Jokowi Bests Duterte: A Most Critical Period for Media in Southeast Asia

Posted by cmfr | Posted in In Medias Res, Melinda Quintos de Jesus | Posted on 30-09-2016

By Melinda Quintos de Jesus

It cannot be helped. Our regional engagement is enhanced by the quality of our leaders. In the past decades, I have met with our counterparts in the field of media development, and our exchange reflects the pride of having elected a good president — or not. It’s been a kind of musical chairs among the three countries – the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia – which, from the eighties forced out authoritarianism for democracy and rooted the values of free expression and press freedom in their political systems. The shifting quality of leadership reflects the lesson of democracy as a work in progress.

I was not eager to join another round of talk with media stakeholders in Southeast Asia for obvious reasons. I expected that our politics and the state of our  press freedom would provoke a lot of questions.

For several decades now, global and regional partnerships have pressed on with the hope that collective efforts would be more productive than going it solo as a national project; and that working together we could achieve more, learning from each other. We did not have to repeat the failures of regional neighbours. We could through exchange of resources and through constant dialogue grow more free and make news and information more meaningful to the people.

Setbacks and Challenges 

But the setbacks have been obvious. Economic targets have changed news objectives, with newsrooms thinking more of entertainment value and popular appeal in formulating the news agenda. The sustainability of news as a media product was in question. Advertisers have begun to produce more editorial content. These added to the impact of political developments, the return of the military to power in Thailand and the in the Philippines, the rise of a popular local politician to the presidency, bringing to the helm an erratic understanding of the role of the news media.

I was invited to a consultation meeting facilitated by the the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) and Deutsche WelleAkademie.  We were in a brand new suburban development outside of Jakarta, which located a most recent enterprise of the successful media company, Kompas, the new Multimedia University. Around thirty leaders from media-oriented NGOs based in Southeast Asia, journalists, academics and funders were asked to identify the most pressing challenges faced by the media in Southeast Asia.



Clockwise: Melinda de Jesus (1) In consultation with Ming Kuok Lim of UNESCO and Khamphoui Saythalat of PADETC (Cambodia); (2) with Petra Berner (DWA), Eko Maryadi (AJI) , Hugo Fernande (TL Press Council) and Mark Nelson (CIMA). | Photos courtesy of Deutsche WelleAkademie


According to CIMA, the first of these regional consultations took place in Bogota in 2015 for countries in Latin America. I made a mental note of how different perhaps the conversation was in Colombia, as Latin Americans are joined by similar colonial, cultural and religious histories and  the dominant use of the Spanish language, and may enjoy a greater sense of solidarity than ASEAN countries. Indeed, Southeast Asia as an identity remains an aspiration for its members, given the diversity of its histories, its political systems, its languages, cultures and faiths.

But the mechanism for the dialogue employed in the consultation tapped an obvious goodwill among the participants and the shared view that we have nothing to lose working together than separately.

Despite the different levels of media development experienced in our various countries, there was shared belief that communication globally has become problematic, given the speed and de-personalization of technology. If we talk, we might better understand what is going on., determine how much of the problems are local and how much were part of the global context.

More Media Everywhere 

Many observed, ironically, that the great number of media platforms have not evolved more informed and learning societies. We asked if the Internet was helpful in creating more informed citizens.  We complained that competent journalists are a scarce resource. These shared problems require precisely what we were doing – talking through a structured process:  Identify the most pressing problems confronting the media, the key actors, the possible strategies to address the problems.

The widespread use of the Internet raised different concerns. In some countries, it was the government’s attempt to control and limit its use. In others, the manipulation of its use, the manufactured public and public opinion pervert the power of social media for political propaganda.

If this is happening, then the lack of journalists with competence and integrity adds to the greater public ignorance.

This context projects the state and its agencies as a powerful actor in the field of communication. Political leaders set policy and establish the social and technological infrastructure  that make possible the free and unfettered exchange of ideas. Or they work these to their advantage, even conspire against the freedom and integrity of the exchange.

Where does the technology lead us if its power is seized for political agenda?  What happens to that power when it deepens the aversion to learning the facts and arguing through reason?

I raise these questions because it forces us to recognize what is happening, whether or not it is the intention of  President Rodrigo Duterte. His communication policy has claimed passage of FOI which is more about exceptions for disclosure. His press officials are involved with fake digital news sites and the use of social media to spread false news.

Difficult passages in history project certain leaders into larger roles than they envisioned for themselves, catapulting them into a more expanded dynamic beyond their national boundaries. I think regional leadership or its lack could make a vital difference in the way the regional national media grow, specifically in the determination of media’s impact on human development.

Call for Indonesia’s Leadership

In Southeast Asia, Indonesia at this juncture of its history involves a critical role for President Joko Widodo to play.

In a panel we engaged a larger audience, participants in the ongoing Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD). It was an opportunity to make this public call to Widodo to lead by example and perhaps in more ways, to engage ASEAN in discussions to strengthen the mechanisms for promoting the values of free expression, press freedom and human rights;including an international dialogue with Google and Facebook on the issues involving their giant platforms in the developing world.

Filipinos have had a longer history in democratic practice, especially in the tradition of free press and media. But this primacy is now shadowed by our national condition and the highly polarized political arena, heightened by the use of digital communication for propaganda.  President Duterte, whether he likes it or not, is not seen by the larger ASEAN communities in the same positive light, as another leader he admires,Widodo.

Filipinos are indeed set back in our struggle for freedom and democracy. But this should not hold us back in participating vigorously in the continuing regional conversation that will help a regional initiative to succeed.