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Nation: Surin pitches for Asean


      Surin pitches for Asean
      free press

      FOREIGN Minister Surin Pitsuwan said a
      free press was the best guarantee for
      sustaining reform and forcing accountability
      in the public and private sectors. 

      In his keynote speech at a regional seminar
      on ''Promoting and Monitoring the
      Southeast Asian Press'' Surin said issues
      such as greater transparency, openness,
      human rights and press freedom would
      dominate the agenda of Southeast Asian
      societies well into the next century. 

      He said that Thailand led the Association of
      Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in press

      Surin, who is a former newspaper
      columnist, said that society had a duty to
      safeguard press freedom. He said that
      newspapers were owned by individuals and
      corporations but freedom of the press
      belonged to the people. 

      ''Freedom is indivisible. It is all or none,'' he
      stated. ''It is therefore the duty of each
      member of society not only to safeguard the
      freedom of the press but also to ensure the
      safety of its practitioners.'' 

      Thailand passed the Information Act in
      September, the first country in Southeast
      Asia to do so. The act allows public access
      to government-held information. 

      He said press freedom in Thailand had
      come about by default not design, with
      journalists having had to fight those in
      power for the freedom they enjoyed today. 

      The government has been trying to promote
      Bangkok as the hub of the foreign press by
      welcoming correspondents wishing to set
      up stations here. The government allows
      press liberty, access to officials and,
      overall, a friendly atmosphere, he added. 

      The two-day regional seminar brought in
      two dozen representatives and media
      experts from the Philippines, Indonesia,
      Thailand and North America. 

      With Indonesia's growing freedom of
      expression, the Southeast Asian press has
      become more vibrant, but journalists have
      to continue their struggle against existing
      anti-press laws aimed at curbing their

      Attmakusumah Astraatmadja, executive
      director of the Soetomo Press Institute,
      said that Indonesian journalists were
      demanding more press freedom. 

      Although the government has proposed a
      more liberal press law, there are as many
      as 13 articles that restrict press freedom,
      he said. ''These are what we call 'the blank
      cheques' of the new draft press law,''
      Attmakusumah added. 

      Since former President Suharto stepped
      down in May, 350 new licences for
      newspapers, tabloids and magazines have
      been issued by the Indonesian Ministry of

      Echoing this sentiment was Kiatichai
      Pongpanich, senior editor of Khao Sod,
      who said that a genuine, free press had to
      find expression in written laws and the
      Constitution. Media institutes and
      journalists have fought long and hard and
      have contributed to the development of
      press freedom through the constitutional
      drafting process last year, he emphasised. 

      While the Constitution says that the press is
      free to disseminate news and opinion,
      there are still archaic anti-press laws in
      existence which need to be eradicated to
      ensure free freedom, he said, adding that
      the Thai public was suspicious of
      government-owned electronic media
      because of its monopoly. ''This has
      certainly made our Thai public probably put
      more trust in the press and regard its
      freedom as a social commitment. 

      Melinda Quintos de Jesus, executive
      director of the Philippines-based Centre for
      Media Freedom and Responsibility, urged
      readers to be more critical and demand
      better newspapers. 

      ''They [the newspapers] have caught on that
      ordinary readers do not read news critically
      and don't write to complain about
      inaccuracies and false reports,'' she said. 

      ''Freedom is wasted when the press grows
      complacent and gets too comfortable,'' she

      Media experts from the North
      American-based Committee to Protect
      Journalists, the International Freedom of
      Expression Exchange and the World Press
      Freedom Committee discussed
      international networking and global press

      They also offered tips and encouragement
      for the regional press to sustain and
      promote freedom of expression. 

      The seminar, which ends on Sunday, is
      expected to adopt a resolution to form a
      Southeast Asian press alliance, the
      region's first non-Western, independent,
      non-governmental organisation, which will
      promote and monitor press freedom in the

      The Nation