Thursday, 20 June 2013

In Southeast Asia, Free Speech Is Still a Work in Progress

By - June 20, 2013

Six advocates from Southeast Asia on Wednesday put the spotlight on freedom of speech violations at the opening session of the bi-annual IFEX meeting in Phnom Penh, comparing the freedoms they lacked in the light of different laws and protection mechanisms implemented in each of their countries.

During the meeting—held for the first time in Cambodia—land rights activists, cartoonists and journalists from Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia and the Philippines said that al­though citizens in their respective countries enjoyed varying levels of freedom, looking behind the curtain reveals a wide range of lim­itations to free speech.
In Thailand, journalist Chira­nuch Premchaiporn said the ma­jor limitation to free speech comes through self-censorship.

“People are used to self-censoring what they say and what they write. Thailand is not as free as it seems,” said Ms. Chiranuch, who faced 20 years in jail for writing a post deemed to have insulted the Thai monarchy on independent news website Prachatai.

Ms. Chiranuch was told to remove the posts and was eventually handed an eight-month suspended sentence in May 2012. Still, she said civil society is be­coming more engaged across the region and that as its power increases the demand for independent, uncensored media would grow as well.
“At least five people in Thailand are in jail because of things they said. [But] I have hope because in the last few years, people are more concerned about [freedom of speech and independent me­dia] and there is more attention now,” she said.

Melinda Quintes de Jesus, executive director for the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility in the Philippines, said the major problem in her country was the culture of impunity, particularly surrounding the killing of journalists. Just like self-censorship in Thailand, civil society groups are key to ending the impunity that stems from such crime, she said.

“The more people are outraged about this impunity, the more convictions we might have and this will bring us some closure,” Ms. de Jesus said.

After the 2010 Maguindanao massacre, in which at least 34 journalists were killed, the Committee to Protect Journalists listed the Philippines as the world’s second-deadliest country for journalists, after Iraq.

Four of those murdered were female journalists who had been raped and shot in their genitals. But so far, no one has been punished for the crime.

Cambodia’s representative at the discussion was Tep Vanny, an anti-eviction activist who has campaigned incessantly for years for those evicted from Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak community. She said one of the largest challenges to free speech in Cambodia was the lack of independent media. “Almost 90 percent of the media is run by the government,” she said.

Indonesian journalist Eko Maryadi, president of the Alliance of Independent Journalists, agreed that every member of society was key to freedom of speech and safe­guarding human rights.
“We can not just give our freedom to politicians, but it has to stay in the hands of the civil society, who have to build strong networks and work together,” said Mr. Maryadi, who was jailed for three years in the 1990s on charges of spreading hatred against the government of then Indonesian President Suharto.

© 2013, The Cambodia Daily. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in print, electronically, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without written permission.

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