A few months later, the Confederation of Asean Journalists (CAJ) was established, with members drawn from professional media organisations, both state-controlled and independent, from Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines. Until recently, the CAJ was the sole Asean-based media organisation.
In the ensuing three decades, Indonesia has become a different country: a burgeoning democracy with a vibrant media that has taken its government to task on many issues including corruption and weak leadership — a far cry from the Suharto era. As the current Asean chair, Indonesia wants to see its fledging civil society movement include the media in other Asean countries. The purpose is to promote freedom of expression and access to information as part of the group's effort to promote Asean in the global community.
But the media community, including journalists and broadcasters in Asean's now 10 member countries are a non-entity as far as Asean is concerned. Except for the CAJ, the dozens of professional media groups have been ignored. Although the Asean Committee on Culture and Information (COCI) has been in existence for nearly 30 years, it has accomplished little to promote solidarity and cooperation within Asean and among journalists, let alone media freedom and professionalism. The emphasis was on exchanges of visits and views on non-sensitive issues.
Unlike Asean, the media community in the European Union has served as an active conduit for promoting European identity and integration, as well as a sense of sharing common values, norms and standards. The Asean media has not played a similar role when it comes to reporting on matters related to Asean. Worse, regional journalists, due to their different media cultures and standards, continue to live in worlds of their own. So, for the time being, journalists from core Asean countries that have independent media organisations have made their own efforts to increase cooperation.
One additional obstacle is that the non-interference principle, which is normally confined to government-sanctioned policies, has permeated to some sections of the Asean media community. Journalists from new members often profess that they do not report on sensitive internal matters in other countries, out of fear that others would do the same to their countries. State-owned media are still prominent, especially in coverage of issues linked to nationalism. There have been unsuccessful efforts to draw up guidelines for reporting on Asean countries, avoiding taboo topics such as leadership quality, political systems and race relations, among others.
In general, journalists in Asean seldom write about, let alone analyse, the organisation as a whole. Most written reports, when they appear, are parochial and narrow, focusing on bilateral relations — which country gets what from whom. It is ironic that most reports and analyses about Asean as a group come from wire services and foreign journalists. Asean journalists have still do not appreciate the organisation's values, strengths and bargaining power.
While Asean leaders and senior officials hail the imminent arrival of the Asean Community in 2015, very few journalists bother to ask how we are going to get there. Can a so-called "people-oriented Asean Community" be attained without active media participation and understanding? How many journalists have read the key documents that made the grouping what it is today? The implication is obvious: There can be no community if there is no media involvement.
At almost every Asean forum these days, the importance of the media's role in assimilating information, and raising awareness and understanding, is cited by concerned authorities, especially as the Asean Community deadline draws near, at just over 1,200 days off now. But unfortunately, despite pledge after pledge, there have been no attempts to raise the level of engagement of the media community with the various Asean organisations. For instance, at a meeting in 2009 of Asean Ministers Responsible for Information, leaders agreed to deepen media cooperation to support community building through closer coordination, projects, media networking and human-resources development. In addition, they said they would explore the idea of having public information centres in Asean member nations. But it has been all talk and no action.
Currently, the Asean permanent representatives are contemplating draft guidelines for civil society engagement with Asean. Indonesia is pushing to have the guidelines approved at the summit in Bali in November. The draft does not include the media sector. Truth be told, the Asean authorities are in a state of limbo as to whether media groups should be considered civil society organisations. If they really want to build a people-oriented Asean, it is imperative that the media community and fledgling organisations be considered "entities associated with Asean".
When civil society groups get together and their actions are reported on by the media, they are not considered part of community-building in Asean. In fact, civil society organisations have been quite active since 2005 — when the first interface between the leaders of Asean and civil society was initiated — in tackling issues related to human rights, migrants' rights, economic development, social justice and democratisation. Without due recognition of civil society's contribution, how can the Asean Charter accomplish its most important objective: to encourage all sectors of society to participate in Asean integration? It would be extremely difficult for civil society groups to air their views or be taken seriously without associating with Asean in one form or another.
When the Charter stipulates that all stakeholders must take part in the group's decisions, a liberal interpretation should encompass the broader civil society and media.