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Watchdog to protect free press


      Watchdog to protect free

      INDEPENDENT journalism organisations
      from Thailand, Indonesia and the
      Philippines yesterday announced the
      formation of a regional alliance to support
      and promote the freedom of the press in
      Southeast Asia. 

      The new joint effort, named the Southeast
      Asian Press Alliance (Seapa), grew out of
      a weekend seminar hosted by the
      Reporters' Association of Thailand (RAT) in
      conjunction with the World Press Freedom
      Committee (WPFC) and the US-based
      Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). 

      ''This is a landmark development in the
      history of the Southeast Asian press,'' said
      Kavi Chongkittavorn, a member of the
      alliance's six-member steering committee.
      ''We journalists have to be able to defend
      ourselves and help our Asian colleagues.'' 

      Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan
      addressed the seminar on Saturday,
      affirming that press freedom was vital to
      ensuring reform in the public and private

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

      ''Press freedom, while representing a basic
      human right, is probably not universally
      accepted [in this region] because
      transparency and openness run counter to
      vested interests,'' Surin added. 

      Traditionally both Thailand and the
      Philippines have maintained high levels of
      press freedom. Press freedom in Indonesia
      has burgeoned only recently, however, due
      to the political upheavals beginning in May.
      More than 350 new publication titles have
      been granted by the Indonesian
      government in the past six months. 

      Twenty-five representatives from six
      independent journalistic organisations in
      the three countries participated in the
      seminar, including the Philippine Centre for
      Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), the Centre
      for Media Freedom and Responsibility
      (CMFR) of the Philippines, the
      Jakarta-based Alliance of Independent
      Journalists (AJI) and the Institute of Studies
      in the Free Flow of Information (ISAI), also
      based in Indonesia. 

      Seminar participants affirmed their
      commitment to supporting journalists'
      efforts in neighbouring countries, noting that
      it was the first time that free regional press
      organisations had banded together to
      promote Southeast Asian concerns. 

      ''It is about time that the regional journalists
      got their acts together,'' commented
      Chutima Buranaratchada, president of

      Veteran Indonesian journalist and executive
      director of the Soetono Press Institute
      Attmakusumah Astraatmadja also
      welcomed the move. ''The Indonesian press
      can learn from its neighbours,'' he said. 

      ''We support your efforts and applaud this
      endeavour,'' said James Ottaway, the
      chairman of WPFC. 

      Both CPJ and WPFC pledged to assist the
      alliance in its development. ''This is vital
      work,'' said A Lin Neumann, the Asia
      programme director for CPJ. 

      The alliance plans to set up a secretariat in
      Bangkok next year to monitor attacks on
      journalists and threats to the press in
      Southeast Asia. It will also encourage
      governments in Southeast Asia to reform
      repressive media laws and relax
      restrictions on the press. 

      The new body intends to include
      independent journalistic organisations
      throughout the region and was formed in
      response to the growth of press freedom in
      the three countries initially involved. 

      Through its networks in the three countries,
      Seapa may undertake a variety of action
      such as issuing formal letters of concern
      and protest, making direct requests to
      governments on behalf of journalists and
      conducting in-depth research missions. 

      So far the long-established Confederation
      of Asean Journalists, based in Jakarta, is
      the only regionwide media organisation. Its
      members come from government-run news
      agencies and newspapers. 

      Western-based press-freedom
      organisations, however, have long
      monitored the press and the fates of
      journalists victimised by repressive
      governments in the region. Each year they
      have recorded hundreds of cases of
      press-freedom violations, with the
      Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres
      recently expressing concern about the
      climate for journalists covering Malaysia's
      political crisis. 

      The Nation