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Southeast Asia: Media often supportive of government
By Sankaran Ramanathan

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Like many related moral issues, ethics is ephemeral, oftentimes difficult to pin down. You know it when you have it, and you profess not to have it when you don’t know it.

Some scholars distinguish between three levels of ethical practice, i.e. absolute ethics, situational ethics and antinomial ethics. The absolute ethicist would, for example, never tell a lie, even if it means saving his own or someone else’s life. The situational ethicist would tell white lies, while the antinomial ethicist would have no scruples about telling lies. Ethics is therefore an intensely personal issue, closely related to the individual’s moral upbringing and beliefs.

Another qualifying statement is that although we refer to Southeast Asia as an entity, the region comprises countries (Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) which are diverse in terms of history, media structure, government set-up, political structure and so forth. In this chapter, while we shall make generalisations about the region as a whole, it must be remembered that there are exceptions and variations from country to country. We shall highlight these exceptions and variations wherever possible and appropriate.

A third qualification relates to the availability of sources of information regarding discussions on media ethics. We have relied on writings published in English. However, it must be noted that a great deal of discussion takes place in the national languages of the various countries. While some of these have been referred to, this article is based mainly on sources available in English.

A fourth qualification relates to the different levels of ethics and ethical

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practice in journalism, advertising, public relations and broadcasting. Particularly in broadcasting, the impact of new communication technologies and consequent changes in society are deemed to have significant effects upon the implementation and enforcement of codes of ethics.

Based upon historical origin, press systems in the countries can be divided into broad groups, as follows:

    those which have inherited the British colonial legacy (Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, Myanmar and Singapore); those which have inherited the French colonial legacy (Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam); Indonesia, which has inherited the Dutch colonial legacy; Philippines, which has inherited the Spanish/American colonial legacy; and Thailand, which has managed to retain its independence.

As the ensuing discussion shows, press freedom and journalistic ethics are dependent upon the nature and structure of these divergent press systems. In some of these press systems, there is a further element of plurality due to the different languages used for communication. Some scholars have argued that the concept of "massness" as applied to the media in the US, for instance, is not applicable in the context of this region. Hence, it is not easy to make generalisations about the region as a whole. The above notwithstanding, we shall attempt to make general statements applicable at least to the majority of countries, and point out the exceptions, where applicable.

Question 1: As of when has there been a discussion on journalistic ethics? Through which channel was this discussion triggered, and what are its main points, in terms of content?

According to SYED ARABI IDID [ 1996.], press freedom and press responsibility have been discussed often enough in forums and seminars, and they will

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continue to be raised in future, as they are issues of concern to all groups of people in society.

In Southeast Asia, discussions on journalistic ethics have been held, at least for the past 20 years, at national and regional levels. At regional level, these have primarily been held during the general assemblies of the Confederation of ASEAN Journalists (CAJ). In terms of content, the discussions have focused on the need for journalists to write accurate, fair and balanced reports, also reports that highlight national needs and priorities. Further, journalists are required to protect the privacy of individuals.

At national levels, this issue has been raised and debated not only through the national press (newspapers and magazines) but also at various fora organised by schools/colleges of mass communications and by associations such as the Philippines Press Institute (PPI), Indonesian Press In-
stitute (IPI), Malaysian Press Institute (MPI) and the Press Institute of Thailand (PIT). In addition, there are organisations in the Philippines that try to promote higher professional standards in the media. These include the Institute of Mass Communications and the Centre for Media Freedom and Responsibility.

In addition, representatives from national associations/unions of journalists from Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Singapore have participated in discussions about journalistic values and ethics in three recent meetings held under the auspices of the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre (AMIC).

Meeting at Bangkok in an AMIC-sponsored Seminar on Media Monitors in Asia from June 29 to July 1, 1994, representatives from the five ASEAN nations (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Singapore) were among the 24 delegates who endorsed its recommendations. Among others, the recommendations stated the participants’ belief that existing monitoring mechanisms in most Asian countries are inadequate, falling short of the need to protect media from inroads into their freedom. While recognising that no single model is universally applicable, participants agreed upon the following features that effective media monitoring mechanisms should have: independence, accessibility, transparency, fair-

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ness, simplicity of procedures, and integrity and competence of members. Participants recommended that existing media monitoring mechanisms should be strengthened. [ AMIC, 1994.]

From 24th to 25th August 1995, a group of more than 50 journalism practitioners, policy makers and educators from 14 countries met in Kuala Lumpur at AMIC’s Seminar on Asian Values in Journalism. Most of the participants felt that there is a gap in values, and this is likely to grow. Many Asian journalists felt that they should help to bridge the gaps between different races and faiths in Asia. [ AMIC: 1995.] Participants reaffirmed their belief that media should help foster traditional values found in Asian societies.

In a follow-up Seminar on Press Freedom and Professional Standards organised in Kuala Lumpur in May 1996, there were representatives from Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Singapore among the 60 participants. The seminar felt that while constitutional guarantees of press freedom exist in most Asian countries, there are gaps between constitutional mandate and reality, as well as restrictive laws that may be considered threats to press freedom. Participants recommended that existing censorship laws should be reviewed and amended. [ AMIC: 1996.]

Question 2: What status does the concept of human rights in journalistic ethics have in Southeast Asia, and how is the concept of human rights interpreted?

It must be stated at the outset that different groups that observe and comment on its practice view the concept of human rights differently. On the one end of the spectrum are the annual surveys of human rights undertaken by the United States government and publicised through its information centres worldwide. In this genre, we also have the annual surveys of press freedom undertaken by organisations such as the New York-based Freedom House.

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For example, the May 1998 Freedom House survey states that government constraints on the news media contributed to the Asian financial crisis. This report cites Indonesia and Malaysia as ‘politically authoritative regimes which keep tight controls over the news media,’ and concludes that ‘the Asian financial crisis makes clearer than ever the essential role of a free press in an open market economy system.’ [ IFEX Action Alert Network , May 1, 1998.]

Another related report is that issued by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists that named enemies of the press for World Press Freedom Day, May 3, 1998. Southeast Asian leaders included in this ignominious list are Myanmar’s Senior General Than Shwe and Indonesia’s President Suharto. The Burmese leader, who is president of the State Peace and Development Council, was charged with creating a situation where free expression is a nightmare. Fax machines, photocopies and computer modems are reportedly illegal in Myanmar, there are no independent newspapers and foreign broadcasts have been reported to be frequently jammed.

With regard to Indonesia, this report claims that there is little open or independent coverage of business or politics. Journalists have been allegedly harassed and threatened by the military and driven into hiding. This report also claims that Indonesian reporters are fearful that digging too deeply into the country’s financial troubles could cost them their jobs.

On the other end of the spectrum there are observers and analysts (mostly Asians) who interpret the concept of human rights in the context of the socio-political situations extant in the Southeast Asian nations. Hence, they reject rigid Western definitions of human rights, essentially on the basis that too much individual freedom may have negative repercussions for the development of society and the nation.

In the context of journalistic ethics, the practice of human rights in Southeast Asian countries is closely related to their political situations.

Further, there have been significant variations in the political and social climates of some countries, and these have impinged upon the practice of

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human rights. The most outstanding example is Myanmar, which was once considered as having one of the freest presses in this region.

Another case in point is Cambodia, where the press has had to endure six regimes, as explained by Mehta. [ 1996.] The Khmer press survived French colonial rule, a major coup, genocide, civil war and Vietnamese occupation, notes Mehta. During this time the press was often censored and shut down, Khmer journalists were threatened, attacked and murdered and several foreign correspondents were captured and killed. Hence, journalism remains a dangerous profession in Cambodia, states Mehta.

In contrast, human rights are highly protected in the Philippines, where there are associations and organisations of journalists, including the Press Foundation of Asia (PFA), in addition to other civil rights groups.

For example, former Philippine President Corazon Aquino was proud of the role the press had played in mobilising the Filipinos to rise against the dictatorship of President Ferdinand Marcos. (During the martial law period imposed by Marcos in the Philippines, only three English newspapers were allowed to be published and this lasted until 1984.) [ Asian Newspaper Focus, 1998: 29.] After Marcos left the Philippines in February 1986, the press became more vibrant, and now there are 44 newspapers, of which 12 are published in English.

The other Southeast Asian countries can be located somewhere within this continuum, with Thailand closer to the Philippines position and Laos and Myanmar closer to Cambodia.

Practice and adherence to human rights can also be different with different time periods and under special circumstances. A case in point is the alleged abuse of human rights by Malaysian authorities when dealing with the problem of illegal immigrants. Western media and Asian media have interpreted the issue of illegal immigrants and their treatment differently.

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Question 3: What status does freedom of expression have in the ethical debate?

The ethical debate vis-à-vis freedom of expression has been going on within and among the founding countries of ASEAN for more than two decades. The debate revolves around the issue of the extent to which freedom of expression can be permitted and what constraints are needed, particularly with a view to preserving traditional Asian values.

The statement of Singapore’s Minister of Information and the Arts, Brigadier-General George Yeo, at the meeting of the ASEAN Ministers of Information at Manila in December 1993, exemplifies this viewpoint:

    "While we should support freedom of information, we should never allow this to weaken the family and other social structures. We must find ways to preserve our values and to transmit them." [ VENKATESWARAN 1996: viii.]

Another ASEAN leader who has frequently articulated his views on freedom of expression is Malaysian Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. From as early as 1985, Dr. Mahathir has stated that

    "The media must be given freedom. But this freedom must be exercised with responsibility. They must be given the freedom to express opinions freely, even the right to be wrong. But they must do so without prejudice and malice. Just as in a democratic society, no person or institution has a right to destroy society or to destroy democracy, the media too have no such right. An irresponsible press is a negation of the right of the people in a democratic society. If the press fails to understand this, then it should be made to do so by the people through their elected representatives." [ MEHRA, 1989: 115.]

According to him, if the press abuses its rights (of freedom of expression), democratic governments have a duty to correct the abuses. Dr.

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Mahathir’s views are consistent with the views of some other ASEAN leaders, notably Indonesia’s President Suharto.

Former Information Minister Harmoko, who warned the press not to present slanderous and defamatory stories, saying that such stories were totally against the Press Code of Ethics, had stated the official government view in Indonesia. [ Indonesian Observer , May 6, 1995. ] He added that press freedom which is not based on the Pancasila (official national ideology) values will create distortions that could lead to social unrest. Hence, ‘the social control functions of the press need to be exercised based on constructive attitude by preventing tendentious reporting.’

As will be elaborated in other sections of this chapter, the degree of press freedom in Indonesia has gone up and down, in tandem with the political climate. For example, three publications were banned in June 1994, (Tiemp, De Tik and Editor [ Muted Voices , 1996:1. ]) and journalists have been intimidated. However, the new information minister, Dr. Alwi Dahlan, seems to have espoused a more liberal attitude towards the media. [ Straits Times , May, 1998. ] He believes that accurate and speedy information is the key to restoring Indonesia’s credibility.

Question 4: What is understood by journalistic truth, and is there a discussion on the criteria for news selection, as well as a related discussion on the criteria upon which the quality of journalistic output can or should be assessed?

With the exception of the Philippines, truth in the Southeast Asian countries is conceived of as being that which is handed down by wise leaders. It is not something that emerges from public debate in a free and open market place of ideas, as postulated by libertarian philosophers such as John Milton and John Stuart Mill. Statements of the present government in Myanmar best exemplify this. [ Burma: Beyond the Laws, August 1996.]

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In the context of Islam, Muslims believe that the correct definition of truth is that which is found in the holy Quran, as well as the interpretations of Prophet Mohammad and the other prophets, collectively known as the Hadith. Hence, not everything that is reported in the Western press is true, particularly when it involves reporting about Islam.

Question 5: What functions are attributed to journalism and with what importance/weight?

In most Southeast Asian countries, the media are supportive of government efforts, especially in helping to attain development goals. Hence, the function of journalism in these countries is more in the nature of being a transmission belt or conduit. This is particularly so of countries such as Indonesia, where the major newspapers and magazines are owned by persons or institutions allied to the ruling parties. In Malaysia, leading English language, Chinese, Tamil and Bahasa Malaysia newspapers are owned by organisations/institutions that have links with the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition. In Singapore, the Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), a company under the Temasek Holdings, owns and publishes all newspapers and magazines.

Question 6: Is there a discussion on the distinction between news and opinion/commentary, and how is the relationship seen between journalists and politics?

In the Philippines, there is strict adherence by the media to the distinction between news and opinion or commentary pieces. Some critics of the Philippine press have charged that there is an excess of commentary/opinion pieces, some of which can be regarded as libellous.

The Singapore press also adheres to the distinction between news and opinion/commentary. However, this distinction is not that apparent in the cases of countries such as Malaysia and Thailand, especially the latter country, where straight news reports are liberally laced with opinion statements. In Malaysia, many former politicians have become

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commentators with their own opinion columns, e.g. Tunku Abdul Rahman in his column ‘As I see it’ and Dr. Tan Chee Khoon in his column ‘Without fear or favour.’

Question 7: Is there a discussion on ways of procuring and evaluating information?

Unlike the United States, all the Southeast Asian countries do not have legal provisions for the freedom of information, in fact the opposite holds true. Information in Myanmar is tightly controlled, while Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have passed laws to protect the disclosure of matters deemed to be official secrets. In the latter two countries, such legislation has been strengthened and tightened in recent years and the penalties for offences under these acts have been increased manifold. Therefore, the discussion is more geared towards what information should not be procured (since it is deemed an official secret), and if it is procured, how the press can best deal with it without the fear of sanctions.

Question 8: Are the dimensions of the ethics of conviction versus the ethics of principle suitable in understanding the problems of journalistic ethics in Southeast Asia? If yes, are there findings, such as on the orientation of journalists?

Much of the debate about the ethics of conviction versus the ethics of principle occurs in the Philippines, which has been acknowledged as having one of the freest presses in this region. For example, columnist Dominio M. Torrelivas recently lamented that the media in the Philippines was wanting in ethics. [ Manila Bulletin, Oct. 3, 1996. ] Among the issues she raised were excessive advertisements and commercials in newspapers/television programmes, continuing violations of broadcasting standards and lack of emphasis for themes and symbols to popularise the celebrations of the Centennial of the 1896 Philippines Revolution.

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In most of the other countries there is hardly any discussion about codes of ethics. For example, although the Indonesian Journalists’ Association has a Code of Ethics adopted in 1968, it is a formal document with little relevance to the newspaper scene in Indonesia. [ JONES, 1980: 46. ] Furthermore, the Association controls the issuing of licences to journalists. As recently as November 1995, the chairman of the Asian Federation of Advertising Associations, Yusca Ismail, stated that

    "The matter of ethics is not being addressed directly at the 19th Asian Advertising Congress because the forum is reserved for general issues, such as the advertising business and creativity, while ethics is an abstract subject that knows no exact boundaries." [ Jakarta Post, Nov. 7, 1995.]

This tendency to steer clear of direct discussions about ethics is also evident in most of the other Southeast Asian countries. In Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar there is hardly any discussion about the ethics of the mass media.

Question 9: In the discussion on journalistic ethics, is there any differentiation between different journalistic roles?

In most of the discussions participants try to make a distinction between the journalist as reporter and the journalist as commentator. This distinction is more often made in discussions about the press in the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia. Even in these countries, discussions on journalistic ethics are mostly focussed on the need for such codes, how these codes are to be enforced or adhered to, what kind of code is to be adopted, and what values are to be reflected in these codes. Hence, there is hardly any room for discussion on the differentiation between different journalistic roles.

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Question 10: How widespread is bad journalism, and why is it committed? Is there a discussion on this and how prestigious is journalism among the public?

Examples of bad journalism usually involve the privacy of individuals or disrespect for the judiciary. In recent years there have been increasing numbers of cases where journalists have been brought to trial for libel, defamation or slander and contempt of court. The courts have quite often imposed heavy fines and penalties. There have also been examples of ‘chequebook journalism,’ with journalists being offered gifts and ‘freebies’ to induce them to write favourable stories, especially in the entertainment and tourism fields. However, such examples are few and confined to a few countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia.

In recent years, questions have begun to be raised about these issues. Speaking at the opening of the 1996 Seminar on Press Freedom and Professional Standards, Chairman of the Utusan Melayu Group of Companies (Malaysia), posed the following questions to Asian journalists.

Is publication of gruesome photographs justified?

Would you ever lie or use deceit in pursuit of a story?

Is it legitimate to invade someone’s privacy for a story?

Should different standards apply to public figures and members of the general public?

Is chequebook/envelope journalism justified?

Are freebies acceptable, or are they acceptable only with conditions?

Does involvement in a political party affect the journalist’s sense of professionalism and notions of fairness?

The mere posing of these questions in an open forum is a healthy sign for the future development of journalism as a profession.

With regard to the prestige accorded to journalism as a profession, this is highest in the Philippines, where communicators have high public profiles. For example, the leading contender in the 1998 presidential elections, Joseph Estrada, is a former actor who has established good relations with journalists. In Singapore, former President Wee Kim Wee was a senior journalist of good standing. In Malaysia, former editor-in-chief of the

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Utusan Malaysia and current President of the National Press Club, Zainuddin Maidin, has been appointed by the government to serve as Senator (in the Upper House of the Malaysian Parliament).

These examples indicate that journalism has achieved a high level of prestige in these countries.

Question 11: How far and in what respect can journalism be seen as a profession? Which character traits can be found in a ‘good’ journalist? Must one, in order to become a journalist, have concluded one’s studies in journalism?

As a profession, journalism is most highly developed in the Philippines, followed by Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia where there are many schools and colleges of journalism. In Singapore mass communication education has been instituted since the 1990s. It is least developed in countries such as Brunei Darussalam, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. Hence discussions about journalism as a profession, including discussions about codes of ethics, are more frequently held in the countries where journalism education and training are highly developed.

One is considered a good journalist not based on character traits, but more on whether one has linguistic skills, bilingual or even trilingual. This is because journalists operate in press systems that are in English, the national languages and other languages. In Malaysia and Singapore, there are newspapers and magazines in four languages, English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil, while in other Southeast Asian countries there are newspapers/
magazines in at least two languages. Hence journalists are considered good if they are bilingual or even trilingual.

Another trait of good journalists is their ability to get along with government officials, i.e. having good public relations and interpersonal communication skills. In many instances journalists who fall foul of senior government officials are ignored or ostracised from covering government functions. Further, when travelling overseas, a number of leaders in Southeast Asian countries are known to have personally scrutinised the list of

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accompanying journalists and to have removed the names of journalists known to be too critical of the government.

Question 12: Is there self-regulation of journalists? Are there the beginnings of a monitoring of journalistic malpractice, which is conducted by journalists themselves?

Journalists in the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia try to practise self-regulation. In Malaysia, the Organisation of Newspaper Editors (ONE) sometimes issues statements explaining why certain issues are highlighted, or contrarily, not reported in the press. National press clubs of these countries sometimes organise seminars/meetings in which critiques of journalistic writings are undertaken.

In Indonesia, current Information Minister, Dr. Alwi Dahlan, had suggested that the managers of private television stations should agree among themselves to establish rules on the ethical roles of television and to define their own responsibility. [ Jakarta Post, May 1, 1995.] He added that this option would be better than to have the government issue restrictive rulings on this issue.

Question 13: For whom, on what motivation and with what perception of the public is journalism practised?

Most Southeast Asian countries profess to practise the libertarian philosophy, but they do so with a strong dosage of authoritarianism. Hence the practice of journalism is generally perceived as supporting the status quo, i.e. the establishment or power structure. Here again, the tendency is most clearly visible in the case of government-owned media. Within this broad general framework, the broadsheet newspapers tend to be more establishment-oriented, while the tabloid newspapers tend to be more people-oriented. Thus, the tabloids have slogans such as ‘the paper that cares,’ ‘the people’s voice’ and so forth.

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Question 14: Are there professional principles of journalism and what are the essential points?

Countries that have press institutes or associations organise courses on a regular basis for practising journalists. Apart from providing training in basic skills, these courses also provide opportunities for participants to discuss professional principles of journalism. Organisations that conduct such courses are the Philippines Press Institute, Press Institute of Thailand, Malaysian Press Institute and Indonesian Journalists Association.

Question 15: What similarities exist between codes of conduct in the region and European codes?

The Confederation of ASEAN Journalists (CAJ) has discussed and adopted a code of conduct for journalists (see Appendix 1). In addition, there are various codes of conduct for journalists, broadcasters, advertisers and public relations practitioners that have been formulated by national organisations in Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Singapore.

Codes of ethics in Malaysia and Singapore follow those that have been adopted in the United Kingdom, while those in Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand tend to follow more closely those adopted in the United States.

The closest similarities can be found between the code of ethics adopted by the British Institute of Public Relations and those adopted by the Institute of Public Relations Malaysia (IPRM), as well as the Institute of Public Relations Singapore (IPRS). It can be stated that these three codes are almost identical.

In the field of advertising, the matter of ethics was not directly addressed at the 19th Asian Advertising Congress [ Jakarta Post, November 1995.] and it continues to be an issue of contention between advertising companies and professional advertisers.

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In the field of broadcasting also the issue of a code of ethics had not been universally accepted, particularly because of the developments in communications technology. For example, Singapore’s Minister of State for Finance and Communications, Teo Chee Hean, had stated Singapore’s willingness to be a test-bed for satellite television programming to adhere to a code of ethics. [ Straits Times , June 1, 1994. ] Although this offer was made at the meeting of the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union (ABU) four years ago, there has been little progress in achieving consensus, particularly among broadcasters who operate commercial satellite broadcasting systems. While some proponents argue that what is lacking is an effective monitoring and implementing mechanism, others feel that implementing a universal code of ethics in the Asian context is a near-impossible task.

Question 16: Are there studies in which the practical meanings of journalistic codes of ethics are researched?

The Philippines is one country where there have been many studies on codes of journalistic ethics. In Malaysia, Halimahton Shaari [ 1997.] has undertaken an in-depth study on socio-cultural and political influences upon the mass media, particularly in relation to their influences upon ethics in news production. She concludes that

    "Studying the socio-political context in which media ethics is practised has shown that though some ethical principles are universal, others have to be appropriated to the wider social and political environment in which the media operate. This knowledge and acceptance that all social cultures have their own traditions of norms and values that guide communication is necessary to expedite interaction across cultures."

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Question 17: Is there a discussion on ethics for the media sector and where and how does this take place?

There have been a number of seminars/workshops that have included discussions on the need for ethics in the media sector. The first study was undertaken under the auspices of UNESCO in 1980, as part of a worldwide study on codes of ethics and press councils. [ JONES, 1980.] This study included brief surveys of the situations in Burma (now Myanmar), Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Singapore. However, it is dated, particularly with regard to its findings on Myanmar. For example, it notes that Burma was the first of many countries to elaborate a code of ethics and to create a press council. [ JONES, 1996: 45.] However, the press council was dissolved and the code of ethics became inoperative after the military junta came into power in 1989. Subsequently, there have been many restrictions imposed on freedom of the press in Myanmar. [ Censorship Prevails, March 1995:5.] Under the aegis of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), a number of laws and regulations have been enacted so that there is little or no discussion on media ethics and Myanmar remains one of the most heavily censored countries in Asia. A subsequent analysis [ Burma: Beyond the Law, August 1996.] confirms that there are many restrictions on freedom of expression in Myanmar. As stated in the earlier section of this chapter, AMIC has in recent years organised regional meetings where the topic of media ethics has been discussed, along with other related topics. This topic has also been raised at the annual meetings of the CAJ. However, it has been difficult to achieve consensus at the regional level.

Question 18: Is there at the level of media owners, discussion on ethics and what does it cover?

Media owners in the Southeast Asian countries seldom get together in a common platform. In fact, because of the intense competition in some countries (e.g. Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia), many

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media owners avoid participation in discussions about media ethics. This situation is even more pronounced and was exacerbated by the financial turmoil that engulfed Southeast Asia in late 1997/early 1998. Many newspaper companies have been forced to close down because of financial problems. Given such a situation, it is understandable that those that are in operation are more concerned about survival than ethics.

Question 19: Is there a discussion about an ethic of the public?

Except in the Philippines, there is no discussion about an ethic for the public. In the Philippines, some journalists’ organisations have also called for a code of ethics for the general public, so that aggrieved journalists can have some recourse. In Malaysia, there have been proposals to set up a ‘citizens’ media watch group’ to monitor press performance, primarily by consumers’ organisations. Such discussions are few and far between.

Question 20: Is there empirical research on how far journalists are prepared to use illegal methods to gain information?

There has been no known research in this area. In some countries, cases tried by the courts (and for which judgments have been entered) have been referred to in discussions about press freedom and some of these have been commented upon in legal texts/articles. This includes cases prosecuted under official secrets acts; however, there has been no empirical research which analyses such cases or their judgments.

Question 21: Is there discussion on the ethical problem of the relationship between public relations and journalism, and is the subject of public relations ethics also discussed?

There are fairly active public relations institutions in Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, and these organisations have adopted codes of ethics for public relations practitioners. In the cases of

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Malaysia and Singapore these codes are modelled along that of the British Institute of Public Relations, while the codes in the other three countries follow the American model. Thus there are frequent discussions in these countries about ethical problems of the relationship between journalism and public relations, particularly in areas where there may be misunderstandings due to clashes of roles. One such area of discussion relates to whether public relations officers can and should organise ‘press nights’ for journalists in order to promote better press relations, and whether journalists should attend such functions and receive ‘freebies.’

Question 22: Is there discussion on the ethical consequences of different understandings of the journalist’s professional role?

Such discussions do take place in countries like the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. One specific area in which there has been frequent debate relates to whether the press should publish gruesome photographs, especially of accident or disaster victims, as this occurs in Chinese-language publications in these countries, which have been known to publish an inordinate number of crime/accident/disaster stories.

Here, the debate is between the journalist’s role in fulfilling his professional obligations, and his role as a citizen in moulding and shaping societal values. In the former situation, the journalist is seen to be performing two functions, i.e. fulfilling his obligations to readers vis-à-vis their right to know, and fulfilling his obligations to the media owners in making the newspaper more saleable, and hence making more profits for the organisation.

In the latter situation (as one who helps mould and shape societal values), the journalist is deemed to be a responsible member of society who must not pander to the lowbrow tastes of some readers/viewers, but must instead help inculcate and perpetuate higher aesthetic and moral values.

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Question 23: Is there discussion on the freedom a journalist should be given inside a media organisation, or is it implied that the journalist is an organ of implementation of the editorial ranks?

In most Southeast Asian countries there is hardly any discussion on this, as it is generally implied that the journalist is a member of the editorial team, whereby decisions are made by senior journalists who often are appointed by the management. Only columnists of long-standing service and reputation are allowed some degree of journalistic freedom, and they can and do discuss with management about editorial decisions; this occurs mostly in the Philippines. In other countries even senior journalists can be censured by government for flouting the unwritten rules, as in the case of Ahmed Nazr Abdullah, editor-in-chief of Malaysia’s Berita Harian newspaper.

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Summary and conclusion

We can summarise the discussion about media ethics under two broad categories, as follows:

(a) discussions related to the various professions within the media industries (journalism, advertising, public relations and broadcasting) and

(b) country-by-country assessment of the present state and future directions of discussions about media ethics.

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Discussions related to the media professions

In journalism, these discussions are most widespread and will continue to be so as the power of the press will continue to be an issue of concern for all sectors of society. While there will be calls for Western-oriented values of journalistic ethics to be adopted, there will be difficulty in achieving consensus.

In public relations codes of ethics similar to those in the US have been adopted in the Philippines, while the British model has been adopted in

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Singapore and Malaysia. Ethical discussions are centred on relations between public relations practitioners and journalists.

In advertising, while there have been codes of ethics, especially for advertisements in the electronic media, it has been difficult to enforce their provisions.

In broadcasting, there have been attempts to formulate codes of ethics for broadcasters. However, the increasing numbers of private broadcasters and the ensuing competition between public and private broadcasters has made it difficult to enforce the code of ethics.

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Country-by-country assessment

Brunei Darussalam: The development of mass media is at a low level compared to other Southeast Asian countries. There is hardly any training for journalists and hardly any discussion about journalistic ethics.

Cambodia: After enduring six regimes, there is hardly any discussion of codes of ethics in the press as it faces the need for survival.

Indonesia: The degree of press freedom has varied at different periods in the 90s. The recent financial and currency turmoil has adversely affected the mass media.

Laos: Very little is known about the mass media in this country, and there is hardly any discussion about media ethics.

Malaysia: Despite indirect government ownership of the major newspapers, magazines and broadcasting organisations, there is a vibrant and healthy mass media system, where there are frequent discussions about mass media ethics.

Myanmar: The mass media have become emasculated under the SLORC regime, particularly over the last 10 years. There is no discussion about media ethics.

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Philippines: There is a high level of press freedom and there are a number of professional organisations of journalists. There is high regard for journalism as a profession. Hence there is lively and ongoing discussion about media ethics.

Singapore: In this strong and economically vibrant nation, there are positive indications of a more liberal and open attitude to the mass media. Hence discussions about media ethics are becoming more frequent.

Thailand: Basically, this country has enjoyed a free press system, where there is a high level of discussion about media ethics. However, the recent financial and currency turmoil has adversely affected the print media.

Vietnam: Radio and television remain under government control.

The composite picture that emerges from the discussion in this chapter is one of diversity, a diversity that mirrors the region as a whole.

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Between the time this manuscript was submitted and the time the book was published, there have been major political developments in Malaysia and Indonesia, which have affected their press systems. In Malaysia, these developments have led to greater restrictions on the press. In Indonesia, recent political developments may see the emergence of a freer press; however, this depends on the country’s political stability, which is yet to be determined. Notwithstanding these developments, the situation regarding media ethics in these countries remains unaltered or only slightly altered.

[page-number of print ed.: 156]

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(Books, theses, seminar papers)

Ahmad Noordin Zakaria, (1985), ‘Press Freedom and Ethical Issues,’ Sixth General Assembly and World Press Conference, Confederation of ASEAN Journalists, Kuala Lumpur.

Almario, Manuel F. (1987), ‘Laws and Ethics in Mass Communication,’ The Filipino Journalist, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 8-9, Manila.

Amelia Abdul Aziz (1991), ‘Ethics in Broadcasting,’ Sasaran, School of Mass Communication, MARA Institute of Technology, Issue No. 20, pp. 19-21, Shah Alam, Malaysia.

Arpan, Floyd G. (1994), ‘Ethics in the Newsroom,’ Tenth General Assembly and International Press Convention, Confederation of ASEAN Journalists, Jakarta.

Article 19 (March 1995), Censorship Prevails: Political Deadlock and Economic Transition in Burma, International Centre Against Censorship, London.

Article 19 (August 1996), Burma: Beyond the Law, International Centre Against Censorship, London.

Asad Latif (1998), (Editor), Walking the Tightrope: Press Freedom and Professional Standards in Asia, Asian Media Information and Communication Centre, Singapore.

Confederation of ASEAN Journalists (1987), ‘Code of Ethics for ASEAN Journalists,’ Seventh General Assembly, Confederation of ASEAN Journalists, Manila.

Halimahton Shaari (1997), ‘Influences on Ethics in News Production,’ PhD Thesis, University of Leicester, Leicester.

Indonesian Department of Information (1981), ‘Code of Ethics and Code of Practice of Advertising in Indonesia,’ Department of Information, Indonesia, Jakarta.

Institute of Public Relations Singapore (1990), ‘Constitution and Code of Ethics,’ Institute of Public Relations, Singapore.

Jaafar Kamin (1978), ‘Ethics and Social Responsibility of the Mass Media - Radio-TV Malaysia,’ AMIC Seminar on Mass Media and Social Change, Kuala Lumpur.

Jones, J. Clement (1980), Mass Media Codes of Ethics and Councils, Reports and Papers on Mass Communication, UNESCO, Paris.

[page-number of print ed.: 157]

‘Journalists’ Code of Ethics,’ (1991), Philippines Journalism Review, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 45-46, Manila.

Masterton, Murray (1996), (Compiler), Asian Values in Journalism, Asian Media Information and Communication Centre, Singapore.

Mauricio, Luis R. (1985), ‘Freedom of the Press: The Philippines Experience,’ Sixth General Assembly and World Press Conference, Confederation of ASEAN Journalists, Kuala Lumpur.

Mehra, Achal (1989), Press Systems in the ASEAN States, Asian Mass Communication Research and Information Centre, Singapore.

Mehta, Harish C. (1997), Cambodia Silenced: The Press Under Six Regimes, White Lotus Company Ltd., Bangkok.

Owen, Teddy M. ‘Ethics in Covering the New Congress,’ Press Forum, Philippines Press Institute Vol. 2, No. 2, pp. 3-4, Manila.

Philippines Press Council (n.d.), ‘Code of Ethics of the Philippines Press Council,’ Philippines Press Council, Manila.

Ramanathan, Sankaran (1995), ‘Social and Cultural Influences on Journalism Values in Malaysia,’ AMIC Seminar on Asian Values in Journalism, Kuala Lumpur.

Richstad, Jim and L. S. Harms (1977 (Editors), Evolving Perspectives on the Right to Communicate, East-West Centre, Honololu.

Rosni, Jaafar, (1993), ‘Advertising Ethics: Malaysian and Indonesian Perspectives,’ Sasaran, School of Mass Communication, MARA Institute of Technology, July 1993 Issue, pp. 52-55, Shah Alam.

Venkateswaran, K. S. (1996), (Compiler), Media Monitors in Asia, Asian Media Information and Communication Centre, Singapore.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | März 2000

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