This is a live blog on the three-day regional conference held by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism on Peace, Human Rights, Good Governance: East Asian Democracies at the Crossroads at the Asian Institute of Management in celebration of the Center’s 20th year anniversary

September 28 2009

10:17 a.m.

The keynote session. “The Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand: People Power, Reformasi, Elections and Democracy,” began with an address by Hon. Nursyahbani Katjasungkana, a Member of Parliament of Indonesia, a feminist lawyer, human rights advocate, and founder of the Women’s Association for Justice and the Women’s Legal Aid in Jakarta. She is one of 1,000 women worldwide proposed to be chosen for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize.

Hon. Nursyahbani recalled the difficulty of fighting for democracy and basic human rights and civil liberties during the last years of the Suharto government. She was encouraged to become a part of a peoples consultative assembly to take a more direct part in the birth of a new democratic institution.

She says the big question is whether Indonesia’s newfound democracy has successfuly been translated into tangible and substantial results that could be felt in the daily lives of the Indonesian people. This question she says is a crucial question that any new democracy must ask itself and address for any democracy to be successful. Free elections are simply not enough to define a real and workable democracy that would be meaningful for its citizens.

Hon. Jon Ungphakorn, a former senator of Thailand and a 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for Governmental Services was the next keynote speaker. He began by saying, partly in jest but with a hint of truth, that it is extremely difficult to explain the political situation in Thailand, and because of the “extreme polarization” in that country, “you should not believe me.” It was his way of saying that one must listen to several voices first before presuming to claim a rudamentary understanding of where Thailand is now in terms of democracy.

“It’s an ongoing struggle, when we think we have democracy we don’t really have democracy. We are moving in stages, we have setbacks. We have movements forward and movements backward, but at each stage we are advancing, but the advances are very painful,” he said.

He adds that there are many striking similarities with the challenges and problems faced by Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines, such as a very influential security apparatus, and overly influential families that dominate the legislature. “We don’t have a real people’s party in Thailand representing the poor or the marginalized, only political parties representing the powerful groups of society.”

“There are many long dangerous periods ahead. What is happening now is that internet freedom is now controlled. The assembly that set up our public broadcasting also passed the computer crimes law which allows prosecution of bloggers for having inforamtion in their computers or website that can be considered dangerous to national security or untrue material that could cause public alarm. [These are] very wide [definitions]… People are being imprisoned for speaking or writing about the monarchy on the internet.”

The third keynote speaker was PCIJ’s Ceres Doyo, a member of the Center’s Board of Editors. Ceres is a multiawarded special reports writer and columnist of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Her body of work includes reports on human rights, HIV/AIDS, Vietnam’s Boat People, insurgents and soldiers, public health and environmental concerns, and most important of all, the stories of
ordinary Filipinos.

Ceres talked of the great advances in press freedom in the Philippines since the ouster of President Ferdinand Marcos. Yet “the picture has not changed entirely. Some of same owners continue to own the press in the Philippines,” together with some newscomers “from the ranks of the political families and dynasties.”

“The return of press freedom does not automatically translate to an excellent press or a press fully aware of its responsibilities as much as its rights. Democracy’s rebirth has not delivered us from the evils of bad government or poverty,” she added.

“Democracy will not always assure us that the press will always be honest fair and responsible as much as it is free,” she said. The press in the Philippines is still “rich in intrigue and sensationalism but poor in substance and insight.”

Ceres adds that ownership of the media institutions is still very problematic, with many of them controlled either by big business or families with political interest, or a mix of both. As such, media is vulnerable because some of them are “compromised entities” that serve as “guns in the holster” of some proprietors, . It is also vulberable because corporate interests provide political leaders “a lever to intimidate the media” into toing the line.

“Despite the absence of overt state control, press freedom remains challenged in the newsroom and the beats, prescribed by the preferences of the media owners.”

“Press freedom is good. But making it work is better.”

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