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Media plagued by access issues at the ASEAN Summit

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A security agent tells a TV cameraman to move before leaders enter the room for a retreat session during the East Asia Summit, Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2012  in Phnom Penh. Photograph: Abby Seiff/Phnom Penh Post

Lugging an enormous video camera around on his small frame, Hardjito, an Indonesian journalist working for the news outlet Al-Jazeera, has had his share of run-ins with security at the ASEAN summit.

He’s been escorted out of rooms. He’s been pushed to the side. On one occasion, he was told that his short-sleeve shirt was not appropriate for entry into certain meetings.

“This is very bad for me, compared with other countries... other ASEAN countries,” said Hardjito, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.

Over the past few days, the relationship between the media and security has been one of confusion and confrontation. It reached a breaking point on Monday, when journalists were ordered out of the room just as US President Barack Obama was beginning his remarks.

Dressed in suits, the ubiquitous guards have reportedly pushed, shoved, grabbed and made seemingly arbitrary decisions about what was off-limits.

In one instance, they placed a tattered rug over a portion of a long red carpet so journalists would not besmirch the area where officials were walking.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said that with up to 2,000 journalists registered to cover ASEAN, the level of security was a simple matter of maintaining order and safety.

“Prevention is much better,” he said, adding that the media centre on site is doing a commendable job. “They are running things smoothly. And I would appreciate everyone’s co-operation to help things run smoothly.”

The restrictions on media appear in line with the great lengths to which authorities have gone in efforts to maintain order across the city as the summit has played out.

Enforcing the law has included closing gas stations and stores, halting protests on main roads, clashing with demonstrators, allegedly preventing civil society groups from meeting, scooping undesirables off the streets and detaining residents who spray painted SOS messages intended for Obama on their rooftops.

Inside the halls of the Peace Palace, reporters from a variety of news outlets spoke of a security presence and behaviour that compared unfavourably with summits past.

According to an Indonesian journalist who asked not to be identified, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa invited a group of reporters from his country to a press briefing yesterday morning.

That didn’t stop a guard from blocking their way anyway.

“We had to explain again and again and again until finally they released us. It’s a pity. We will not attack the delegates if they refuse to talk to us. We will respect them,” she said.

Ellen Mondez Cruz, who works for a Japanese newspaper, recounted talking to a Filipino official on the first floor of the Peace Palace.

“Three security men approached us, and said, ‘You can’t stay here’,” an order that would have been obeyed had the official not interceded and told the guard that they were in the middle of a conversation.

“And then, when we finished, he escorted us to the ground floor. He made sure we went out.”

It wasn’t always this way, she added, and other reporters from regional outlets concurred. At previous summits, reporters said, there were places where officials could be approached; there were also media kits and a generally more organised feel to the proceedings.

Different passes were required to attend different summits, some of which took place in the same room.

The limited number of passes ran out, however, and media members who registered for ASEAN may have found themselves shut out of meetings on the agenda, milling about on the first floor of the Peace Palace trying vainly to ambush officials as they stepped out of elevators.    

“I was here 10 years ago, for the ASEAN summit also,” said a Filipino reporter who declined to be named. “The feel then was very relaxed. This year, it’s different.

“The meeting was not in this room. It was in the [Intercontinental], the meeting was open, the access was very easy, unlike this. This is a government facility, there’s so much security around,” he said, adding that the beefed up presence could just be a natural outcome of the growth of the ASEAN summit.

“You have 18 countries, you have Obama, of course, so you expect security to be tight. It’s understandable. We know they are only doing their jobs. They know we our only doing our jobs. So it’s a give and take.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Joe Freeman at joseph.freeman@phnompenhpost.com

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