One night in Bangkok

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“The next coup will be at 8 p.m. tonight,” Kavi Chongkittavorn declared at the start of a meeting of the board of directors of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) last week in Bangkok. Kavi is editor of The Nation, one of only two English-language newspapers in Thailand, and chairs SEAPA. Five journalists’ and media groups from Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand comprise SEAPA, a non-governmental organization founded in 1998 for the defense and enhancement of free expression and press freedom.

The ever good- humored Kavi meant his “announcement” as a joke. But as the whole world knows, a military coup removed the Thaksin Shinawatra government from power one sultry night in Bangkok in 2006. Although the generals did eventually allow elections, and there’s a civilian government in power in Thailand, political instability and the fact that coups have occurred so often in Thailand have made another Night of the Generals at least possible.

The political instability is currently fed by a demand by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) for the entire cabinet of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej to resign. Although democratically elected, Samak (whose flaring nostrils invited an unflattering comparison from Kavi) has been consistently hostile to the press, even as a slew of Internet regulations issued during the one year in which the military junta ruled Thailand remains in place.

The PAD demand was triggered by government efforts to rewrite the 2007 Constitution, which PAD believes would more deeply entrench the ruling People’s Power Party (PPP). Proving that the deposed Thaksin still casts a long shadow over Thai politics, PAD also contends that Samak is a Thaksin surrogate, which helps explain, its leaders say, why corruption charges against Thaksin have not moved as fast as they should, and why certain amendments to the 2007 constitution proposed by his friends in parliament favor Thaksin. All efforts to defuse the crisis have so far failed, and a former prime minister, Anand Panyarachun, has declared that no solution seems in sight.

Political instability over widespread middle class protests against Thaksin’s alleged corruption supposedly drove the Thai military to intervene in 2006, more than ten years since a military government relinquished power in 1992 and restored democratic institutions in Thailand. Although the generals did treat opposition groups and the press with kid gloves, at least initially, the coup nevertheless shocked the Thai intelligentsia, which had thought the days of military rule over.

Thai journalists’ groups were among the founders of SEAPA in 1998, together with Philippine and Indonesian press groups. The three countries then comprised a press freedom arc in the region. The Philippines had overthrown the Marcos dictatorship in 1986, the Thai military government gave way to civilian rule in 1992, and the Suharto regime fell in early 1998 in the aftermath of the 1997 financial crisis.

Although Philippine developments were dampening the high hopes generated by EDSA 1986 by then, the groups that came together to form SEAPA were convinced that a regional press alliance would help strengthen press freedom in their respective countries while developing closer relations among Southeast Asian press groups, and possibly assisting journalists’ and press freedom groups in countries with restrictive press policies.

The premise was that democracy would not only survive but thrive in the region, especially in the countries of the SEAPA founders (the Thai Journalists’ Association [TJA]; Indonesia’s Alliance of Independent Journalists [AJI] and Institute for the Study of the Free Flow of Information [ISAI]; the Philippines’ Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility [CMFR] and Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism [PCIJ]).

They have since had reason to revise those expectations. Not only the Thai experience has shown how fragile democracy can be. So have the Philippine and Indonesian experiences.

Not only among politicians but even among non-government organizations has it become a mantra to claim that the press is going too far in Indonesia. It’s a complaint echoed in the Philippines, where, however, the killing of journalists has become such a regular feature of the media landscape the claim that it has the freest press in Asia now sounds like a mockery. Indonesian journalists say that they’re still vulnerable under the Criminal Code, in which some amendments have been introduced, but which continues to be unpredictably interpreted. Parliament has also tried a number of times to regulate broadcast media, while libel has also been used as a punitive weapon against critical journalists.

In the Philippines, the worst challenge to press freedom and free expression is not so much between the killing of journalists and government pressure, as the first’s being related to the second. Although it abated in 2007, the killing of journalists continues, underscoring the impunity, or failure to punish most of those responsible, that encourages more assassinations.

Since 2005 the Philippine press has also come under increasing government pressure, ranging from declaring journalists’ groups “enemies of the state;” threats to withdraw franchises in broadcasting; the filing of libel, obstruction of justice, and inciting to sedition suits; the surveillance of critical journalists; and, in 2007, the arrest of several dozen journalists and media technicians covering the Peninsula Hotel incident.

All of which should show Southeast Asian journalists, specially those in the Philippines who tend to be interested only in their own parochial concerns, that it’s time to address what are after all shared problems by strengthening their links with each other across the region as well as the rest of the world. SEAPA, which is also part of a global press freedom and free expression network, has never been as relevant in a region and a world in which tyranny and authoritarianism are the undead ready to pounce on the ignorant and/or unwary.

(BusinessWorld_

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