Asian Crisis Squeezes Free Press

THE negative effect the Asian financial crisis is having on journalists in Thailand and Indonesia has been largely overlooked. It comes at a crucial time when a free and responsible press can play an integral role in strengthening civil society and fostering more accountable and transparent government in both countries.

Since the crisis began last July, thousands of Thai and Indonesian journalists have lost their jobs. Those lucky enough to keep their jobs have taken huge pay cuts. Journalists' salaries in Thailand have been halved while Indonesian journalists have suffered pay cuts of 75 percent.

Advertising in Thai and Indonesian newspapers has dropped 60 percent and subscriptions, in some instances, have declined by one-third. The cost of newsprint, which is imported, has skyrocketed. In Thailand the cost of newsprint has more than doubled.

In Indonesia, the problem is particularly acute as the cost of newsprint has soared by 300 percent. Consequently, many newspapers are dramatically reducing their domestic and regional coverage and are struggling to remain in business.

In less than a year, 10 Thai national newspapers and 20 provincial newspapers have shut down their presses. Some Thai journalists fear that up to 90 percent of Thailand's newspapers will shut down permanently because of financial difficulties.

Like Thais, Indonesisans depend on their country's 300 newspapers to give voice to popular opinion because radio and television are largely controlled by the government. There is concern that the high cost of publishing the news will only serve to kill off some of the better, more serious, and honest publications.

Journalists suspended by Indonesian authorities in 1994 for being viewed as too critical of government policies have resorted to publishing on-line.

Authorities have been reluctant to punish these journalists because, as one prominent Indonesian journalist wryly noted, "the government does not have a law against writing criticisms about it on the Internet."

Compare this to Thailand. Last November, when Chuan Leekpai became prime minister, the office housed in the Interior Ministry which monitored negative press reports about government policies was immediately dismantled.

Such action can help Thailand to become a model for emerging economies in terms of transparency, accountability, and good governance.

Other countries in the region can learn from Thailand's example.

If civil society is to flourish in Thailand and Indonesia, open discussion and expression of opinion through a press that represents a broad spectrum of political opinion is imperative.

An articulate urban middle class can act as a catalyst for change, but without rural support, any move toward democracy can easily be frustrated. Rural dwellers in Thailand and Indonesia need to feel their voices can be heard and their needs and aspirations known.

A free and independent press allows citizens to be informed about issues important to their daily lives and to have a voice in how public officials should govern.

Fewer newspapers only serve to make people's voices more distant to government's ears.

Moreover, attempts at curbing press freedom only serve to damage the image and integrity of a nation.

John J. Brandon is a Southeast Asia specialist for The Asia Foundation in Washington, D.C. The views expressed here are his own.

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