Many years ago, two colleagues were wrongfully jailed in Laos for murder and as president of the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia (OPCC), I did my best to lobby for their release, a job that was made all the more easier by the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) which was holding its annual summits in Cambodia at the time.
My part in obtaining their release was very small. Others like the photographer Dan White did much more. But the incident and the ability of journalists to make themselves heard and demand answers to awkward questions highlighted the type of relationship that existed between the media and the leaders of the day.
A decade ago it was much easier to rub shoulders with members of government. Presidents, foreign ministers and genuinely senior people would call hastily arranged press conferences to discuss major issues where journalists had a voice and it was never too difficult to grab a quick and private word.
Seasoned journalists say such access is still available at summits in Indonesia and Vietnam despite the all-pervading Communist culture of politicians in Hanoi. But Thailand and Cambodia fare worse and journalists at the current summit in Phnom Penh stand more of a chance of being ticked off for failing to wear a suit and tie in the tropical heat than they have of finding an original story.
This is mainly because conference delegates are kept in one brand-spanking-new building called the Peace Palace, and office to the Prime Minister, Hun Sen. Journalists are kept several hundred meters away in the Council of Ministers’ building where they are fed a daily diet of meaningless press releases and invited to briefings by minders who have even less to say.
After days of negotiations, the latest ASEAN summit of foreign ministers has decided to speed up efforts to become a fully integrated economic community by 2015, held a meeting of Mekong River countries where the highly controversial Xayaburi dam in Laos was not even discussed and decided on “key elements” for a code of conduct (COC) in the South China Sea.
That code is supposed to head-off any trouble with China in the disputed waters before it gets out of hand. But China’s chief ally in the 10-member ASEAN bloc, Cambodia, decided it would not be prudent to list or discuss what those elements — in the decade old bid to complete the COC — were.
This is hardly the stuff of international journalism, and one is left with the impression that organizers of this year’s ASEAN Regional Forum would like reporters to behave as well-dressed props, a backdrop to be seen and not heard while politicians dripping in self-importance preach to their choirs and field the well-rehearsed questions from a friendly hand hidden among the press corp.
Covering these summits is expensive business. The number of journalists coming to these events is dwindling, their news organizations no longer spend up the way they used to, with abandon and a five-star expense account.
And why should they when their hosts treat them like unwanted guests?