Media toils under state repression

Myanmar’s Eleven Media Group is an independent newspaper established under the glare of the generals. Source: Asean Economist

Myanmar is opening up as the democratic National League for Democracy government settles in to power. However, hundreds of political prisoners rot behind bars as they serve long sentences or are forced to endure endless trials while in custody.

The presence in jail of scores of students, imprisoned after the March 10 crackdown on protests against the controversial National Education Law, exposes the limit to which Aung San Suu Kyi’s party has really taken power. While they remain in jail, claims of democratisation will always have a hollow ring.

And despite the Burmese progress, Asean, never a bastion for press freedom, appears to becoming if anything a more hostile environment for activists, bloggers and journalists.

Bangkok-based journalists are arguing that Thailand is losing its reputation as Asean’s media hub.

“Thailand is ideal [with] a pool of foreign journalists. We are allowed to do a great deal,” said BBC correspondent Jonathan Head, the former president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand. But Thailand’s heavy-handed ruling junta has brought in guidelines to reduce the number of foreign journalists, notably freelance operators, based in Thailand. Freelance journalists are increasingly having to survive on tourist visas or establish their own businesses if they want to live in Thailand.

“The trend has been really negative,” Head said. “Before the coup, it was freer. This is a restrictive environment for media.”

The head of the Southeast Asia Press Alliance, Edgardo Legaspi said: “It’s not that bad but it’s getting worse. That’s the problem. Thailand will lose [its position] as a hub for foreign journalists.”

In Indonesia, two British journalists, Becky Prosser and Neil Bonner, were sentenced to two and a half months in jail last year following allegations of violating immigration law while making a documentary about piracy in the Malacca Strait.

Malaysia last month arrested two Australian journalists, Linton Besser and Louie Eroglu, for allegedly breaching a cordon when trying to question Prime Minister Najib Razak about corruption allegations.

Singapore’s Newspaper and Printing Presses Act of 1974 is used to gag the media through a carefully controlled requirement to acquire a permit and state power to appoint media groups’ management.

The Philippine media operates relatively free from state intervention but the fifth annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders ranked the archipelago among the worst countries for 2006 at 142nd place, pointing out that between 1986 to 2005, 52 journalists were murdered.

Human Rights Watch, pointing to the incarceration of seven political prisoners in a week, is calling on Hanoi to free prominent bloggers and activists.

“Vietnam has been on a tear over the past week, convicting seven activists for statements that would be a normal part of political life in most countries,” argued Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director. “The Vietnam government is making clear that the ‘human rights honeymoon’ during the TPP trade negotiations is over, raising a major challenge for President Obama and the US.”

On March 23, a court in Hanoi jailed blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh for five years and his colleague, Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, to three years. Their crime was to provide a forum for social, political, economic, environmental and cultural discussion. The two were charged with “abusing rights to democracy and freedom to infringe upon the interests of the state”.

“Running a website that brings diverse views to Vietnamese readers shouldn’t be considered a crime,” Robertson said. “Given Vietnam’s pervasive control and censorship of the media, such websites are the only place many Vietnamese can see independent news and views.”

He added: “How can Vietnam effectively fight corruption when it allows officials to imprison people trying to expose it. People who expose corruption in government should be protected, not imprisoned.”

On March 24, Thanh Hoa’s court sentenced campaigner Dinh Tat Thang, 73, to seven months in prison, claiming he “continuously sent letters to denounce, slander, insult and offend the individual honour, dignity and prestige of a number of leaders”.

Last August, he denounced the practice of faking paperwork to receive state benefits for wounded veterans in Thanh Hoa province. He claimed the older brother of the province’s police director was fraudulently claiming benefits.

Robertson added: “By tightening the screws on these activists, and on independent bloggers and social commentators, Vietnam is challenging the US and the international community to react. These actions should be met with forceful condemnation that makes it clear to Hanoi that if it wants to earn the respect of trading partners, it must respect human rights.”

On March 30, a Ho Chi Minh court sentenced blogger Nguyen Dinh Ngoc to four years in prison followed by three years on probation, confined to his residential ward.

Later that day the court convicted three land rights activists, Ngo Thi Minh Uoc, 57, Nguyen Thi Be Hai, 58, and Nguyen Thi Tri, 58, to between three and four years, followed by two years of probation.

While the limited freedom of speech in a repressive, one-party state like Vietnam is hardly surprising, increasingly hostile environment in Thailand and elsewhere in Asean should raise alarm bells.