Since the late 20th century, many Southeast Asian countries have moved from military dictatorships and unelected governments to representative governance systems. While these transitions have brought many improvements to national law and government accountability, certain old ways still remain.
Both off and online, censorship is still enforced in several countries through the use of draconian laws and strict media regulation. Media groups have consistently decried certain controversial laws and regulations as tools of media repression in Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, and Myanmar.
Vietnam: Mass persecution of political bloggers
Thirty-five political bloggers are currently in prison in Vietnam. Continuing persecution suffered by bloggers and dissidents has highlighted the urgent need to reform laws that govern speech and online content in Vietnam.
Article 88 of the Criminal Code, which bans anti-state propaganda, is often used to detain individuals who oppose the government. Article 258 of the Criminal Code punishes misuse of “democratic freedoms to attack state interests and the legitimate rights and interests of collectives and individuals” and carries a sentence of seven years in prison. Last year, the nation's Prime Minister issued a directive ordering a crackdown on “reactionary” blogs. Broadly speaking, vague provisions in the law allow authorities to make arbitrary arrests with little structure for accountability.
Early this month, Decree 72 took effect, putting into force a law that many activists have described as the country's harshest legal offensive against freedom of information. The new regulation bans the sharing of news stories or so-called “compiled information”. But the government claims it is intended only to protect intellectual property.
A “press card” system frequently is used to control mainstream media. Former journalist Pham Doan Trang explains further:
No card, no access. Without a press card, reporters can't hope to meet high-ranking officials, visit contacts at public offices or cover official conferences.
The State doesn't need to kill journalists to control the media because by and large, Vietnam's press card-carrying journalists are not allowed to do work that is worth being killed for.
Thailand: Insult the king, go to jail
Thailand's most notorious media regulation is practiced through Article 112 of the country’s Criminal Code, known as the lese majeste law, which forbids anyone from insulting the king and members of the royal family.
It is described by many commentators as one of the world’s “harshest” speech laws as it carries a minimum mandatory sentence of three years imprisonment and a maximum sentence of 15 years for a single offense. The law is often invoked to censor web content and shut down websites. Aside from webmasters and editors, even ordinary citizens have been jailed for allegedly sending mobile phone text messages that insult the royal family.
Legal scholars from Thammasat University have argued that the law needs to be amended:
…the section provides no exemption for criticism, the expression of opinion or the expression of statements that are made in good faith and in order to uphold the Constitution and democratic system of government.
The Philippines: Threat of libel charges looms large
In the Philippines, the anti-cybercrime law imposes both direct and indirect threats to free expression, but the country's criminal libel law may be the government's worst threat to free expression overall.
Under the country’s 83-year-old Revised Penal Code, libel is a criminal offense that mandates a prison term of six months to six years and/or a fine of 200 to 6,000 pesos (about 5 to 140 US dollars). But the fine is often much higher for those arrested. Veteran journalist Luis Teodoro has noted that “the law against libel has primarily been used to suppress free expression rather than to address media abuse.”
As an alternative to criminalizing defamation in the country, media advocates have proposed a broad campaign for public media literacy and self-regulation to check and expose media abuses.
Singapore: Media licenses and overt censorship
Singapore's new licensing scheme for news websites was quickly denounced by netizens as a censorship measure. Under the new rule, news websites that report on Singapore and have 50,000 unique IP views per month must secure a license and post a “performance bond” of 50,000 US dollars.
The government also maintains strict control of mainstream media. After working for three years as sub-editor in a leading Singapore newspaper, Mark Fenn exposed how censorship is enforced in the country:
Control at the paper is exercised both overtly and through more subtle means. Self-censorship, meanwhile, is ubiquitous.
…it was not uncommon for reporters to alter their stories at a very late stage because the “newsmaker” or a government department wanted to alter the wording of a quote or headline.
Myanmar: Legacy of censorship lingers on
In Myanmar, several media reforms were instituted in recent years, such as the dissolution of the censorship board, but the lingering effects of censorship are still felt and indirectly enforced. Hard-hitting journalists continue to face defamation charges and other harassment suits. The government is also accused of deliberately preventing the improvement of Internet connections in the country in an effort to control the spread of critical information.
The media situation in these Southeast Asian nations proves that political and economic reforms do not necessarily translate into greater media freedoms. Lawmakers who continue to preserve and promote archaic policies that undermine free expression must be held accountable their actions.