Southeast Asias Uneven Information Landscape
THE longest time, the rulers of Southeast Asia maintained political
control through information control. Powerful information ministries
muzzled the press, setting guidelines for what could be reported and
what could not. Recalcitrant journalists were imprisoned; independent
newspapers and broadcast networks were shut down. A culture of secrecy
pervaded the bureaucracy, making it difficult, if not impossible,
for citizens to find out how their governments were doing their work
and how public funds were being spent.
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. The power of an informed citizenry was
dramatized in uprisings that took place in the streets of Manila
in 1986, in Bangkok in 1992 and in Jakarta and other Indonesian
cities in 1998.
Today, in these countries, a free press provides a steady stream
of information on corruption, the abuse of power and assorted forms
of malfeasance. Greater access to information has also shed light
on the past, whether it is military wrongdoing as in the case of
Thailand, or the thievery of deposed dictators, in the case of the
Philippines and Indonesia. Information has empowered not just the
press, but citizens as well, allowing them to challenge government
policy and denounce official abuse.
That is the good news. The bad news is that despite liberalized
information flows, Southeast Asia's democracies are still elitist
and slow to respond to demands for social justice and equity. The
biggest income disparities in Southeast Asia are in the democratic
states. Democratic governments can be heedless to the cry of the
poor and powerless, who have yet to take full advantage of their
new freedoms in their struggle for a better life. While these freedoms,
including the freedom of information, have helped decentralize power,
they have been less successful in democratizing wealth and access
In the region's semi-democracies and authoritarian regimes, meanwhile,
the flow of information is curtailed and people are kept ignorant.
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 Cambodia, a weak state is unable to establish even the most
basic rule of law that would protect individual freedoms in the
fragile democracy established under United Nations sponsorship in
1995. Citizens rarely attempt to obtain information from the government,
which they think is authoritarian and inaccessible; most journalists
are either intimidated or are propagandists for political factions.
Moreover, the information infrastructure is in shambles after the
ravages of the Khmer Rouge.
The situation is not much better in Vietnam, where the Communist
Party dominates the media and wide areas of public life. It is much
worse in Burma, where all media are mouthpieces of the junta and
virtually no information is available to the public. Burmese are
kept in the dark. Stuck in the 1950s and oblivious to revolutionary
changes in information and communications technology, they are the
stragglers of the Information Age.
In 2001, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and
the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (Seapa) conducted a study that
documents the state of access to information in eight countries
in Southeast Asia. The study, published in the book, The Right to
Know: Access to Information in Southeast Asia, examined the laws
that guarantee or restrict access, and describes the media, and
the political and social environments in which information is given
out or withheld. The study paid particular attention to the state
of the media, which are the major channels of information, it also
looked at the experience of ordinary citizens in demanding information
from the State. The study surveyed the accessibility of over 40
public records and ranked the countries according to their openness.
What emerges from this study is that Southeast Asia defies easy
generalizations. The region is home to over 530 million people representing
a wide range of ethnic, linguistic, religious and political groups.
While most Southeast Asians now live in democracies, about a third
of them do not enjoy a free press or firm guarantees on civil and
political rights. The blessings of democracy and prosperity, both
within and among countries, are unevenly distributed.
Where to Get Statements of Assets
The PRESIDENT, VICE PRESIDENT, MEMBERS of the CABINET and other NATIONAL-LEVEL
- Office of the President
Malacañang Palace, Manila
- Office of the Vice President
Hall 1 PICC Bldg., CCP Complex Roxas Blvd., Pasay City
831-2616 (chief of staff)
- Records Office, Malacañang Palace
Ground Floor, Mabini Hall, Malacañang, Manila
- Office of the Ombudsman
2/F Old NAWASA Bldg., 176 Arroceros St., Manila
PROVINCIAL GOVERNORS, VICE GOVERNORS, MAYORS, VICE MAYORS,
OTHER LOCAL OFFICIALS and EMPLOYEES
of the Deputy Ombudsman for Luzon
4/F Old NAWASA Bldg., 176 Arroceros St., Manila
of the Deputy Ombudsman for Visayas
Palace of Justice, Capitol, Cebu City
Office of the Deputy Ombudsman for Mindanao
4/F Herrera Bldg., Alvarez St., Davao City
(082) 221-3938 (fax)