Asia's Press Moves From Shackled to Free

When I first came to Southeast Asia more years ago than I care to admit, the idea of free give-and-take in the media was a custom honored more in the breach than in the observance, to paraphrase Shakespeare.

Throughout the region, the press was hampered by authoritarian rule and the dictates of a parochial nationalism that by and large made it impossible for the media to hold government and others accountable for their actions. Praise of those in power was generally the order of the day, regardless of whether that praise was deserved.

In the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, South Korea, Cambodia, Indonesia and elsewhere, exercising free speech was often an incitement to jailers only too happy to toss offending thinkers — very often journalists — in prison. The newspapers of the time, as I recall, could be almost comical as they competed to outdo one another with laudatory prose aimed at one leader or another. Does anyone miss those front-page photographs of ruling generals cutting the ribbons on powerplants that were passed off as news?

But there was a more serious side to the shackles that once held the press in place. In the Philippines, for example, when martial law was declared in 1972 the first people rounded up were journalists. Reporters and editors were targeted by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The communist revolutionary movement in China made infiltrating and taming the media a key priority during its rise to power. In country after country journalists were told to "serve the state" and "be cautious," code words that meant behave, or else.

In virtually every country in the region, however, there were both vital underground publications and courageous mainstream journalists pushing the envelope of reportage and commentary. At times the atmosphere could be electric, as when some Bangkok newspapers defied a 1992 ban by the military government on the publication of photos of victims shot during antigovernment demonstrations. The defiance helped lead to the fall of that government.

In the Philippines, after the 1983 assassination of opposition leader Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, the so-called mosquito press kept the story of his death alive despite official censorship. By 1986, the press had cut the legs out from under the Marcos government and helped usher in the "people power" revolt.

{mospagebreak}

In Indonesia, of course, one of the key demands of student demonstrators calling for an end to the Suharto government in 1998 was the removal of harsh laws that sharply curtailed free expression. When then President B. J. Habibie capped his brief administration with a new press law guaranteeing press freedom, it was widely seen as the most significant reform of his government.

During the massive democracy uprising of 1988 in Burma, one of the galvanizing signs of discontent was the presence of primitive, hand-mimeographed newspapers put out by student activists for a public anxious for information after decades of military rule. Those tiny presses were trampled when the military reimposed its rule in bursts of gunfire and killed many of those brave student reporters. But today, bloggers in Burma and elsewhere cannot be contained and even in Rangoon there are journalists sending stories to the outside world at great personal risk.

But the greater tragedy of those dark times was not the hardship imposed on individual journalists. It was the broader disservice done to entire nations. Corruption, misrule and human rights violations thrive in the shadows. When there is a real risk of exposure in the press — be it on the Internet, radio, TV or print — those in power are held more accountable.

The flip side, of course, is that journalists have a responsibility to get stories right and to be held accountable when they sometimes get it wrong. That is the bargain journalists make with the reader, and in the end, the more voices probing, questioning and examining, the better it should be for an informed public.

Finally, I have spent a career alongside colleagues in this region as the press has been transformed from docile to outstanding in many countries, Indonesia included. I suspect it will only get better.

A. Lin Neumann is the Chief Editorial Adviser to the Jakarta Globe, a daily newspaper in Indonesia that launched Wednesday, Nov. 12

www.thejakartaglobe.com