BANGKOKNews organizations have recently been under official fire from several Asian
countries, including those noted for press freedom. Is this a coincidence or a
trend? If the latter, is it an extension of post-Sept. 11 illiberalism in the
Normally freewheeling Thailand silenced a
radio station, threatened with expulsion two Dow Jones journalists and banned an
issue of The Economist. Indonesia has expelled an resident Australian
journalist. Malaysia has been holding up distribution of issues of Western
publications such as Time magazine. Taiwan has charged a reporter with breaching
national security. Meanwhile a significant row has erupted between Singapore's
Straits Times, usually a mouthpiece of government, and Tempo, Indonesia's
independent weekly, on the issue of Islamic terrorism.
The Thai case arises from the sensitivity
to criticism of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, an admirer of more
authoritarian regimes to the south. Thaksin incited nationalist sentiment by
suggesting that the foreign journalists had criticized the monarchy. In fact
they had drawn attention to aspects of the king's publicly expressed unhappiness
with the Prime Minister.
Local journalists were generally
supportive of their foreign colleagues. Some complained of Western hypocrisy,
however, noting U.S. efforts to suppress coverage on national security grounds,
and Dow Jones' commitment to the U.S. war effort by passing information to its
government well prior to publication.
The radio case may have more damaging
domestic effects for the prime minister. It involved The Nation, a leading
multimedia group long critical of Thaksin, and showed how government control of
the airwaves could be used to silence some critics. Vehement public reaction in
this case could hurt Thaksin, whose popularity has been slipping.
The Taiwan case, involving a magazine
report of a secret fund to pay off foreigners to support Taiwan, appears
isolated. Most countries have such funds and often use national security laws to
Malaysia has censored foreign media
spasmodically for years. But events elsewhere have emboldened the government.
Ironically, the Malaysians may have been hoist on their own petard.
The government is unhappy that foreign
publications have, they say, grossly exaggerated Muslim extremism in Malaysia.
They have a point. Editors' calls for lurid stories about Islamic extremism have
been eagerly answered, with fringe fundamentalist groups that have been around
for years transformed into global threats and Al Qaeda operatives.
But having used the Internal Security Act
so freely against political opponents from the main Islamic party, and sought to
use the fundamentalist threat to frighten the electorate, the Malaysian
government should not now be surprised at negative international repercussions.
Singapore has fed the hunger for stories
of Muslim threats with its own detentions of alleged terror conspirators, and
stories in the Straits Times, widely quoted elsewhere, about terror networks in
Indonesia. Given Singapore's history of political detentions without trial and
the extent of its domestic surveillance, some question aspects of its recent
Meanwhile, Indonesia is being criticized
overseas for not cracking down on extremists, as though it was at fault in not
detaining suspects without trial. However, its expulsion of the Australian
journalist was on account of his reporting of military atrocities in East Timor,
not of Islamic issues.
Some Indonesians are more angry with The
Straits Times. Its four-page article, based on documents said to come from
Indonesian intelligence sources, revealed a conspiracy to bomb U.S. embassies by
a group called Jemaah Islamiah. The independent Indonesian weekly Tempo put a
team of journalists on to the claims and came to the conclusion that they
contained numerous errors and inventions.
Tempo's response may reflect Indonesian
sensitivity to criticism, especially from Singapore. Real security threats do
exist. But there are political reasons for governments in Singapore and Malaysia
to play up Muslim extremism. Both are also using the issue to defend the use of
detention without trial.
Whatever the truth about Southeast Asian
links to international terrorism, it is certain that the issue has become part
of the politics of the region - and added to threats to freedom of expression.