CPJ urges Obama to prioritize press freedom at ASEAN summit

February 12, 2016 10:30 AM ET

February 12, 2016

The Honorable Barack Obama
President of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave N.W.
Washington, DC 20500

Via facsimile: +1 202-456-2461

Dear President Obama:

We are writing to express our enduring concern about the press freedom situation in Southeast Asia ahead of the summit meeting you will host for regional leaders from February 15 to February 16 at the Sunnylands Estate in California. As your government pursues strategic relations with the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a diplomatic effort launched under your leadership, we ask that you prioritize improvements in press freedom as a precondition for developing stronger ties with individual member states as well as the collective grouping.

Southeast Asia is home to some of the world's most repressive media regimes, where journalists face constant threats of censorship, intimidation, physical assault and imprisonment for doing their jobs. Those threats are most prominent in Vietnam, where CPJ research shows that six independent bloggers are currently imprisoned for their journalism. The list includes Nguyen Huu Vinh and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, both of whom have been held in pre-trial detention since May 2014 on charges of "abusing democratic freedoms to impinge on the interests of the state," an anti-state crime under Article 258 of Vietnam's penal code. It is one of several anti-state provisions habitually used by Vietnamese authorities to suppress, threaten and jail journalists.

Thailand is another country of grave concern. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha's military junta has imposed a vague and broad censorship regime, banning any news or commentary that could undermine social stability or cause political divisions. Television stations that have defied those guidelines have been banned or threatened with revocation of their operating licenses. Print reporters who have criticized the regime have been summoned for "attitude adjustment" sessions in military custody. In one case, prominent print reporter Pravit Rojanaphruk was blindfolded and transported to a military-run "dark site" where plainclothes officials held him in a cell four meters square without windows or adequate ventilation for more than 48 hours. Prayut's regime has also moved aggressively to curb online freedoms to suppress any criticism of the Thai royal family, a criminal offense punishable by three to 15 years in prison under Thai criminal law.

Two journalists, Somyot Prueksakasemsuk and Nut Rungwon, now languish behind bars on anti-royal charges.

In Malaysia, recent events have eroded the country's democratic credentials. Prime Minister Najib Razak has reversed an earlier pledge to amend or repeal outdated and sweeping laws, including the 1948 Sedition Act, which carries mandatory prison sentences of up to three years for bringing contempt against the state, and is now using them to suppress press criticism of his embattled administration. Editorial cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, also known as Zunar, faces up to 43 years in prison on sedition charges for critical tweets, including one with a cartoon portrait of Najib acting as a court judge in the trial of subsequently jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, that he posted in February 2015. His trial is scheduled to begin in March this year. Last November, CPJ awarded Zunar its International Press Freedom Award in recognition of his editorial courage in the face of official intimidation and threats.

We are also concerned by recent restrictions imposed on foreign media in Laos ahead of its assumption of ASEAN's rotational chairmanship. The Lao government dominates the nation's media, with no allowances for privately held publications or stations and local laws that criminalize slandering the state, distorting government policies and spreading false information. A presidential decree issued last November aims to bring foreign media under the same strict censorship regime, including a requirement that foreign journalists must submit their news reports to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before they are published or broadcast. Even with these restrictions, Western media were barred from covering the ruling Communist Party's congress last month in Vientiane, according to Agence France-Presse.

While we recognize ASEAN's growing economic and strategic importance to U.S. interests, we strongly believe enhanced ties with individual ASEAN states and the collective grouping will be best forged in a media environment where journalists are free to report without fear of reprisal. A singular focus on strategic and economic relations without a parallel emphasis on promoting press freedom would signal to ASEAN leaders that your government places higher priority on economics and defense than rights and liberties. We encourage you instead to position press freedom issues firmly on the meeting's agenda, thereby sending a message to assembled leaders that the summit's handshakes and photo opportunities will not be granted gratis, but rather with an expectation of promoting more freedom throughout the region.

Sincerely,

Joel Simon
Executive Director

CC:
His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah
Prime Minister Hun Sen
President Joko Widodo
Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong
Prime Minister Najib Razak
President Thein Sein
President Benigno S. Aquino III
Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha
Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong

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