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Is Press Freedom Under Attack in East Asia? - 2002-03-27

A series of government moves against independent media in Southeast Asia has journalists worried.

Unflattering coverage of the Thai prime minister is met with a police raid, the disclosure of a government slush fund gets a Taiwanese magazine banned, and Indonesia kicks out a journalist for writing about military brutality. But the governments of all three countries maintain they are in favor of a free press.

Australian reporter Lindsay Murdoch has won the dubious distinction of being the first resident journalist banned from working in Indonesia since the end of the rule of former president Suharto.

Mr. Murdoch is the Jakarta correspondent for the Australian newspapers, the and The Age. After three years of work, Mr. Murdoch said, the Indonesian government declined to renew his annual visa and demanded a new correspondent be appointed.

"This was unacceptable to my editors. They must and will stand on the important principle that no government can pick and choose who is the correspondent. My editors have not made a decision on when and, indeed if, they will replace me. I remain the appointed correspondent. But I'm told that if I work as a journalist I will be deported and put on an immigration blacklist for 12 months," Mr. Murdoch said.

Indonesia has enjoyed unprecedented press freedom since the fall of former president Suharto in 1998. Dozens of magazines and newspapers now freely report on subjects which in the past would have been considered "taboo," such as government corruption and actions of the Indonesian military. Indonesian journalists who had been forced into exile are now back in the country and writing again.

Mr. Murdoch said he was told that the Indonesian government's decision was linked to two articles he wrote, one of which described violent actions against civilians he reported were carried out by Indonesian troops in the northern province of Aceh.

But Indonesia's Foreign Ministry said the decision not to renew Mr. Murdoch's visa is a technical matter and has nothing to do with the content of his reporting. Marty Natalegawa is a Foreign Ministry spokesman.

"There should be no misunderstanding whatsoever - or even trumped up suggestions that we are somehow retracting to the past. Such suggestions would be laughable were it not serious," Mr. Natalegawa said.

Journalists in Indonesia are not the only ones the region who are concerned about a possible government crackdown on the media.

The Thai government recently threatened to deport two correspondents for the news magazine, The Far Eastern Economic Review, for reporting on what they said were tensions between Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the King. The government allowed the reporters to remain in Thailand after they issued an apology.

But the government banned a recent copy of the magazine, The Economist, for publishing an objectionable article on Thailand's king.

In Taiwan, authorities confiscated more than 100,000 copies of the Hong Kong-based Next magazine, which carried an article critical of President Chen Shui-bian. Newspaper editors dismissed the government's assertion that the article threatened national security.

Media watchdog groups say the trend can be partly explained because the public is told by the government that authorities need to exercise control over the press. That way, countries can more easily recover from the Southeast Asian economic crisis of 1997, which still effects many nations.

In some cases, senior government officials may not understand the principles of a free press. Solahuddin from the Independent Journalists Alliance in Jakarta said a recent statement by Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri reflected that she lacks a clear understanding of the press's role in a democracy.

"She doesn't know what the Indonesian press wants. She criticized the press for criticizing the government, but not providing solution. I think this statement shows how much she doesn't know about the press function," Solahuddin said.

Journalist support organizations also warn that because of government pressure, the press can become its own enemy. In some cases, fear of a harsh government response to independent reporting causes many journalists to engage in self-censorship. Publishing or broadcasting articles critical of authorities therefore become all the more difficult.

Southeast Asia's press seems to have largely weathered the storm of recent government actions. But for journalists like Australian Lindsay Murdoch, it is too soon to report that press freedom is alive and well in Southeast Asia.