Strange but true, while Asean leaders often praise the region's achievements in economic, social and political areas in moving towards the long-awaited single community, they seldom appreciate the role of media in the process of regional integration.
Such an attitude mirrors the deep-seated mistrust of media, as well as the existence of distinctive media cultures and institutions within individual member nations.
The ambitious Asean Economic Community to be launched in 2015 would not be possible without the active participation of journalists and media workers within the grouping. In Europe, North America and Latin America, media are the major driving force behind regional integration and the sense of belonging.
Since the Asean Charter came into force in 2008, all sorts of efforts have been made to promote Asean identity and awareness among all stakeholders. So far, only commercial enterprises are able to capitalise on this forward-looking trend.
Today there is the so-called Asean bank, an Asean airline, an Asean food centre and the list goes on. Ironically, these marketing strategies, superficial as they are, are fast replacing the Asean way, which served as the glue in the Asean organisation in past decades when it moved along lowest common denominators.
Now, blooming budget airlines within the region have done more than the Asean leaders’ numerous pledges in forging people-to-people connections in the past two years. Unfortunately for the media sector, there is no such thing as an Asean media.
Media landscapes in Southeast Asia are diverse and uneven. That helps explain why it is extremely difficult to offer a general image of the regional media. That has been the main attribute hampering discussions and closer collaboration throughout these years in media-related activities, especially in setting common norms and standards of media practice. Although the charter, and the region’s political-and-security and social-and-cultural blueprints, specifically mention the need to promote the free flow of and access to information – as well as the role of media in promoting Asean identity and awareness in community-building and integration efforts – Asean leaders have yet to make serious efforts to push forward this platform.
At the recent summit in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, Asean leaders tasked their ministers with finalising the Asean Communication Master Plan, which will focus on the common people. For the time being, it has been left to individual members to do so.
Within Asean, as it turns out, Myanmar has reformed the most when it comes to the media.
In the past 18 months, Nay Pyi Daw has surprised Asean with its bold media reforms despite some imperfections. For instance, Myanmar’s ongoing media openness and rapid reformation and institutionalisation towards public media services have been welcomed by the international community. This paradigm shift has caused wariness among Asean members of the possible impact on their countries.
Myanmar once took the grouping’s staunchest line in terms of rigidity and hard-line thinking. Now it has turned the tables and come out on top in media indicators.
Last week, to commemorate World Press Freedom Day, all major international and regional press freedom monitoring organisations such as New York-based Freedom House, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders and Bangkok-based Southeast Asian Press Alliance gave a major thumbs up to Myanmar’s media development.
At present, it is the only media-landscape bright spot in this part of the world.
During the second decade of Asean, Indonesia under Suharto played a dominant role in bringing the state-owned media together to ensure media unity and commonality of views. However, without the participation of the private media sector, the Confederation of Asean Journalists with more than a three-decade history, has not been able to tap in and connect with the new generation of media workers or catch up with the new media revolution in the region.
Without broader media cooperation and understanding, social networks through new media platforms will set a precedent, if not conditions, for the future of Asean integration. With the proliferation of mobile technologies coupled with a meteoric rise in the number of citizen informants, their few words and audio clips could impact on the whole effort of regional integration. Somehow, Asean still lacks the media strategies for utilising traditional, mainstream and new media to forge regionalism.
Currently, there are well over 100 professional organisations associated with Asean, but none is a media-related organisation.
The guidelines for civil society groups to establish ties with Asean were approved last year – but up until now not a single organisation has been admitted to reflect the new dynamism of the engagement of official and non-official sectors.
For the past several decades, Asean efforts were expended on the establishment of track-one institutions to protect and promote human rights as well as to prevent and manage conflict.
The charter mandated the establishment of the Asean Intergovernmental Commission for Human Rights in 2009, and the Asean Institute of Peace and Reconciliation at the end of last year.
The time has arrived for the media sectors in Asean to come together and collaborate – not only for the deadline of 2015 but beyond – as the grouping’s future will depend on the upcoming young generation’s trust and confidence.
Media and its social networks must help to articulate the benefits of regional integration and cooperation. The National Press Council of Thailand and the Indonesian Press Council are currently working on a common plan to establish the Asean Press Council, which will be the first time in the region for such an undertaking. Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines have independent media self-regulatory bodies. Myanmar set up an interim press council last year.
As Asean community-building continues, the media in Asean must also be able to manage the expectations of Asean citizens regarding the outcome of economic integration and future implications to mitigate unfounded fears and concerns surrounding a single community.