~ by Bertha Henson ~

I was at breakfast this morning in my Phnom Penh hotel with two Vietnamese and a Myanmar. One V lady is from the state television, the other from a newspaper and the M represents a company that has both web and print editions.

They were among 11 other journalists – from Indonesia, the Philippines, Timor Leste – who have been brought together by a German program to train Asean journalists covering the Asean ministerial meeting that was taking place.

I like talking to journalists from the region. I like asking about how their media operates. The V told me very matter-of-factly that whatever she or her state TV colleagues put on air is what the G sanctions. Other media (and there were two others in the team) had to follow suit.

So V opens up economically, but it is still tight control over what the media says. Especially on reports on its claims over the South China Sea. “The officials never give interviews,” she said not at all perturbed.

There was no point running after them to get the latest facts on the meeting of Asean foreign ministers. Nor was there any point asking for views from the officials or any other Vietnamese either. They won’t talk, and even if they do, their words would never see light of day. Put a foot wrong and you risk a fine. Jail? In the past, yes, they said.

She continued stirring her coffee. Her compatriot made a face. “Yes, yes,” she said. “I have to see what she says and then I have to copy. And then I have to see how to make it different.” Then she asks me for names of people she can interview…and then she says whatever she writes might not even be published. She eats her toast.

The night before, they had hesitated joining the rest of the team who wanted to stake out the Peace Palace, where the meetings were going to be. The Indons and the Filipinos wanted to get to their Foreign Minister. The V though said there was no use them going with them and would rather stay with me to pick up pointers on how to report and write.

I didn’t know what to say at first. You’re a journalist, you go where the action is. Even if nobody talks to you, go and see what’s happening. Record. Listen. Watch. Take notes.

I was glad they changed their minds. Except that the pace of reporting seemed beyond them. One V caught the group bus on time, the second V had to run after it as it was moving away, the third got left behind and took a tuk tuk to catch up with the rest.

But the three V ladies are really full of spunk. Never mind their difficulties with the English language, they did their level best to make themselves understood to the rest of the team.

And they had plenty of opinions, on superpower rivalry, on China’s tactics vis-a-vis Vietnam, on a possible arms race in the region and the pace of Asean economic integration. Slow, slow, said one. I look at them and I think, what clever minds they have. May they have the room to grow, exercise their instincts and not be disheartened by the state of media play.

The M is a gem. His English is pass-able but he makes himself understood. I have always found that language really is not a barrier for the intelligent. Somehow a basic grasp is enough for them to convey concepts. He says the country is opening up both economically and politically.

The fear was the pace of change. The media? It’s relaxed on paper but not so. Even if legal tools controlling the media are not available or have been disbanded, the informal tools can be just as tough…He finishes his porridge and remarks that his G had just arrested 20 student activists.

Talk turned to The Lady. Enviously, they noted that the western press was so fulsome in their praise of her. But both the V and M media reported her by-election victory matter-of-factly. As they were told to do. Well, too much praise for the Lady might not be good for her either, I responded lamely.

Solemn stuff.

The journalists are trying to adjust, balancing state control and freedom to report if not the truth, then the facts. I try to help them along by showing some things that were still do-able – within the bounds of journalistic integrity as well as the constraints they face.

Of course, they ask me about the media in Singapore. I tell about the newspaper laws – they nodded sagely. I tell them that it is natural that any G of the day would want to be able to control or influence the press. Even the Gs of the glorified Western press. They nodded again.

I tell them that the Singapore media has a lot more room to report, compared to 20, 30 years ago. I live in an open country, with so many foreigners and foreign business. It won’t look good for the G to do anything terrible to the media. And no, I have not been jailed. They nodded in unison.

Yep, solemn stuff.

This article first appeared on Bertha Henson's blog. Bertha Henson is a former Associate Editor of The Straits Times.


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