Obama should address media rights in Southeast Asia

November 14, 2012

Barack Obama
President of the United States of America
White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, D.C. 20500

Via facsimile: +1 202-456-2461

Dear President Obama:

We are pleased that you will begin your second term as U.S. president with a trip to Southeast Asia. As you visit Burma, Cambodia, and Thailand from November 17 through 20 while attending the 21st Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit and related meetings in Phnom Penh, we hope that your commitment to human rights and the fundamental right to free expression remains an important aspect of your agenda.

We have noted that the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration will be discussed at the summit, but we are concerned that the document lacks a corresponding mechanism for enforcement, something that your government should look upon critically. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has already called for postponing the adoption of the declaration, expressing concern about the lack of input from civil society groups. We ask that you also urge regional governments to take the time to draft the declaration with the participation of human rights and civil society groups, and ensure that it fully conforms with international human rights standards.

We also ask that you use this opportunity in Southeast Asia to exercise U.S. influence and seek the redress of press freedom violations in Burma, Cambodia, and Thailand, where CPJ has documented worsening press freedom conditions.

Recent news coverage in Burma has been positive, but the country still does not have a free press. The government abolished pre-publication censorship, allowed coverage of previously banned topics, and freed at least 12 imprisoned journalists this year, according to news reports. But despite pledging in August to dismantle its Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, the censorship mechanism remains in place and authorities continue to deny visas to international journalists. The passage of a new media bill was also delayed after journalists protested, saying it failed to guarantee press freedom.

In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen has long suppressed criticism of his government, particularly around accusations of corruption. Two of the most egregious cases include Mam Sonando, an independent radio journalist who was sentenced to 20 years in prison in connection with his coverage of land seizures, and Hang Serei Odom, a local journalist who was killed in September after reporting on illegal logging. At least nine journalists have been killed in Cambodia since 1994, and none of the perpetrators brought to justice, according to CPJ research.

Laws such as the Computer Crimes Act belie Thailand’s status as a modern society. In May, Thai authorities sentenced Chiranuch Premchaiporn, manager of the Prachatai website, to a suspended eight-month jail term for comments posted on her website. The verdict marked a setback for free expression in Thailand and set a dangerous precedent. Now, third parties can be held liable for content posted by users of their website, even if the third parties did not intentionally support or consent to the posting.

Your government has repeatedly supported initiatives to ensure a free and open press, and we hope that during your visit to Burma, Cambodia, and Thailand, you will attempt to use your influence to encourage authorities to address the press freedom violations in their countries. We also hope that you and your team will raise the issues–censorship, Internet freedom, and impunity–with your counterparts.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter. We look forward to your response.


Joel Simon
Executive Director


Ambassador Derek Mitchell, U.S. Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma, Department of State

Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Department of State

Daniel Russel, Senior Director for Asia, National Security Council

Jake Sullivan, Director, Policy Planning, Department of State