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Journalists in Southeast Asia, beware: the next two years in the region, which will see national elections in many countries, will bring "dangerous times and situations to navigate," says a new report by the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA).

According to SEAPA, political considerations and a quest for the "status quo" generally define the media situation in Southeast Asia. "From East Timor to Thailand, the agenda of recapturing 'stability' is overwhelming, and in 2008, it was often used to rationalise a low prioritisation - and even a sacrifice - of the press freedom agenda," SEAPA says.

SEAPA advises the coming months will also be a crucial period for the regional economic body the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) - in particular with respect to how it "proves and demonstrates the value of a new charter that came into force in December 2008." One of the key tenets of the charter is to protect and promote human rights and fundamental freedoms, perhaps even under a new ASEAN human rights body. But neither freedom of expression nor press freedom are explicitly mentioned in the charter, says SEAPA, nor has it been explained how the body might work in ASEAN's culture of non-interference and decision by consensus.

2008 was a time for promises, says SEAPA: Singapore promised to relax its Films Act; Laos introduced a new media law that promised to allow more private sector participation in its state-dominated media landscape; East Timor promised to decriminalise defamation; the Philippine Supreme Court discouraged lower courts to jail journalists over defamation; and Malaysia and Thailand ushered in a wave of promises to coincide with their new political environments.

But "how it all actually falls into place - or falls apart - must yet be seen," says SEAPA, noting that little has actually changed in the laws that govern the media in Southeast Asia.

For a more detailed country-by-country report, see:
(28 January 2009)

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