Column: Becoming Asean (four steps at a time)

Published on April 8, 2014.

When I first heard of the idea last June, from Wong Chun Wai of the Star of Malaysia and Pana Janviroj of The Nation of Thailand, I thought it was a neat concept, worth doing—but at that time I understood it on merely conceptual terms. Imagine Southeast Asian newspapers with digital editions or e-papers grouping together, using the tablet space to offer their papers at a uniform rate and to attract advertisers interested in reaching a regional audience. A good idea, I thought, but not something I would necessarily find use for.

Turns out my imagination did not go far enough. In reality, the bundled subscriptions make for a terrific reading experience.

The other Friday, four members of the Asia News Network (Malaysia’s Star, The Nation, the Jakarta Post and the Inquirer) launched the joint subscription initiative. For a discounted rate, a subscriber to one e-paper gets full access to the three other e-papers. (JV Rufino took charge of the Inquirer side.) Last Sunday, I finally started the habit of downloading the other e-papers too—and now I’m hooked.

The Post is ready for download at around midnight, Philippine time. The Inquirer, the Star and the Nation are available at around six in the morning. That means a subscriber can read these English-language papers from four of the five original members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations even before breakfast. For anyone increasingly conscious of Asean 2015, it’s a great way to start the day.

If I may cite my own (admittedly very early) experience, a reader can gain several advantages from a close and comparative reading of the e-papers. (For lack of space, let me narrow the scope of comparison to just two of them).

A reader can deepen his understanding of a given news event, by reading similar stories written from different perspectives. For instance: The raid on the diving resort in Semporna, Sabah, apparently by mercenaries flying the opportunistic banner of the Abu Sayyaf, was covered heavily in the Star. In the last two days alone, the Star ran eight stories and two opinion pieces on the incident where a Chinese tourist and a Filipino resort worker were abducted: five on Sunday plus an editorial and a column (by Chun Wai, now the group managing director and CEO of the Star); and then three more on Monday. All eight news stories were carried on either Page 2 or 3.

Malaysian interest in the kidnapping is high in part because of its impact on the country’s thriving tourism industry, and in part because one of the two hostages is a woman from Shanghai (the other is a Filipino resort worker). The news that a Chinese tourist had been abducted in territory Malaysia administers “couldn’t have happened at a worse time,” Chun Wai wrote, because of Chinese anger over the still-unknown fate of Malaysia Airline Flight 370.

A reader can compare scope and quality of coverage. Unlike the Star’s extended look at the Semporna kidnapping, the Inquirer ran only one story and one opinion piece (the editorial “Abu Sayyaf’s reminders”) in the last two days, both on Monday.

Yesterday, Pook Ah Lek, the editor in chief of Malaysia’s Sin Chew newspaper, asked me whether Philippine news organizations were following the story too. I think it would be fair to say that the Inquirer’s treatment of the Semporna incident is representative of Philippine media’s approach to the story: Yes, we are following the story, but not with the same attention that Malaysian journalists have given it.

Answering the inevitable “why” leads us to the next advantage.

A reader can begin to deepen his understanding of four Asean countries. Two examples:

First, the reason Philippine media coverage of the Semporna kidnapping seems merely routine, when compared to the Star’s extended coverage, is simple enough: The news does seem like more of the same. The reincarnation of the Abu Sayyaf as a merely criminal enterprise happened many years ago. To be sure, and as the Inquirer editorial warned, the Philippine government must prevent the Semporna incident from becoming a second Sipadan; that is, a sensational and lucrative kidnapping that draws more recruits into the Abu Sayyaf and breathes new (commercial) life into the bandit group. But by and large, Semporna has been treated less extensively by the Philippine media because, the unfortunate truth is, the Abu Sayyaf as a commercial enterprise is looser and therefore harder to stop than as an ideological or religious project.

Second, Malaysian media interest in the Semporna incident has been driven in part by popular concern about the performance of the new Eastern Sabah Security Command or Esscom—something set up as a direct result (but hitherto unknown to most Filipinos) of Nur Misuari’s reckless incursion into Lahad Datu. The kidnapping has put the very viability of Esscom into question.

But there’s a journalistic lesson to be learned too. I like the way Malaysia’s Star went beyond the usual official sources and, as a matter of course, interviewed former kidnap victims of the Abu Sayyaf, or their families, or academics who are expert in the subject, for perspective. On Sunday, it was “Dr. Shamsuddin L. Taya of Mindanao,” a visiting lecturer in Malaysia, who offered words of caution: “As the Abu Sayyaf no longer has a prominent leader, it is easier for any gangster group to claim link to the outfit.”

And on Monday, the Star interviewed the brother of the Taiwanese tourist who was kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf from Semporna last November; he had advice for the family of the Chinese hostage. “Stay calm and strong while preparing for long-haul negotiation.” Journalists beholden to a way of reporting based only on official sources might take heed.

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