IT is often said that compared to some notorious regimes around the world, there is relative press freedom here in Southeast Asia.
The region’s governments, from freewheeling Thailand to nanny state Singapore to repressive Vietnam, all like to propagate that notion.
Indeed, when The Phnom Penh Post recently interviewed Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and asked about media restrictions, he quickly retorted: “We have a free press in Thailand.”
Actually, most people would disagree.
In the Press Freedom Index compiled by the Paris-based group, Reporters Without Borders, Thailand has plummeted from 65th to 130th to 153rd over the past three years.
This is shocking, but what is even worse is that in a list of 178 countries, the highest-ranking nation for press freedom in this area is Indonesia – and it is way down at number 117.
So according to that assessment, about two-thirds of the world has a much freer media than we have in this region.
Compounding that gloomy picture is the way ratings for the so-called democracies in ASEAN – Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, are declining steeply.
Last month, the Asian Media Barometer Report noted that Thai journalists face legal barriers, political bias and other hurdles when trying to report in an objective way without fear or favour.
The report concluded: “Thai citizens and journalists still assert their right to freedom of expression, but with a certain and palpable degree of fear.”
It is this aspect of press freedom, namely that it is not simply the right to report freely and fairly, but the right to do it and not be targeted afterwards, that is crucial.
That is why ostensibly free nations like Cambodia, the Philippines and Thailand fare so badly in the survey.
Reporters in these countries may write exposés of corruption and maladministration and the stories may be published, but often the journalists later become victims of acid attacks or drive-by shootings.
Or even massacres, as happened two years ago in Mindanao when a local warlord decided to eliminate an opposition entourage, including more than 30 accompanying Philippine reporters.
Regrettably, few of the perpetrators of these atrocities get punished since they are connected to the high and mighty, or in many cases, they are the high and mighty.
Naturally, this makes journalists practice self-censorship, so that from Hanoi to Singapore, the ASEAN media has become tame and often sycophantic.
Thai social activist Jon Ungphakorn, a former senator, recently lamented the lack of reportage about extra-judicial killings and the detention of hundreds of people under emergency laws.
Although referring to his own country, Ungphakorn could have been talking about anywhere in this region when he said the media seems to intentionally avoid investigating society’s dark recesses where injustice, corruption and abuse of power thrive.
This avoidance is often due to the business interests of publishers and major advertisers, who have nothing to gain by riling political leaders – and everything to lose.
The public itself is also culpable since many readers appear to prefer celebrity-focussed sensationalism rather than substantive stories about political or human rights abuses.
Of course, there are sunbeams piercing this gloom, like the Press Freedom Week held last October in the central Philippine city of Cebu, which included a Mr & Mrs Press Freedom contest.
One participant, a local human rights leader, Dennis Abarrientos, said: “Nobody should ever be detained for their political beliefs, no caveats, no exceptions, never.”
He was absolutely right. Governments maintain their hold on power by suppressing the media’s key function as a guardian of civil liberties.
Then, once they’ve sucked the red blood out of the press and turned it into an anaemic mouthpiece, they can hold hostage all other freedoms.
Recent events have shown that it is happening here and across the region and it is why we fare so abjectly in the press freedom surveys.