WHAT IS DEMOCRACY if it is largely form (i.e., elections) and not substance (i.e., development) to the citizens of Southeast Asia?
Indeed, what is the role of the media in democratic transition in Myanmar, Cambodia, and all of Southeast Asia?
Is there a connect between the press and citizenship in the reformed, reforming, and restricted “democracies” of the region?
Journalists in Southeast Asia gathered today in Chiang Mai, Thailand, for a two-day conference “Journalism in Asia 2013″ organized by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA).
The forum gathered journalists, academics, and civil society leaders from Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Myanmar.
CMFR Executive Director Melinda Quintos-de Jesus, who is also a member of the SEAPA Board of Trustees, noted that democratic transition has unfolded seemingly in six-year cycles in the region.
The process has been marked by the EDSA people power revolt in the Philippines in 1986, the democratization in Thailand in 1992, and reformasi in Indonesia in 1998.
The government of Cambodia partly relaxed media laws years later, while the military junta in Myanmar allowed opposition participation and the return of exiled journalists starting 2011.
But De Jesus said most discussions of democratic transition in the region have not stressed enough the role of the media in the process.
The forum thus seeks to identify and assess “the principal aspects of the experience, not as an event but as a process that does not quite submit to easy analysis, given the complexities of democratization,” she said.
Because transition unfolds in different, nuanced phases everywhere in the region, De Jesus said, “we are not presuming to teach anyone anything because every transition is different.” Even in the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia, she noted, democracy still remains “vulnerable to threats,” an incomplete process.
Some milestones have been achieved during the transition in democracies of the region “but not everyone has thought of the process or the role of the media in transition.” The forum aims, too, to understand the events in Myanmar and foster stronger appreciation of the difficulties of transition. Just as important, because “the media is by nature not introspective,” the forum also aims to review the role of the media in democratic transition.
However, “unless the public is responsible, and see their role in democratic development, we cannot have real democracy,” she said.
“Democracy can serve as more than just elections… which do not always result in freedom and equality for all citizens” or promote “the broad public interests of the common man and woman on the street.”
Amid the transition, too, nations in Southeast Asia have witnessed “continuing repression and violation of human rights,” and the masses “cut of” from access to capital and resources.
What is lamentable, she said, is that even with free speech and free press, the public discourse in the region has sometimes turned “banal,” marked by “confusion, lack of national dialogue and failure of national consensus.”
All these “failures” have rendered democracy as “not real to the citizens,” De Jesus averred. Democracy has been reduced to “only the external form, not the substance, not the principles or the practice.”
Given its power to help foster change and transition, the forum hopes also to locate the media’s role in democratic change, and “in creating citizenship.”
De Jesus said: “The only way to develop the press is for the press to see its role as intrinsically connected to citizenship, not just in principle but also in practice.”
The Southeast Asian Press Alliance is a network of independent media organizations in the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
SEAPA also works with journalists’ organizations in Cambodia, Vietnam, Timor-Leste, Laos, and Myanmar.
The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, the CMFR, the Alliance of Independent Journalists of Indonesia, the Thai Journalists Association, and the Center for Independent Journalism in Malaysia are SEAPA members.