WHEN offended by free-wheeling newspapers, government officials no longer lock up journalists or shut down their papers - they employ goons, or get their cronies to take over ownership or pull out precious advertising revenue.
This is what the worried media are saying in the Philippines and Thailand, which have traditionally had the freest media in Southeast Asia. The two countries are now embroiled in their biggest challenges to free-press issues in recent years.
Philippine newspapers are in a quandry, caught between suspicions of hostile acquisitions by well-heeled businessmen connected to President Joseph Estrada and
concerns over a coordinated pullout of advertisers in a local newspaper, ostensibly in support of Estrada's complaints about the paper's coverage.
In Thailand, media circles are seeking the ouster of Deputy Prime Minister Trairong
Suwannakhiri on charges of "media thuggery." Trairong's aides supposedly went to the Thai Post offices this month and threatened the staff for running reports critical of Trairong.
These incidents signal "an unhealthy development which goes against the grain of civil societies," said Kavi Chongkittavorn, chair of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) and editor of Thailand's English-language daily The Nation.
"What happened in Thailand and the Philippines has taught us that we, the press, have to be vigilant. Free press is not a given thing; we must be constantly fighting for it." Chongkittavorn added, "If we lower our guard, the power-wielders will jump on top of us."
While the incidents in Thailand and the Philippines are different, they are linked by the newspapers' coverage of powerful interests and public officials, and the subsequent vocal displeasure of the portrayed individuals.
Trairong's camp says the Thai Post "insulted" him by saying he was afraid to meet protesting fishermen from the south. Reports indicated that Trairong's men - which the Post said were armed but which Trairong's people deny - threatened to come back if the paper continued to insult the deputy prime minister.
In the case of the Philippines, Estrada has been complaining for some time about unfair, "malicious" coverage by some of the media. Recent incidents seen as threats to media freedom, however, have put him on the defensive, prompting him to say in a Monday speech to Congress: "Let all doubts be erased. Democracy, freedom and the constitution are alive and well in this country."
Still, developments in the Philippine media "bear watching" due to fears they will lead to a "crony press," warned Melinda Quintos de Jesus of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.
Earlier this month, the Philippine Daily Inquirer divulged that movie producers had pulled advertisements from the paper as part of an agreement among them to show support for Estrada, whom they felt the paper had been treating unfairly. The producers said the move was "voluntary," but not a few critics said it was done with support or endorsement by Estrada, himself a former movie actor.
Government financial institutions also reportedly stopped placing advertisements in the Inquirer, in what critics called a move to weaken the publication financially at a time when advertising is in general tapering off due to hard economic times.
Then, just a few weeks later, the owners of the daily Manila Times said they were selling the paper to a new group. Its last issue under the Gokongwei family's ownership came out on July 23.
But what should ordinarily be a business deal became a controversy after editors of the Manila Times said they suspected that the owners had been pressured into selling to investors that included a known friend and campaign contributor of Estrada, Mark Jimenez.
The new publisher denies that Jimenez is among the buyers, and has presented real estate magnate Reghis Romero as the financier.
The Times, which had been losing money, had been vulnerable since it was sued by Estrada for $2.65 million for saying he brokered a questionable contract with an Argentine power firm.
The suit was dismissed after Times owner Robina Gokongwei-Pe published a "personal apology" in April for the anguish caused by the article - a convenient apology, it seemed, after reports that the Gokongwei family's sizable other business interests had come under pressure.
In a statement, Times editor-in-chief Malou Mangahas described the move as "death by corporate strangulation" of an independent newspaper, or "privatized harassment and marginalization of an independent press."
"By all indications, the asset sale of the Manila Times is a part of an insidious effort by this group, acting supposedly in the name and on behalf of the administration, to tame a critical press through the backdoor," Mangahas wrote.
While Estrada assured he would respect media freedom in his State of the Nation address Monday, he also lashed out at "those who make a career and a business out of hitting me."
"I am not complaining that my administration is being criticized, for this is something that comes with the territory. But I question the ready bias, malice and fabrication," he said over the weekend.
Estrada's spokesman, Jerry Barican, said some newspapers were not into journalism but "constant heckling," adding that wrong information in the press was equally "dangerous to a free press and democracy."
"From the outside this looks like a case of a very powerful government intimidating media, but from inside this is a very powerful media intimidating the government," he claimed.
But De Jesus said "the weaknesses of a free press are things we need to work with," adding that parties must complain when they feel unfairly treated. "We have to learn to deal with these, and it is not easy.
"But it is the retaliatory action [by the government] that has raised the alarm," insisted De Jesus, adding that the Center has seen faults in what some call the Inquirer's "sensational" reporting.
For the media, the recent experiences of the Philippines and Thailand underscore how threats can come in new, varied forms. "You cannot fight the press head on. But indirectly, you can fight the press by taking away their ads. Another popular means is to sue for a ridiculous amount of money," Chongkittavorn said.
While guarding against such threats though, newspapers must review their reportage and be willing to correct excesses, as one Inquirer columnist conceded last week.
"Free press in Southeast Asia must also mean a responsible press. The Philippine and Thai press have no problem with free press, but we have problems related to professionalism," Chongkittavorn noted.