The levels of freedom experienced print and broadcasting media in the nations of Southeast Asia vary from the freewheeling to totalitarian to something in between. This circumstance is very much related to the vast political and cultural diversity found in this region. How able the media are to act independent of government control and self-censorship, resulting from intimidation, is influenced by what form of leadership exists in the respective country and whether the political leaders are fearful of independent media.
An added threat to the media's already vulnerable professional standing, as well as to their economic ability to survive, revolves around the effect of the region's 1997 economic crisis. This crisis inflicted a heavy toll on the practice of journalism in countries such as Thailand and the Philippines, where freedom of the press had been established. Less effect on media was felt in other countries in this region that were controlled to various degrees by government.
More recently, confronted by increasing criticism through the media, authorities throughout the region have intensified their crackdown on the free print and broadcast media. In silencing this criticism, the methods used have been more sophisticated than in past decades. Governments have either revamped existing anti-press laws or reinterpreted them to undermine the work of journalists. And, increasingly, owners and proprietors of media organizations have been rewarded in various ways when the government's point of view is predominant. Still, traditional methods of intimidating independent voices continue unabated.
In Southeast Asia, the notion that democratic governments would support free media is now seen as an illusion. Media in Thailand and the Philippines, where the region's most vibrant press reside, are suffering greatly under their popularly elected leaders. Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who came to power in 2001 with an overwhelming majority, has restricted freedom of expression in Thailand as never before. During the first year of his reign, his modus operandi has ranged from the removal or reshuffling of talk-show hosts to the suspension of television and radio programs unfriendly to government. Through the prime minister's control of huge advertisement budgets from state-run institutions and enterprises, as well as his personal network of companies and affiliates, only media that support the government have been awarded large chunks of advertising and incentives.
This situation enables the government to spin news and to confuse and control the Thai media. The absence of critical political coverage, something unusual for the Thai media, demonstrates the extent of the present government's control. It is leading to so-called "media apartheid," under which only pro-Thaksin media outlets will prosper. These actions contravene the country's 1997 constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression in government and public media and prevents the government from interfering with all forms of media.
While the media in the Philippines also suffer, they remain the freest, and thus able to support the best investigative journalism in the region. Serious Filipino journalists are very capable of exposing the flaws of the country's leaders and their reports often generate instantaneous consensus. Without such media freedom and public engagement, the "people's power" would not have been experienced. Former President Joseph Estrada's attempt to control media and influence their reporting during his short tenure backfired as the audience and readers boycotted the efforts of his media cronies. With a lively media market and fierce competition, public demand and support has been a key factor in nurturing the Philippines' media independence.
In Thailand and the Philippines, information technology also helps to disseminate …