Freedom Takes Hold: ASEAN journalism in transition

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Author A. Lin Neumann
Publication Date February 1999
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Freedom Takes Hold: ASEAN journalism in transition, February 1999, available at: [accessed 23 September 2018]
Comments This report was included as a Special Report in CPJ's "Attacks on the Press in 1998".
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

By A. Lin Neumann

December 1998

Since July 1997, the Asian economic crisis has dragged the countries of Southeast Asia through a nightmare of currency devaluation, shattered stock markets, rising unemployment, and political instability. But paradoxically, the crisis has also created opportunities for positive social and political change, including greater press freedom. Calls for greater openness and a freer press in the region vie with more closed and authoritarian responses to the extended economic downturn.

In recent years, the robust growth enjoyed by most of the nine members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was frequently used to justify authoritarian governments and restrictive press laws. So-called "Asian values" were said to prize economic development and social harmony above individual freedom and civil liberties. The financial crisis may finally have revealed the fallacy of appealing to Asian values as a rationale for controlling the flow of information.

In Indonesia, for example, the nation hit hardest by the downturn, economic woes focused public attention on widespread corruption and a lack of government accountability. Anger over these abuses sparked massive protests and rioting, which in turn forced President Suharto to resign in May. Despite his ties to the old regime, Suharto's hand-picked successor Bacharudin Jusuf (B.J.) Habibie grasped that reform is the key to political survival. As part of that process, the government quickly lifted almost all restrictions on the press.

In contrast, as the economic crisis reached Malaysia, an internecine power struggle intensified and the government sought to muzzle dissent. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, long an outspoken advocate of Asian values, invoked the country's draconian, colonial-era Internal Security Act to arrest his one-time protegé turned reformist political rival, former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, for sodomy and corruption. The September 20 arrest prompted the largest public protests in Malaysia in a generation. Mahathir, ASEAN's longest-serving leader, has used a timid, self-censoring press and a pliant legal system to mute dissent.

During the long period of turmoil that followed the ouster of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, the Philippines was held in contempt by its authoritarian neighbors for its rowdy democracy and raucous free press. During the current crisis, however, the Philippines has held a peaceful election, withstood government transition, and wheathered the economic meltdown with fewer negative effects than its ASEAN partners.

Although Thailand's monetary policies in July 1997 unwittingly triggered the regional financial upheaval, attempts to quell the crisis with authoritarian strategies failed. When Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh blamed the media for the crisis, he was met with ridicule in the Thai press. In October 1997, Chavalit sought to impose a state of emergency, which would have included press censorship and a curfew. The military, reversing a history of intervention in civil affairs, refused to go along, and in November 1997, Chavalit resigned. The new prime minister, Chuan Leekpai, of the Democrat Party, presided over the implementation of a new constitution with the strongest press freedom protections in the region. A program of economic reforms and greater openness under Chuan has led Thailand to the forefront of the regional movement to encourage more transparency within ASEAN.

In his keynote speech at a CPJ-sponsored conference on regional press freedom in Bangkok in November, Thailand's foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan stated, "Freedom is indivisible. It is all or none. It is therefore the responsibility of each member of the society not only to safeguard the freedom of the press but also to ensure the safety of its practitioners."

The conference resulted in an unprecedented agreement among organizations advocating greater press freedom in Southeast Asia to cooperate across national boundaries. The Southeast Asia Press Alliance (SEAPA), made up of representatives from Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia, is planning to establish a working secretariat in Bangkok to monitor press freedom conditions throughout ASEAN.

Nowhere is the battle for openness more crucial than in Indonesia, where the press is suddenly free to report on corruption and investigate human rights abuses. The military so far has steered clear of taking power, authorities have given the green light to the formation of political parties, and the country appears to be on course for promised May 1999 elections.

Indonesia's liberated press, however, remains at risk; the Habibie government has yet to introduce a promised systematic reform of repressive media laws used by the Suharto government to close publications and imprison journalists. And the country's ongoing economic instability could still lead to a political backlash. But the Habibie government has surprised many analysts with its willingness to tolerate, and even encourage, far-reaching public debate in the press.

The May riots, ongoing student demonstrations, and ethnic violence have fueled fears that the country might spiral into widespread bloodletting of the sort that followed the 1965 overthrow of President Sukarno. Suharto frequently used the specter of social chaos to justify his New Order regime, and some analysts worry that reactionary forces may once again use the threat of instability as an excuse to derail reform. "Common sense is now being threatened in Indonesia," said Andreas Harsono, a journalist who works with the Institute for Studies in the Free Flow of Information. "In general, people do not feel secure these days."

But the socioeconomic particulars of Indonesian life are significantly different from those of a generation ago. Indonesia now has a substantial educated urban middle class with a stake in a stable democratic system. Today's vibrant, vigilant press can play a stabilizing role by airing the issues at the root of social strife.

As Southeast Asia's largest nation, Indonesia, with 200 million people, is the region's most important economy and a bellwether for its neighbors. Thus, if democracy takes root in Indonesia, it has the potential to change the political dynamic of the entire region. A free press in post-Suharto Indonesia can help open an ASEAN-wide dialogue on free expression, human rights, and other issues, such as the environment, that have long been kept under wraps.

"If Indonesia joins Thailand and the Philippines as a democratic state, it puts real pressure on the rest of ASEAN," said a Jakarta-based Western diplomat. "You can ignore everyone else in ASEAN, but you cannot ignore Indonesia. No one comes close to it in size and influence."


ASEAN's "free press" nations – Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines – account for more than two-thirds of the total population of Southeast Asia's 483 million people. Their cumulative clout may provide an irresistible momentum toward press freedom in the rest of Southeast Asia. The authoritarian leaders of Malaysia, Vietnam, Burma, and elsewhere will no longer be able to pretend that a timid and cautious press is the regional norm.

"Look at Indonesia," said a senior Thai foreign ministry official. "It is moving along a process of reform that was not possible under the old regime or before the crisis. The crisis brought about a change, and that change has opened up opportunities. Habibie is committed to a process of reform and a schedule of elections that will lead to more changes. This wasn't possible without the crisis. The crisis itself has ushered in some dynamics [for change] in the domestic structure of every society here."

While ongoing economic upheaval has triggered the recent changes for the Indonesian press, courageous journalists throughout Southeast Asia have worked for years to open restrictive societies.

During the Marcos dictatorship, a few journalists continued to test the regime's limits. When Marcos finally fled in 1986, it was in large part because the Philippine media had chipped away at his credibility.

In May 1992, hundreds of thousands of people, including members of an emerging Thai middle class, took to the streets to protest a military-dominated government. When troops fired on the protesters, killing dozens, popular outrage against the killings led to the government's collapse, and a period of political liberalization began. It was newspaper reporting, in defiance of a ban on coverage of the protests, that galvanized the public against the bloodshed. Since 1992, Thai newspapers have grown increasingly bold. Thailand has become the de facto center for regional reporting, as well as a haven for human rights groups and regional non-governmental organizations, which operate in Thailand with little government interference.

In the last years of the Suharto era, when the regime shut publications and sent some editors and reporters to prison, a core of dedicated Indonesian journalists pushed the limits of free expression by publishing banned magazines on websites, and flouting government licensing requirements to print underground newspapers. The hard work has now begun to pay off.


Since its founding 31 years ago, ASEAN has been an economic alliance and a forum for the resolution of intraregional tensions. Most of its nine member states have had authoritarian governments. But the current crisis is changing the way ASEAN does business and exposing a dramatic contrast between the more democratic states and their repressive allies.

In July 1998, at the annual ASEAN foreign ministers' summit in Manila, Thailand's dynamic young foreign minister, Surin Pitsuwan, challenged the ASEAN orthodoxy by discussing what he called "flexible engagement," a policy initiative designed to supersede the alliance's core principle of "non-interference" in one another's domestic affairs and to encourage formal discussion of human rights and free expression within ASEAN.

Advisors close to Surin say that greater openness is necessary if the alliance is to maintain its relevance after the economic collapse. "Globalization, liberalization, accountability, transparency, and good governance – all these things are now being felt in every society and every government," said a senior official. "If you want to compete and you want to move along, you will have to make changes."

In human terms, non-interference also meant tolerance for even the worst human rights abuses. For example, Burma, despite being a virtual pariah state internationally, gained full ASEAN membership in 1997 with the tacit understanding that member states would turn a blind eye to its domestic policies.

Surin's proposal touched a raw nerve among most other ASEAN ministers, who recognized it as a far-reaching challenge to ASEAN's repressive history. In the end, after tense discussions, the Philippines was the only member state to openly support Thailand on the issue. The alliance watered down the idea, agreeing to encourage what is now termed "enhanced interaction." Whatever it is called, the message is clear: The reformist forces within ASEAN now feel free to criticize their neighbors.

The new dynamic has already had repercussions. The presidents of the Philippines and Indonesia both publicly criticized Anwar's arrest in Malaysia. Newspapers in Jakarta, Manila, and Bangkok editorialized against Mahathir's actions. The shock of this public rebuke prompted an angry reaction from the timid pro-government Malaysian press, which complained that other ASEAN countries were interfering in what was a purely internal matter.


For decades, the Indonesian state was virtually synonymous with one man, Suharto, whose hold on his nation was so strong that many observers could hardly conceive of life without him and even local journalists were unprepared for the rapid demise of his regime.

Habibie was thrust into office by Suharto's May 21 resignation, and he seemed to have inherited an impossible task. Demonstrators immediately called for his resignation, and many observers were convinced that he couldn't last in office for more than a few weeks. But a coterie of media-savvy advisors concluded that political reform and greater openness offered a way out of the maelstrom. Habibie's government acted quickly to allow the press to operate openly, and encourage new political parties to function.

The changes caught journalists by surprise. "We were prepared for the long haul. We had safe houses, underground printing presses, and a network of discussion groups to prepare the ground gradually for the post-Suharto era," said Goenawan Mohamad, the founder and chief editor of Tempo magazine. "We are now dealing with a completely new and unforeseen situation. But of course we do not for a moment regret that Suharto is gone."

Tempo, once Indonesia's largest, most respected news magazine, is a prime example of the new openness. The information ministry revoked Tempo's publishing license in 1994, following the publication of an article that exposed government infighting over the purchase of 39 East German patrol boats. Within days of Suharto's resignation, the new regime told Goenawan and others from Tempo that they would be free to reopen. Ironically, Habibie was the target of the article that offended the government four years earlier.

"Habibie is sophisticated enough to know that his situation was hopeless unless he allowed the reforms to go forward," said Adam Schwarz, a former journalist who is now a consultant on Southeast Asian issues in Washington. "His advisors concluded that there was a lot of information out there already, and it was better for him to just open up the press."

The magazine's relaunch celebration on October 4 was a major event in Jakarta, drawing some 2,000 reporters, politicians, government ministers, and diplomats. Tempo's newsstand sales have so far exceeded expectations, leading to talk within the company of expanding operations and a sense of buoyant optimism.

The reopening of Tempo, which was founded in 1971, marks the return of a magazine that is credited by many with nurturing a generation of journalists with standards of professionalism and courage that were new to Indonesian media. When it was closed, its 150 reporters and editors dispersed to other publications, sometimes working without bylines for fear of government reprisal. By all accounts, they have had a tremendous impact throughout the industry.

After the 1994 ban, Tempo veterans, led by Goenawan, organized the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), which challenged the official Indonesian Journalists Association (PWI). Former Tempo reporter Ahmad Taufik, AJI's first president, and a 1995 recipient of CPJ's International Press Freedom Award, was sent to prison for three years in 1994, along with two other AJI staffers, for publishing articles critical of Suharto in Suara Independen, an unlicensed magazine. His case brought international condemnation to the Suharto government for its treatment of the press.

While independent journalists managed to keep the faith during the dark days of repression, support has recently come from an unexpected quarter: Lt. Gen. Mohamad Yunus, the active-duty officer who is Indonesia' minister of information and chief official champion of a free press.

Early in his career, Yunus gained a reputation as a tough combat officer during Indonesia's 1975 invasion of East Timor. His name has surfaced in official Australian government reports as the commander of troops accused in the murder of five Australia-based journalists in the town of Balibo, East Timor, in 1975, a charge he denies. But he is also a well-traveled officer who received advance training in the United States and Great Britain. During a stint at the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth in 1979, he even wrote a thesis titled, "The Role of the Mass Media in Developing Countries." Under Suharto, he rose to become Armed Forces Chief of Social-Political Affairs, responsible for coordinating the Army's significant role in Indonesian political life.

Yunus says that Habibie considered him for the post of military chief when Suharto stepped down, but instead named him to the information post on the day that Habibie took office. Since then, Yunus has consistently espoused a belief that the road to stability in his country runs through a free press.

"I want to see more publications in Indonesia," he explained during a lengthy conversation in his office. "I really believe that such a thing will provide more competitive information for the people and it will enhance their views and build the creativity of the people."

It used to take as long as seven years – or the payment of hefty bribes – to open any kind of publication in Indonesia. Censors reviewed copies of all imported newspapers and magazines. Yunus has abolished the censor's office, effectively eliminating censorship. And Yunus advocates removing the remaining government controls on the media.

He has sought advice from Goenawan and other journalists on how to reform Indonesia's press laws, and he has eliminated the stranglehold of the PWI, allowing AJI and other journalistic associations to function freely. Yunus has even been a target of criticism from within his own ministry for being too liberal.

Under Yunus, approximately 350 new publication licenses have been granted since May. New and old titles abound. Along with Tempo, other banned publications have been revived, such as the fiery magazine Detik, also shut by the government in 1994, which has reopened under a new name, Detak.

While repressive laws remain on the books, the nation's future is being openly debated, and Indonesia is no longer the exclusive province of one man's family and cronies. "The most likely thing the press could contribute in this new period is to develop a culture of transparency and accountability in the bureaucracy and the government," says Goenawan. "Tempo will hopefully become a place that will defend and expand our freedoms."

"This is a new experience for us. We are free now," adds Lukas Luwarso, the president of AJI.


Contrast the new freedom in Indonesia with Malaysia, where economic crisis and political opposition have been met with stiffer repression.

The first sign that Mahathir was going to move against Anwar Ibrahim, his erstwhile deputy, came in July, with the forced resignations of three prominent editors identified with Anwar's wing of the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party, which along with other pro-government political parties controls most of Malaysia's media. With a docile press now ensured, the charges of sodomy and corruption brought against Anwar went scarcely challenged in the media.

When foreign television reports documented the popular unrest and demonstrations that greeted Anwar's ouster, Malaysian authorities banned the use of domestic satellite facilities to transmit images of the demonstrations. A private doctor's report confirming that Anwar had been beaten made headlines abroad but wasn't reported by the Malaysian media.

Mahathir has frequently dismissed press freedom as a form of Western imperialism. In 1997, at the onset of the economic crisis, he said, "This is part of the freedom of the press – the freedom to influence adversely against other countries, the freedom to tell lies, which is part of the freedom as interpreted by them."

After Anwar's arrest, Malaysian officials predictably lashed out at the foreign press. Malaysian Information Minister Mohamed Rahmat told local reporters, "I think the role of the local media is important in defending the country from its enemies. Unfortunately, the Western media and certain foreign organizations are now working hand in hand with insiders to destroy all the good in this country."

As a result of the tight control exerted on the press, many Malaysian journalists say they live in a climate of fear and self-censorship, constantly worrying that their phones are tapped and that their jobs are at risk if they offend the powers that be. "The press is not only oppressed, it is totally shackled," said one veteran Malaysian reporter, who feared reprisals if his name was used. "They are trying to bury the press."


If the lessons of Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines are any guide, Malaysian officials can at best fight a rear-guard action against the public's right to know. "Information is just like water, in that when a rock impedes the flow, water still flows by the side of the rock, or through the crevices," wrote Goenawan in March, just as Suharto's crisis was deepening. "The more restrictions are imposed, the more new activity in the media will be generated."

The use of the Internet has had a profound effect in the region. In Indonesia, during the last days of Suharto, students went online to coordinate demonstrations and share information instantly in ways the government found impossible to control. Similarly, the Net has begun to play an effective role in disseminating news otherwise not easily available in Malaysia. Anxious to bill itself as a high-tech research and manufacturing center, Malaysia has allowed relatively easy Net access. Websites and discussion groups about Anwar's arrest have proliferated, carrying debate absent from the old-order press onto the World Wide Web.

No wonder the region's authoritarian leaders are afraid of the Internet. China, Burma, and Vietnam all restrict Internet access; Burma's generals have imposed prison terms of up to 15 years for possession of a modem. But time is on the side of those who believe in the free flow of information. Even Singapore, with its reputation for a timid press, has had to retreat from initial attempts to restrict political content on the Internet, because investors found the restriction onerous.


It has become axiomatic that the turmoil in the Asian economies was aggravated by the absence of a vibrant and vigilant press. After decades of cooperation with repressive governments and avoidance of sensitive media issues, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund now see press freedom as an ally in global economic recovery. Addressing its recent annual meeting in Washington, World Bank president James Wolfensohn called the free flow of information necessary for good governance and sustained economic growth.

Unfortunately, it took an economic collapse to focus the attention of the world on the issue of the press in Southeast Asia. But it would be a mistake to believe that international financial institutions or Western pressure alone will force governments in the region to open their systems to greater freedom and accountability.

Free expression is the first right, and without it democracy and accountability are impossible. The big lie of Asian values as a justification for repression was the demeaning notion that freedom was somehow less valuable to an Asian than it was to anyone else. Fortunately, the new openness in Indonesia, the democratization of Thailand, and the tradition of freedom in the Philippines are creating a culture of free expression that is exemplified by the recent founding of the Southeast Asia Press Alliance (SEAPA) and the growing debate within ASEAN.

Through SEAPA, independent journalists in the region can band together to promote and protect one another. The press in Burma, Vietnam, Malaysia, Laos, Singapore, and Cambodia continue to operate under severe constraints. They are either directly controlled by their governments or forced to labor under a regime of threat and self-censorship. Instead of relying on protests lodged from outside the region, SEAPA will try to expand the scope of regional press freedom in a spirit of solidarity and respect for their colleagues and neighbors.

At stake is the future of free expression in Southeast Asia and the ability of the ASEAN nations to emerge into a stable and more open future. "Those of us in Indonesia know what it is like to lose our freedom," said Goenawan Mohamad. "But if we can right ourselves, maybe we can serve as something of an example for the rest of ASEAN. There are still so many problems in the rest of the region. We have to work together."

Copyright notice: © Committee to Protect Journalists. All rights reserved. Articles may be reproduced only with permission from CPJ.

Search Refworld