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SEAPA outlines press freedom battles for 2010

The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) released a new report covering press freedom vulnerabilities throughout the region. After the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) shifts from Thailand to Vietnam in 2010, its approach to press freedom will have a crucial influence on issues like impunity, election coverage and access to the Internet, says the report.

Struggles faced by journalists and media workers in Southeast Asia in 2009 continue. The massacre of 32 journalists last November in the Philippines was the most vicious example of a culture of impunity that exists throughout the region. Journalists also suffered from physical threats, imprisonment and legal harassment, while national security laws are being used as an excuse to curb free speech and defamation remains a criminal offense.

The report, "Southeast Asia's Press Freedom Challenges for 2010", provides country profiles detailing the free expression battles that lie ahead. Burmese media must be able to provide independent coverage of upcoming elections to educate Burmese citizens and to monitor the integrity of the polls, says the report. In Cambodia politically motivated intimidation and imprisonment of editors, reporters and human rights defenders continue. Religious tensions in Malaysia are being used as an excuse to restrict press freedom and Internet access.

Vietnam's repression of dissent and arrest of journalists and bloggers in 2009 takes on greater significance as it heads up ASEAN this year, says the report. The country gets some credit for discussions with international organisations, including London-based ARTICLE 19, on increasing its citizen's access to information. But the recent harsh prison sentence for human rights defender and lawyer Le Cong Dinh sets a different tone for its approach to free speech. At least 12 Vietnamese bloggers were arrested in 2009. The state has also criminalised peaceful dissent which it sees as anti-governmental activity.

Last year's formation of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) has created a platform for free expression advocates to challenge authorities. However, Vietnam's leadership of AICHR is being questioned by rights activists throughout the region, says the report.

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