The outlook for freedom of expression in Southeast Asia this year is not encouraging, after 2010 saw “continued attacks” on free speech in the region, according to a report from a regional press freedom organisation.
The Southeast Asian Press Alliance’s annual report for 2011 highlights legislative moves to restrict the free flow of information in Indonesia, the Philippines, Cambodia, Malaysia and Myanmar. It describes attacks on press freedom online, notably in Thailand and Vietnam. And it lists the many journalists who were victims of violence in 2010.
SEAPA anticipates further problems in the relationship between authorities and the press in 2011, in particular in those countries preparing for general elections:
“The outlook for the year 2011 is generally not encouraging as there is little sign of political will to address impunity by the governments in the region or to endorse and push for media reforms. In contrast, there are moves to strengthen some of the controls over the media and flow of information, and this will be particularly problematic as national elections are expected in Thailand and Singapore, and possibly in Malaysia…”
• Summary of SEAPA’s annual report for Cambodia
• Summary of SEAPA’s annual report for Laos
• Summary of SEAPA’s annual report for Myanmar
• Summary of SEAPA’s annual report for Thailand
• Summary of SEAPA’s annual report for Vietnam
• Brief summaries of SEAPA’s annual reports for the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Timor Leste to follow tomorrow.
The government of Hun Sen continues to use legislation and the courts to silence critics in the media, civil society, and parliament, according to SEAPA’s report on Cambodia.
Opposition politicians have been stripped of immunity and jailed for disinformation and defamation, and members of the public arrested under new laws that critics say pose a threat to freedom of expression.
A bill pertaining to non-governmental organisations is causing some concern, with NGOs claiming it aims “to control rather than strengthen civil society; to remove civil rights; and to hinder the Cambodian democratic process”. For example, the bill contains passages that appear to ban “informal groups of people” from collective activities if they have not registered these formally beforehand.
SEAPA says that the charges of “disinformation” and “incitement to commit a crime” continue to be used against people who distribute information critical of the government. In 2010 a UN World Food Programme staffer was arrested for sharing material from a site known to be critical of the administration, an NGO worker was jailed for producing anti-government leaflets, and a Radio Free Asia journalist was arrested for reporting on a dispute between a community leader and his mosque.
Two journalists were released from prison last year, having both been convicted of disinformation.
The media in Cambodia took some encouragement from the fact that the new penal code reinforces the status of the 1995 Press Law, which provides a number of rights to journalists.
As for access to media, the report found that newspapers have little reach beyond Phnom Penh. Radio and television are reliant on advertising, and “with advertisers vulnerable to government influence or pressure, broadcasting can only enjoy so much democratic space”.
Internet access is “out of [the] reach of average Cambodians”, although according to the Cambodian Association for the Protection of Journalists, a cybercrime law is nevertheless in the pipeline. The report does find that the use of SMS to distribute information has been effective in the country.
The report concludes:
“The government continues to exert its influence in every facet of Cambodian society. The executive department controls both the legislative and judicial branches of government. With the State’s use of legal mechanisms to lend an air of legitimacy to its attempts to gain total control, it remains to be seen if local media and civil society can still put up a stiff resistance in 2011, if only to be able to exercise their freedom of expression in the country.”
While the Lao PDR’s constitution does guarantee freedom of speech, the role of the media is that of “a state mouthpiece and a link betwen the state and the people – not a watchdog of society”, the SEAPA report says.
In Laos it is a crime to criticise the government, although to date it is thought that no journalist has actually been jailed. But that’s hardly surprising since there is little opportunity to produce such material:
“Newsroom censorship and control are enforced on a daily basis through the Ministry of Information and Culture. While a little more space has been opened up to non-critical social, economic, education and entertainment issues in the print and broadcast media, all the media outlets are expected to use news issued by official sources.”
This means that, despite some growth in non-state-owned publishing, there is no free press in Laos. Furthermore it is difficult for international media to gain access: “State agencies are still reluctant to divulge information or respond to queries from the media … access to information remains heavily controlled through strict filtering of media content. Infrastructure bottleneck and low literacy of the Lao people also play a part in hampering access to information”.
According to the report aid and development agencies have complained that the authorities downplay the magnitude of problems such as epidemics or natural disasters, in order to maintain political and social control among the local population. As a result, “in many instances, news and information about Laos are extracted from neighbouring countries such as Thailand”.
The report finds some improvement in the standard of domestic media in 2010, with “financial resources and technical assistance … injected to diversify content and enhance the capacity of the media to respond swiftly to current issues relevant to Laos”. One particular area of improvement is in the country’s telecommunications infrastructure, although internet access remains limited and expensive, with only 5% of the population being regular users.
SEAPA says the efforts to improve domestic media were intended both to counter negative reports internationally about Laos’ human rights record and, encouragingly, to respond to increasing domestic demand to information.
The report concludes:
“In 2011 Laos continues to pursue infrastructure development for its telecommunication and media sectors. This improvement, however, is tempered by the fact that the government will continue to assume more control over the flow of information not only through the physical infrastructure but also through existing laws that are designed to ensure that the media remain as the mouthpiece of the State.”
Myanmar’s Press Scrutiny and Registration Board, widely known as the censorship board, requires the independent print media to submit articles for approval prior to publication. Journals frequently have their publishing licences revoked, either temporarily or permanently. Furthermore, “if they were not being punished for articles they publish, private journals were ordered to print government propaganda,” SEAPA’s report for Myanmar states.
Numerous journalists were arrested, tried, and convicted in the country in 2010, although the number was down on 2009.
The websites of “leading Burmese exile online media” suffered denial of service attacks, especial during major events within the country, such as on the anniversaries of the 2007 Saffron Revolution.
Some internet cafe owners were instructed by authorities to keep a record of the names of their customers and where they go online, and with whom they communicate.
The elections in November 2010 were preceded by further “clampdown on media reporting and attempts to control the internet”, says SEAPA. Directives were issued to independent media prohibiting comment or analysis on the new electoral laws and constitution, and journalists were barred from publishing interviews with opposition leaders – although independent media were able to report on the political campaigns as news.
A number of foreign journalists were deported after being caught trying to cover the elections.
Internet access became very limited in the run-up to the election. Online users accused the government of deliberately sabotaging internet services to restrict the flow of information.
Political parties had to get prior approval (and pay a fee) to print election-related material. Although some criticism of the government was allowed, content could not disturb “law and order and tranquility”. Similarly, campaign speeches had to be approved by the country’s censorship board, with heavy restrictions placed on what could be said. Opposition parties were given just a few minutes of airtime on state radio and television.
Depressingly, the above actually marks an improvement for Myanmar. The fact that parties could get any publicity at all meant that, according to one journal editor, “this is the freest time [in 20 years] to write about news on political parties and to report on politics in general.”
After the election and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi (who did not stand), 10 Burmese journals were suspended for publishing “too much coverage” about the opposition leader. Journalists were also told not to interview or publish material about a number of prominent figures from the arts, seemingly either because of their association with Suu Kyi or because they had themselves been critical of the government.
Despite all this, SEAPA reckons the change of government may lead to some slow improvement for press freedom in Myanmar. It concludes:
“The year 2011 can be a better one for Burma than the previous one in terms of free flow of information between those inside and outside Burma as well as emerging independent media outlets in the country.”
SEAPA notes the heavy use of social networks by political bodies during the red shirt occupation of Bangkok from March to May last year. Although good news for free expression, it notes there was also a “proliferation of hate speech and incitement to violence from elements of both sides”.
Journalists reported incidents of harasment and attempts to coopt them to particular sides during the red short occupation – an example being the distribution of “press armbands” that contained political slogans. The Thai Journalists’ Association said “the local media was held hostage to and was under pressure from the conflicting parties”. After the occupation was dispersed, government news station Channel 3 was targeted for violence by rioters.
The report notes that no one has been arrested for the incidents in which journalists were hurt during the breakup of the red shirt protests. Two journalists killed and several others injured by bullets or shrapnel.
SEAPA says that the implementation of the Emergency Decree in April resulted in a “setback” for freedom of expression Thailand. The loosely worded decree made it possible to shut down numerous radio and TV stations and to block thousands of political websites without even procuring a court order. The definition of what constituted a threat to national security was loosely defined.
The report also notes the use of the 2007 Computer Crimes Act to suppress independent media, highlighting the example of Prachatai.com’s Chiranuch Premchaiporn, who is currently on trial for briefly hosting user comments on her website that were deemed by a member of the public to be defamatory to the monarchy.
The SEAPA report on Thailand suggests that the coming general elections this year will mean that free expression online and the right to assembly will remain provocative issues.
“2011 will see a series of court battles between the authorities and human rights and freedom of expression advocates as well as political activists over the issues of free expression, online defamation – including lèse majesté – and freedom of assembly.”
The biggest factor influencing Vietnam’s handling of free expression in 2010 was the runup to the 11th party congress of the ruling Communist Party, according to SEAPA’s report on the country. This event, says the report, “had Vietnamese authorities scrambling to sweep the country of any dissenting voices.”
Little work had to be done to keep traditional media under control. Newspapers and broadcasters are already under strict control, with the principal outlets run by branches of the ruling party.
But online, blogs have been growing as a platform for independent voices in recent years, providing an alternative to the acquiescent mainstream. 2010 saw a heavy attack on online media as the government prepared for the party congress.
Social networking sites such as Facebook are banned, albeit not very effectively. The government launched its own alternative, the carefully controlled but comically named goonline.vn.
The main form of attack was the deployment of two articles of the penal code that prohibit “activities to overthrow the government” and the spreading of propaganda. Dozens of bloggers were arrested for publishing articles critical of the authorities. In addition, bloggers have been convicted on what many claim were entirely trumped-up charges. Others have been subject to beatings by police, the report says.
The common thread appears to be that all the bloggers involved have written on issues – such as corruption and injustice – that could make the government uncomfortable.
One subject that almost guaranteed trouble for bloggers was the controversial tender granted for bauxite mining projects in the country’s Central Highlands. In addition to risking arrest, many bloggers covering this subject experienced censorship, suspended internet accounts and cyber attacks. (See for example this New York Times report.)
The report concludes:
“Going by the authorities’ actions in the past year, it is expected that more crackdown on the media, especially among bloggers, would be in order in 2011 if only to contain any challenges pro-democracy elements will pose on the authorities’ attempts to deal with the current economic woes.”
Summaries of SEAPA’s reports on other Southeast Asian countries to follow.