Fighting for Press Freedom in Southeast Asia

The recent conviction of Vietnamese human rights attorney, Le Cong Dinh, in Ho Chi Minh City is a blow to press freedom in South East Asia.

Dinh was found guilty with three others of trying to overthrow the communist government. He was sentenced to five years in prison followed by three years of house arrest on charges relating to his defense of pro-democracy activists and for his use of the internet to express his views.

Dinh is a member of the South East Asia Media Legal Defense Network, the first regional network of lawyers dedicated to the defense of a free media in South East Asia and the training of legal professionals for that purpose.

The network was founded in 2007 after a groundbreaking conference hosted at the University of Hong Kong by the JMSC, bringing together lawyers and advocates from throughout South East Asia, including Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

The JMSC remains a partner association of the network, a link made through the JMSC’s Media Law Project which is run by Associate Professor Doreen Weisenhaus. Weisenhaus set up the South East Asia Media Defense Network’s website and was instrumental in helping to organise their conference in Cebu in the Philippines last year.

The South East Asia Media Defense Network states that Dinh was working lawfully as an attorney within the Vietnamese legal system and that his right to freedom of expression is recognised by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international law norms, which should be upheld and respected at all times. It is calling for his unconditional release.

“The charges he stands accused of amount to no more than the promotion of freedom of expression and democracy, universal values recognised by the United Nations as well as by ASEAN, both of which Vietnam is a member of. Le Cong Dinh was among the few lawyers willing to defend cases such as the one now brought against him, and his imprisonment will send a chill across the Vietnamese community of writers and bloggers. A powerful defender of their rights now languishes in prison,” it said.

Weisenhaus agrees with that assessment. “Dinh’s tragic conviction highlights the often harsh reality for those who try to exercise freedom of expression in the region and for the lawyers who represent them,” she says. “This only reinforces the need for vital media defense in Asia.”

Weisenhaus has a strong interest in media legal defense; she teaches media law at the JMSC and is the author of  Hong Kong Media Law: A Guide for Journalists and Media Professionals. A former prosecutor, she was also city editor of The New York Times and the first legal editor of The New York Times Magazine before becoming its law and politics editor.

There are huge challenges ahead for those defending press freedom in the region. In November, 31 journalists were massacred in Maguindanao in the Philippines, and many journalists across the region have been harassed, threatened, imprisoned and detained. The Southeast Asian Press Alliance has an article on its website about the issues affecting the region this year.

“Anticipated elections for Burma, violent contentions over the use of the word Allah in Malaysia, the vulnerability of writers, lawyers, and even legislators in Cambodia — all these are flashpoints that are transposed from the problems seen in 2009, and for which we must brace ourselves in 2010.”