The Right to Know: Access to Information in Southeast Asia

PUBLISHED jointly by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (Seapa), this book examines the state of the media in these countries and the obstacles faced by journalists and citizens who wish to obtain access to public records.

The book includes the findings of a cross-country survey that ranked the countries according to their openness. The Philippines and Thailand rank as the most transparent countries in Southeast Asia. Cambodia is third, although citizens rarely attempt to obtain information from the government, which they think is authoritarian and inaccessible Moreover, the information infrastructure is in shambles after the ravages of the Khmer Rouge.

In Indonesia, Suharto-era restrictions on information disclosure remain in place, although the press is free and able to report on areas of public life previously closed to scrutiny.

In Singapore and Malaysia, paternalistic but restrictive governments keep citizens in thrall while giving them a taste of the good life. In recent years, there has been some opening up in information access in these countries as governments responded to the demands of global business for more economic information in the wake of the crisis that struck East Asia in the late 1990s. At the same time, however, these governments have refused to be more forthcoming in releasing information on other aspects of political and social life.

In Vietnam, the Communist Party dominates the media and wide areas of public life. The least transparent country in the region is Burma, where all media are mouthpieces of the junta and virtually no information is available to the public. Burma also has the most restrictive press laws in the region, and perhaps the world.

For the longest time, the rulers of Southeast Asia maintained political control through information control. Since the late 1980s, however, such stranglehold has been challenged by democracy movements, technological advances and the increasing integration of regional economies into global trade and finance. In Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, the media have played an important role in providing citizens information on the excesses of authoritarian regimes. Today, in these countries, a free press provides a steady stream of information on corruption, the abuse of power and assorted forms of malfeasance.

The Southeast Asian experience has shown that the struggle for freedom of information cannot be taken separately from the struggle for democracy. The most significant openings in information access have come about as part of a package of democratic reforms. These reforms, in turn, were the product of citizens’ involvement in pro-democracy movements; they would not have been possible if left to the initiative of leaders or legislatures.

“Southeast Asian governments do not open up of their own accord,” says the book. “They have to be pried open.”

© 2001, 270 pages, ISBN 971-8686-34-7

The book is available at the PCIJ office. For more information, email or call (+632) 4319204.