Despite commitments to protect and promote human rights as it gears up towards a regional community, the state of press freedom among ASEAN members continues to be shaky, according to a recent study by a global media watchdog.
None of the ten member states made the top 100 out of 179 countries surveyed for the 2013 World Press Freedom Index, published January 30th by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The index compiles annual press event coverage based on six factors: pluralism, media independence, environment and self-censorship, legislative framework, transparency, and infrastructure. It does not critique the quality of press coverage.
"While there has been some improvement in the rankings, the overall situation remains somewhat the same," Bangkok Post Editor-in-Chief Pichai Chuensuksawadi told Khabar Southeast Asia.
Last year, four ASEAN member states saw their rankings improve from the previous index, with newly-reforming Burma leading the way, increasing 18 places from 169th to 151st. Monarchies Brunei and Thailand fared slightly better than in 2011, increasing from 125th to 122nd and from 137th to 135th, respectively.
Improved results in Indonesia
Indonesia, frequently lauded as an example for democracy in the region, moved up seven places, from 146th to 139th. But it still ranks only third-best among ASEAN members as a whole. Moreover, the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) says the seven-place improvement may not reflect better conditions for press freedom, but simply a lack of fatal attacks against journalists during the year.
"In reality, other aspects not conducive to the press's freedom remain the same," AJI Advocacy Co-ordinator Aryo Wisanggeni told Khabar.
Ignatius Haryanto, a media analyst and Director of the Institute for Press and Development Studies (LSPP) in Jakarta, said the RSF index does not reflect the rise of media conglomerations, which he described as having a negative impact.
The government no longer controls the Indonesian press, thanks to reforms initiated in 1998. But business interests and political interests are now able to exert influence through the conglomerates, undermining press independence, Haryanto said. Two key news channels in Jakarta, he noted, are owned by leading figures in political parties.
"As the 2014 election year approaches, there will be more and more media outlets being used to voice political interests. If the index was able to detect this situation, Indonesia’s ranking could be worse." Ignatius said.
Legal constraints in Thailand, deterioration in Malaysia
According to Pichai, the Bangkok Post editor, the media in his country still faces legal and constitutional constraints. In particular, he said, Thai journalists are stifled by provisions against criminal defamation.
Freedom of expression and information is enshrined in the 1997 Thai Constitution, he noted. But criminal charges are nevertheless still brought against newspapers, editors and reporters on dubious grounds.
"Articles on criminal defamation should be abolished and penalties for defamation left in the realm of civil suits," he told Khabar.
Several ASEAN countries, meanwhile, saw their ranking in the Index deteriorate. Singapore dropped to 149th, from the previous year's 135th. Malaysia fell 23 places to 145th place, reaching what RSF described as the country's "lowest-ever position"
"Access to information is becoming more and more limited" in the country, the organisation said.
Cambodia also turned in a dismal result, falling 26 spots from 117th to 143rd due to increased authoritarianism and censorship, according RSF. Two other ASEAN countries, Vietnam and Laos, also had low results – 172nd and 168th, respectively. The Philippines fell to 147 from 140th.