By D. Arul Rajoo
The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (Seapa) said that even without the chaos and violence, attendant to electoral exercises in countries like Indonesia, the Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar, the unpredictability of the contests and inevitability of uncertainty would give the region's journalists, not only compelling stories and issues to follow, but also dangerous times and situations to navigate.
In its 'Looking back, looking ahead: The state of the press in Southeast Asia' report released today, the Bangkok-based Seapa said the coming months would also be a crucial period for Asean itself, in particular with respect to how the regional body proves and demonstrates the value of a new charter that came into force last month.
It said that despite visions for a single free trade area by 2015, strengthening democracy, enhancing good governance and the rule of law and promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, the region's press must note for itself that "press freedom" was not even mentioned in the Asean Charter, nor, for that matter, "free expression".
"How it all plays out for press freedom, therefore, is uncertain. To be sure, 2008 saw a lot of promise for change on this front," added Seapa.
It cited examples like Singapore which promised to relax its Films Act, Laos' introduction of a new media law that promised to allow more private sector participation, Timor Leste's promises to decriminalise defamation and the Philippines' Supreme Court decision that didn't quite decriminalise libel, but it essentially encouraged lower courts to ignore options to imprison journalists over defamation.
"Meanwhile, changes in the political environments of Malaysia and Thailand have caused people to assume changes in the environments for media and press freedom," it said.
Seapa said following the March, 2008 election that saw opposition parties winning five states in Malaysia, there had been more freedom of expression, with opposition and bloggers invited to appear on state-run television while it's in the Internet where change was most palpable.
But it also pointed out that laws such as the Internal Security Act, the Sedition Act and the Official Secrets Act continued to loom large and define the larger environment for a suppressed media, still overwhelming even government's promises to promote and strengthen judicial independence.
Sepa said upcoming elections in the region were, but one factor that pulled for the status quo.
"From Timor Leste to Thailand, the agenda of recapturing "stability" was overwhelming, and in 2008, it was often used to rationalise a low prioritisation -- and even a sacrifice of -- the press freedom agenda," it said.