An interview with Edgardo Legaspi, SEAPA's Executive Director:
Why is SEAPA more important today than ever in the region?
The Southeast Asian region faces common issues across several countries.Press freedom restrictions and a trend toward controlling freedom of expression through laws and criminalisation of speech are present in most countries. Impunity for violence against journalists also plague five countries (Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Philippines and Thailand).
While the region has an emergent intergovernmental mechanism in the form of ASEAN, regional cooperation among governments has been weak on human rights, and is absent on press freedom. In view of these, there is a need to foster cooperation on common issues to push for regional mechanisms that can address these issues. SEAPA is well positioned to advocate for media cooperation to address issues and engage official efforts in the region.
Could you give examples of successful SEAPA’s Campaigns and Advocacy
SEAPA is known in the region for its press freedom advocacy, both through its annual reports and its alerts on specific incidents. We have been able to support member and partner campaigns to draw attention key cases of violations (Maguindanao massacre, Vietnam bloggers, lesé majesté in Thailand) and government responses to improve on problematic drafts of proposed press/media laws (Thailand Computer Crimes Act, and media laws in Myanmar and Timor Leste are recent examples) and measures (Indonesia restrictions against visiting foreign journalists).
Success in these cases may be seen in the high profile SEAPA receives in advocacy on these issues to contribute to government responses, if even if these are not about complete reversals in some cases. Our members have been able to leverage SEAPA’s regional reach and profile to support their advocacies.
What are the main challenges faced by freedom of expression
organisations in South East Asia?
In general, most countries in the region confront severe restrictions on political and religious/cultural expression. Political repression remains severe in Laos and Vietnam, also difficult in Malaysia and Singapore, and has returned to Thailand last year.
In addition, laws and the establishment enforce taboos on speaking against dominant religious and cultural beliefs in Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand. There also exist conservative organizations that inflict violence on persons that speak against these beliefs.
Organizations promoting freedom of expression remain weak, and uncoordinated, as SEAPA is still the only regional network promoting this right on an institutional level, but on a rather limited scale
considering the enormity of the issues. There have been campaigns and regional meetings that tackle these issues, but none so far have been sustained.
What issues have you been tackling since you became the new SEAPA
Since July, SEAPA has mostly been ‘fighting fires’, so to speak, addressing or responding to incidents that erupt as has been normal in the context of the current country situations region.
A recent Mekong-wide meeting on freedom of information and activities to mark the international day to end impunity have been highlights of SEAPA activities.
Our attention has been mostly inward looking as Seapa is currently undergoing a strategic planning process to frame our activities for the next years; and also conducted our fellowship.
On a positive note, we are happy about how the media community in Myanmar has covered the recent elections. They have done a good job, considering that this is the first time a genuinely contested election, which is happening under the recent relaxations in the media environment. Before November 8, there was much apprehension uncertainty about potential violence and election irregularities that would have tested the fledgling media. We had prepared mechanisms to respond should any incident have happened. Thankfully, no major incident against journalists happened, and there was no attack whatsoever. Media coverage of this critical exercise was free in general.
Of course the election turnout was also very reassuring, and hopefully transition to the next government will be smooth.
Do you have programmes advocating for ethical journalism in the region?
At present, our work on ethics comprises of small activities to direct journalist attention to ethics issues in the context of recent elections in Cambodia and Indonesia. Ethics is a difficult issue to promote beyond the national level, since SEAPA does not directly experience the situation beyond where we are, which is Thailand.
We are aware though that ethical considerations underpin many incidents of press freedom violations involving specific journalists, which sometimes impact our decision on how to handle such cases. We are looking for ways on how to develop a method to integrate or address these ethical considerations in a way that will not undermine advocacy positions.
How do you think that the GFMD could bring value in Asia in the
coming years ?
It is interesting that despite the big overlap in terms of focus and issues SEAPA and GFMD members (looking at the list on website) do not overlap in the subregion; and nor do we coordinate (at least as far as
I’m aware of). Our mandate and geographic scope too is limited to the subregion. Cooperation and solidarity on Asia-wide issues issues is a definite possibility; so too is sharing of best practices on how GFMD members tackle these, not to mention its worldwide reach.
Media sustainability, especially direct support, is beyond the scope of SEAPA work. However this is not to say that this kind of support is not a need in the region. While many worldwide members of GFMD already operate in Southeast Asia, there is probably a need for closer coordination to a more holistic and thorough response.
interview with Edgardo Legaspi (Ed), Executive Director of SEAPA