Media practitioners in Southeast Asia go on the record: self-regulation is a step towards a free press

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ITP Media wraps up in 2024, but the resulting change initiatives are designed to take on a lasting role in the fight for press freedom.

Supported by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), the International Training Programme for Media Development in a Democratic Framework (ITP Media) recently gathered alumni from Bangladesh, Cambodia, the Philippines and Viet Nam who shared key learnings and what has been built through their years of participation in the programme.

October 30, 2023

Journalists and broadcasters are no strangers to scrutiny, and neither are a range of other professionals who work tirelessly to seek out the truth. But this is even more so the case in environments where restrictions on the media are widespread. After all, what is easier to control than a watchdog on a leash?

According to the 2023 analysis of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), media practitioners in Asia-Pacific continue to grapple with a host of institutional obstacles – from media ownership and control to governmental persecution of the independent press. It is because of this reality that ITP Media – which aims to promote and contribute to a media environment characterised by freedom of expression, pluralism and diversity – was organised and implemented in the region.

What is ideal is to have proportionate, limited, statutory regulation and proper self-regulation. With a proper self-regulatory system, the state will have fewer reasons to intervene.

Thematic mentor and international expert Joan Barata

Coming together for a final time, around 80 attendees comprising the programme’s Asian alumni, as well as stakeholders from media outfits, academic institutions and various organisations, gathered in Manila over three days to discuss the different facets of press freedom and self-regulation in the media and review some of the results from the programme.  

Swedish Ambassador to the Philippines, H.E. Annika Thunborg opened the event by setting the scene with two important messages. The first was that “the space for civil society and democracy is shrinking in many countries”. Journalists and media practitioners are being harassed and subjected to threats and violence despite them only doing their job, she says. The second was “free, independent and objective media is an essential component of any democratic society”. Without this, the public would not have the information needed to make responsible decisions, and there would be no one to hold public servants accountable, she continued. 

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The connection between self-regulation and eradicating barriers to freedom of the press 

Sida’s wider ITP offering has a catalogue of programmes spanning fields and professions. It targets concerned changemakers – individuals holding key positions in various organisations who have a mandate to lead change processes – based in low-to-middle-income countries. Participants and their supporting organisations have the opportunity to gain new insights and exchange experiences about effective methods, as well as strengthen their capacity to kickstart reforms.

Implemented by NIRAS in collaboration with the International Media Support (IMS) of Denmark, Global Reporting Sweden and the Fojo Media Institute at Linnaeus University, ITP Media brings together in national cohorts those who play a vital role in media – government officials , media regulators, media lawyers, academia, publishers, media owners, editors, journalists, opinion-makers, civil society organisation representatives and representatives from self-regulating structures – in Asia Pacific, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa, and Eastern Europe.

One of the reasons why media self-regulation is a primary focus of the programme is that it supports and propels press freedom in the long run. Through self-regulatory mechanisms, professionals in the media are guided by measures that enable them to practice responsible journalism, which helps gain public trust and minimise government intervention.

National Facilitators are the ones in charge of coordinating closely with participants and their organisations, organising meetings to discuss the group’s change initiatives.

“What is ideal is to have proportionate, limited, statutory regulation and proper self-regulation,” thematic mentor and international expert Joan Barata says. “With a proper self-regulatory system, the state will have fewer reasons to intervene.” He also says a tactic used by some states would be to discredit media practitioners by claiming they cannot do their jobs properly. “The idea is to promote the exercise of self-regulation, to define the rules of the profession, its ethical standards, and to promote and enforce them.”

Apart from receiving training and exposure to media practices in Sweden, participants are tasked with creating concrete, long-lasting outputs known as “change initiatives” that can take the form of local training programmes, forums, press councils and many others. Such initiatives will depend on the cohorts and what they perceive to be the needs of the media in their country – all while working within the limits of its context.

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Change initiatives: the programme’s immediate impact with long-lasting implications 

Every programme that aims for enduring change must always start at the roots, and for the ITP Media, this has meant looking at the local hurdles to media exercising its right to free speech and developing initiatives that address them. With the local context each group had to consider, some change initiatives took a more creative route to work around media laws and policies in their respective countries. But each one had the same aim: to engage with the public.  

At the meeting, the programme’s alumni and this year’s cohorts discussed their work in detail and the kind of impact they foresee their initiatives will make. 

In the case of the Philippines, the media citizen councils established by the first cohort, which comprise members from various media organisations as well as representatives from other relevant sectors, serve as an avenue for professionals in media to strengthen self-regulation with the help and support of the public. As its change initiative, the second Filipino cohort worked to amplify the visibility of these councils.

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“We wanted to rally what force we had behind these councils and make people aware that they exist and can be approached,” says Arlene Burgos, a participant of the second cohort and Head of Engagement and Partnerships at ABS-CBN News Digital, the online news arm of the media company. “The end game is to help enable the councils to self-regulate, and the dream is a media-citizen partnership that forms a safe enclave where people need not threaten or sue each other.” 

This ideal was echoed in one of the key messages presented by speaker Yvonne Chua, a Journalism professor and co-founder of the non-profit news organisation VERA Files. “What’s important in self-regulation is the concept of transparency [to the audience], and that means providing information about newsroom processes, as well as policies and decisions,” she says, adding this is possible even in a non-democratic environment.  

“[The ITP Media] served as the prompt that helped create the Philippine initiative, and like all the change initiatives coming from this programme, it has transitioned to take a life of its own already,” says Ariel Sebellino, a participant and the Executive Director of the Philippine Press Institute, a non-profit organisation supporting Filipino journalists and their interests.

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Two Bangladeshi cohorts reported, respectively, on their efforts to pitch the idea of “sustainable journalism” to various media organisations in the hope of attracting the masses to factual and ethically produced content and the production of guidelines for publishing news and journalistic pieces in the digital space. A team from Cambodia developed an ethical code and set of guidelines for gender-sensitive reporting amid the shutdowns of different independent media outlets in the country in recent years. They also set up consultations with various organisations on the concept of press councils.

For Viet Nam, resulting initiatives include a Vietnamese translation of self-regulation handbooks, including the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s “The Media Self-Regulation Guidebook” and the organisation of Fika Clubs, derived from the Swedish term fika meaning “to have a coffee break”. A Fika Club creates an environment - usually over a cup of coffee - that encourages young people in (or interested in) media to freely discuss media-related policies, issues, practices and more.

Thematic Mentors support National Facilitators and participants throughout the programme as they are experts in one or more of the thematic areas of the ITP Media.

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“On their trip to Sweden, the cohort was introduced to a media club where journalists and professionals in the media come together and talk about different topics, and the group was inspired by that because it’s an environment where people could sit down and talk,” says National Facilitator for Viet Nam Hoa Ta. According to her, Viet Nam made sure their initiatives appealed to the youth, whom the alumni consider the next line of hope for a free media in the nation.  

Originally, Laos and Myanmar were participants in the programme, but due to the political situation in these countries, they had to drop out.

Keeping the truth and truth-tellers safe 

Truth-telling can be considered dangerous business in today’s political climate, especially as democracies face greater risks and challenges than before.

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“Freedom of expression, freedom of the press and democracy are inextricably intertwined,” says Yvonne. “When there’s a drop in the level of democracy, you can also predict a drop in the level of press freedom. And the sad thing is, in the last decade, democracies have been in decline across the world,” she adds, citing a 2023 report done by Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) that found there are more closed autocracies than liberal democracies in the world for the first time in over 20 years, especially in the Asia-Pacific region.

While self-regulation initiated by the media moves the needle in building a society that respects and promotes press freedom, ensuring these actions are sustained requires institutionalisation, says Roby Alampay, Asia Regional Advisor for International Media Support and founder of the non-music audio production group Puma Podcast. The safety of journalists ultimately depends on the legal safeguards in place.

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“We can make things move without them being institutionalised, but we don’t know how sustainable this can be,” he says. “We can coordinate, do activities and report on outcomes. But for the purposes of reform or programmes, a mechanism – for it to be truly meaningful – has to be institutionalised.” This means, Roby says, engagement with the government and the public sector, an acknowledgement of the legitimacy not only of media practitioners’ right to free speech but also the mechanisms, like the media citizen councils, through which they exercise this right.

Achieving a future where a free and independent press is the norm remains murky for some nations, but the public can rest assured there will always be journalists and concerned citizens, like the participants of the ITP Media, who commit to stay in touch, continue with the progress they have made and constantly pursue the truth. ITP Media is officially wrapping up in 2024, but the resulting change initiatives are designed to take on a lasting role in the fight for press freedom.

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“As things stand, we don’t know how things will grow, but I know I share this sentiment with the people in the programme when I say we have created a launching pad that will help you go where you need to go,” says Programme Director Helena Thorfinn. “I’ve never felt groups as self-driven as the ones here today, and I know these initiatives will continue with or without the programme; it’s a train I don’t think you can stop.” 

Marie Neeser

Marie Neeser

Senior Project Manager / Head of NISE Compliance T

Stockholm, Sweden

+46 545 533 20

Karin Höglund

Karin Höglund

Project Manager

Stockholm, Sweden

+46 8 545 533 08