Experts from nine Southeast Asian nations have identified key challenges facing media in their region. They propose three concrete areas of action for civil society, governments and the media.
Skyline of Jakarta: Indonesia, the region's biggest economy, could take the lead in boosting Southeast Asia's media environment
The media in Southeast Asia face a host of issues, foremost of which are government censorship, the concentration of ownership, the lack of political support for free media, violence against journalists and the abuse of libel and defamation laws. While social media offers new opportunities for access to information and participation, it can also be used to spread rumors, propaganda and misleading information.
This list of challenges was compiled by a group of 19 Southeast Asian media experts who recently gathered for a regional consultation organized by the US-based Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) and Germany's DW Akademie. The consultation took place on the sidelines of the 2016 Jakarta World Forum for Media Development.
The expert group included researchers, media professionals and human rights defenders from eight out of the ten countries forming the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), namely Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Representatives from Timor Leste and Mongolia were also present.
Although these countries differ in their cultures, histories and political systems, those attending identified a common need for regional exchange and multi-stakeholder processes to improve Southeast Asian media environments, which are among the most restricted in the world. With the exception of Timor Leste, Southeast Asian countries all rank in the bottom third of Reporter without Borders' 2016 World Press Freedom Index, with Vietnam and Laos the worst offenders ranking 173 and 175 respectively out of 180.
"Governments feel uncomfortable when only the situation in their own country is being checked or scrutinized," explained Melinda Quintos de Jesus, executive director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility in the Philippines. "A regional dialogue can help to make the road a bit easier to travel toward press freedom," she said.
The three-step Jakarta Conclusions
At the consultation, the experts agreed on a three-step action plan to enhance the situation for media in Southeast Asia. Called the "Jakarta Conclusions", the plan will require the collective efforts of civil society, media organizations and governments.
Jakarta Conclusions Action Plan:
1. Develop a regional mechanism for Southeast Asia
This was the most vividly discussed topic: Southeast Asia does not have a special rapporteur for freedom of expression – whereas Latin America, Africa and Europe have active and independent representatives who advocate for information, expression and media rights.
Several experts bemoaned that the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights has not been moving on this issue. "We are missing mechanisms that provide us with protection and accountability," said Hugo Maria Fernandes from the Press Council of Timor Leste.
During the consultation, representatives from civil society organizations suggested establishing an informal mechanism in the absence of government support.
"At the moment the burden of human rights defense does not have to be carried by only one person. But we could have several champions coming from different countries working on these issues," Melinda Quintos de Jesus said.
Others, however, advocated to continue to push for an official mechanism, pointing out that Southeast Asia could learn from the Arab world which is currently seeking to establish a freedom of expression special rapporteur.
2. Engage the large global Internet intermediaries
This second point refers to Internet companies such as Google and Facebook who take a large share of online advertising revenue in Southeast Asia but do little to counter the spread of online hate speech, propaganda and disinformation. The experts suggested encouraging these platforms to develop a pricing system which differentiates between general information and quality journalism.
"We need to come together and confront these and other companies with the situation in our region," said Maria Ressa, former CNN lead investigative reporter in Asia and CEO of the Philippine-based online news platform, Rappler.com.
3. Promote programs to expand media and information literacy
The attendees also emphasized the growing importance of critical media users – hence media and information literacy is the third area of proposed action. Hugo Maria Fernandes from Timor Leste said such programs should be broad-based and include all actors from government to civil society. These initiatives should "enable our growing populations to actively and consciously use media based on the knowledge that we already have in the region," he said.
Such an approach should also include a strategy against discrimination and hate speech, a global phenomenon that is also of increasing concern in the ASEAN region. "For example, we have growing problems with certain religious groups trying to impose their views over other groups," said Eko Maryadi, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Southeast Asian Press Alliance.
The consultation also allowed for an exchange of information and experiences about Latin America's push to improve media freedom. Guilherme Canela, Advisor for Communication and Information at UNESCO's office in Uruguay, shared the results of similar multi-stakeholder consultations held in Colombia in 2015 and 2016, also organized by DW Akademie and CIMA. These kind of South-to-South exchanges have proved extremely valuable in the past. In this case, Canela's presentation and the ensuing discussion gave those present an idea of the spectrum of possible actions and also provided them with concrete advice.
Canela's key recommendation to his Southeast Asian colleagues for their advocacy work: Don't only emphasize complaints, also identify positive elements and build on them.
Indonesia in the lead?
During the consultation, many of those present believed Indonesia, the region's biggest economy, could take the lead in boosting Southeast Asia's media environment. Although Indonesia still has a long path ahead to improve its own press freedom (ranking 130 in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index), it does have a vibrant and relatively free media.
An opportunity for this kind of growth is certainly there: The upcoming UNESCO World Press Freedom Day will take place in Jakarta in May 2017.