Fight goes on for freedom of speech across all media

Internet usage is increasing and allowing people more access to information and possibilities for expression in every country of Southeast Asia. Traditional media has not always played this role, often remaining controlled and sometimes censored.

A file photo shows an independent writer, with his face masked and hands tied, sporting a statement supporting the fight against threats to the media, outside the Thai Journalists Association office. SOMCHAI LAOPAISARNTAKSIN

As people search for more relevant and "freer" information, the internet's significance as a platform for alternative news and perspectives is surging, while the distinction between bloggers and journalists is also blurring.

History has shown us that free, uncensored and unhindered media is essential in any society. It helps to ensure freedom of opinion and expression, which are indispensable for the full development of individual and for ensuring transparency and accountability within society. Internet usage has also helped to diversify the media and allow a greater level of social participation.

In June 2012, the UN Human Rights Council affirmed that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online _ in particular freedom of expression.

Freedom of expression and free media are enjoyed at different levels in Southeast Asia. A few countries are proud of their strong media, while others have been experiencing a rapid development of free press in recent years. In some others, journalists and bloggers face restrictions and threats to their safety.

As the internet becomes a powerful tool for sharing alternative sources of information and news, countries are finding ways to restrict it. Most governments in the region have taken measures to control online information or to criminalise posting of certain information on grounds such as national security.

In a speech opening the Human Rights Council in 2012, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) stated: "It is important that any laws or measures that restrict access to online content are appropriate and necessary to effectively address genuine concerns. Sufficient safeguards must be put in place to ensure that no restriction on accessing online content is arbitrary or excessive."

With efforts made by governments to keep the online media under control, unfortunately, many journalists and bloggers have faced criminal prosecutions and imprisonment on the basis of legislation that is not in line with international human rights law.

Criminal offences that are vaguely worded are applied to those who post materials online. Others receive threats or other forms of harassment, leading to self-censorship. Even in countries with relative freedom of media, particular topics remain off-limits and journalists are not allowed to visit certain "sensitive" locations. Violence against journalists is another reality.

Worldwide, in 2012, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) director-general condemned the killings of 121 journalists, almost double the annual figures of 2011 and 2010. In addition, there continues to be widespread harassment, intimidation, abduction and arbitrary arrests of journalists in many parts of the world. Women journalists are increasingly becoming victims of sexual harassment and rape.

To compound the problem, the rate of impunity for crimes against journalists, media workers and social media producers remains extremely high _ over 90% of journalist killings go unpunished.

Impunity for attacks on journalists sends a particularly strong message to the wider public to keep quiet about corruption, land grabbing, environmental problems or human rights violations. The result is again self-censorship across society and an erosion of public faith in the justice system. In this way, impunity feeds a vicious cycle. Those who threaten or use violence against journalists are emboldened when they see that there is no prospect of punishment.

The World Press Freedom Day 2013 particularly highlights the issues of safety of journalists, with its focus on the theme of "Safe to Speak: Securing Freedom of Expression in All Media". It calls for combating impunity for crimes against freedom of expression, and securing a free and open internet as the precondition for safety online.

In 2013 the World Press Freedom Day celebrates its 20th anniversary. The UN General Assembly declared May 3 to be the World Press Freedom Day in 1993. The aim of the day is to acknowledge the importance of freedom of the press and to remind governments of their duty to respect and uphold the right to freedom of expression, enshrined under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The day provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the media environment around us and to defend it from attacks on its independence.

In their joint message this year, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and Unesco director-general Irina Bokova call on governments, societies and individuals to do their utmost to protect the safety of all journalists, offline and online, while stressing that "everyone has a voice; all must be able to speak freely and in safety".

Unesco and OHCHR, with their mandates to promote freedom of expression and freedom of the press, have been promoting these fundamental rights.

The Unesco Constitution states a commitment to foster the "free exchange of ideas and knowledge" and the "free flow of ideas by word and image". OHCHR promotes freedom of opinion and expression as rights that are interrelated, interdependent and indivisible from all human rights.

We will continue to advocate _ both publicly and privately _ enhanced press freedoms and for the protection and promotion of human rights in Southeast Asia, both off and online.

Matilda Bogner is regional representative, United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Southeast Asia. Gwang-Jo Kim is director, Unesco Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education.

About the author

Writer: Matilda Bogner and Gwang-Jo Kim