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October 08 2013

Southeast Asia: Dictatorships Are Gone, But Censorship Hangs On

An anti-Lese Majeste law protest in Thailand. Photo by Matthew Richards, Copyright @Demotix (12/10/2011)

An anti-Lese Majeste law protest in Thailand. Photo by Matthew Richards, Copyright @Demotix (12/10/2011)

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.

“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.

December 11 2012

Global Voices Where Every Voice Counts

Every year Human Rights Day provides an opportunity, to many of us, to highlight issues that matter to us and to advocate  human rights for all. This year the spotlight is on the rights of  people - the poor, the  marginalized and the disingenuous, women and  youth and those across the gender spectrum. Every one has the right to be heard and the right to participate.

The idea that every voice counts is one that is very close to the  notion of Global Voices as a platform and as a community. As netizens unite to have their voices heard when the world's authorities argue  on who should run the internet, we decided to ask our  diverse community to participate and speak out on issues that matter to them and look back at issues we have covered over the year bearing in mind that every voice counts.

Global Voices community members make their #VoiceCount

Global Voices community members make their #VoiceCount. Image collage by author.

With Syria and Gaza plunging into information by pulling the plug on the internet, the right to access remained one of the most pertinent issues. Our special coverage included Syria,archiving online reactions to Syria's internet blackout and the resurgence as parts of Syria regained connectivity, protests in Bahrain and Yemen amid media blackout, conflict voices from Caucasus and Sudan revoltsin-depth coverage of Russia's protest movements,bearing witness to Egypt's historic presidential elections and the aftermath and the intense elections in Venezuela, seeking indigenous voices representing 370 million people that speak more than 4000 languages, a spotlight on the forgotten voices of Myanmar's Rohnigya, keeping an eye on the worldwide #occupy movements and SlutWalks a new protest movement defending women's rights and  most importantly monitoring and defending internet freedom,  free speech and freedom to access with Global Voices Advocacy evolving in to a community determined to take a stand.

Then there were other stories that needed the world's attention as we stood true to the notion that we are reminded of today; every voice counts.Qatar's life imprisonment of a poet that praised Arab spring,Russia's crackdown on online satire, women being barred and penalized from using mobile phones in villages in India, stricter SIM card registration process hampering communication in Zambia, Pakistan's consistent pursuit to replicate the great firewall of China, Tajikistan blocking of facebook and summoning Mark Zuckerberg - a move startlingly similar to that of Pakistani authorities, Internet companies overlooking user privacy, the fight for free expression as authorities muscle in more control, we continued to speak out against impunity and for justice for threatened voices, these are the few issues global voices as a community has been able to bring attention to. As we move forward towards the end of the year, there will be a more comprehensive overview of the year through the eyes of the networked.

For now, on Human Rights Day, we stand in solidarity with people around the world and believe in every individual's right to be heard, to participate and be counted. Our commitment remains, to amplify the voices of the networked and to enable and support the indigenous communities to become a part of the larger community.



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