Bangkok, Thailand–What’s press freedom for, and why fight for it at all?

Several Burmese journalists attending a basic journalism course in Bangkok asked officials of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) this question during an interview last week. There were no easy answers.

The reason for the journalists’ concern: the killing of journalists in the Philippines, the increasing number of threats against journalists in Indonesia, and the steady erosion of press freedom in Thailand.

Media organizations from these three countries founded SEAPA in 1999 to defend press freedom and help other countries achieve it. The Indonesians had just overthrown the dictator Suharto; Thai democracy had been restored after decades of military rule; and the Philippines was into its third freely-elected president after EDSA 1986. Their examples were a beacon to the rest of the region, especially Burma.

Burma (Myanmar) has been under military dictatorship for over two decades. One of the dictatorship’s main targets is the media. The media situation in Burma was described by SEAPA Executive Director Roby Alampay as “the worst in Southeast Asia, and arguably in the world,” among other reasons because there are more journalists in prison in Burma than anywhere else in the region. So severely are journalists targeted by the dictatorship that many of those attending the workshop who had to return to Burma were there under assumed names, and studiously avoided TV and still cameras.

Although the killing of journalists in the Philippines and the spate of libel suits against Indonesia journalists are distressing enough, press freedom has also been under threat in Thailand. The critical year in this process was 2001.

Media mogul Thaksin Shinawatra organized the Thai Rak Thai (TRT– literally, “Thais Love Thais”) party that year out of several smaller political parties and factions. The TRT coalition won the 2001 elections with an unprecedented 342 seats, making it the largest parliamentary bloc in Thai history.

This made Thaksin Sinawatra prime minister–and, because of his control of parliament, the most powerful man in Thailand. TRT has since combined populist policies and support for United States foreign policy to boost Thaksin’s popularity further.

Thaksin won a second mandate last February 5 through TRT’s capturing even more seats–377 out of 500– in parliament, thus putting Thailand under one-party rule. TRT’s victory occurred despite growing concern within Thailand and among human rights groups over what the US group Human Rights Watch describes as “steadily eroding respect for human rights.”

“Thailand has gone from being a beacon of freedom and respect for human rights in the region to being a country of high concern,” HRW’s Asia Director declared last February. “Much of the steady progress Thailand had made in the last decade has been rolled back under Thaksin’s tenure.”

HRW cited “severe human rights violations” against Thais in the southern provinces where a Muslim insurgency is raging. The most recent was the death last October, 2004, of 86 protesters already in the hands of security forces. HRW also mentioned the extra-judicial killing ( “salvaging” ) of 2,500 suspected drug dealers during a much publicized government campaign to wipe out the drug trade.

In a report released only last February 28–and which has already created friction between the Thai and US governments– the US State Department also alleged that human rights violations were escalating due to extra-judicial killings and arrests in southern Thailand, and criticized government interference with the media.

Thaksin is regarded as extremely sensitive to criticism, especially media criticism. Concern has risen in recent years among Thai journalists and media watch groups over the future of press freedom in Thailand primarily because of Thaksin’s aggressive efforts to silence media through a variety of ways.

A former Thaksin finance minister, for example, is buying into The Nation Group, which publishes The Nation, one of two English language dailies in Bangkok. The Nation is critical of Thaksin, thus his cronies’ effort to take control of it. Thaksin’s family already owns the only “non-government” TV station in Thailand (two others are owned by the Thai Army).

In another forum on “Press Freedom and One-Party Rule” held to celebrate Thai Press Freedom Day at the Press Association of Thailand offices in Bangkok last March 5, Nation senior editor Sopon Onkgara warned that the Thai media situation could eventually “be as bad as in Burma and Nepal,” and pointed out that the international free expression watchdog Freedom House has downgraded Thailand’s media rating from “free” to “partly free.” (Sopon has been barred from appearing on television and from speaking over radio.)

Sopon said government pressure on media came in a variety of ways, including threats against the profitability of media enterprises. In addition, he said “journalists can’t defend themselves, much less defend the people.”

A well-known freelance TV and radio reporter, Pichien Amnartvoraprasert, said that anyone speaking “more than 30 percent of the truth” in the media could get into trouble with the Thaksin government.

A professor at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Communication Arts, Pirongrong Ramasutr Rananand alleged that the media under Thaksin had fallen into three categories: government partisans, government mouthpieces, and those engaged in self-censorship. She urged media to counter excessive government power through pro-active efforts to educate the public.

As the Burmese journalists asked, what’s press freedom for? And considering the threats to it in the Big Three of Press Freedom in Southeast Asia including Thailand, why fight for it at all?

Alampay had an answer: Press freedom, he said, empowers people by arming them with the information they need to make decisions on public issues. What’s more, it builds communities and links them with others.

As for the threats to it in those countries that had won it, what they teach, Alampay told the journalists present, is that press freedom has to be constantly defended if it is to fulfill its promise to the peoples of Southeast Asia. Winning press freedom isn’t the end of the process. It is only the beginning.

(Manila Standard Today/

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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