peace,” was perceived as the paper supporting the ruling CPP since it began in 1992. Now it is relying less on political patronage and more on advertising, allowing it to publish more independent stories.
Mustafa K Anwar, an associate professor at the School of Communications at the University Sains Malaysia, said the press in his country is restricted by the regime of Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir.
After Mahathir assumed power in 1981, his government took a series of actions that “effectively eroded press freedom, violated human rights and weakened the fragile and nascent civil society,” he said.
But the growing popularity of the Internet among Malaysians critical of Mahathir has prompted the government to issue a number of warnings that what is illegal in print form is also illegal on the Internet.
Jehan Ara, chief executive officer of Enabling Technologies in Pakistan, said that media in her country has improved noticeably under the military regime of General Pervez Musharraf, who ousted democratically-elected premier Nawar Sharif in a military coup.
In previous regimes, the media and its stalwarts have been coaxed, cajoled, blackmailed, threatened, arrested and even violently attacked, she said. They have been accused of being anti-state whenever they attacked the policies of the government in power.
The government of Musharraf, however, has surprised many by supporting freedom of expression, Ara said.
“It is probably the world’s first military-led government that has not only accepted the need for a free and independent press from day one, but, in fact, taken specific measures to further strengthen it rather than curb or weaken it,” Ara said.
Broadcast media in the country remains monopolized by the state, but she says that too is being challenged.
“What exists today is better than times we had in the past,” she said, “and there is the hope for the future.”