Web censoring widens across Southeast Asia

James Hookway
The Wall Street Journal

Governments lacking technical means use coercion and intimidation in efforts to suppress criticism online

Attempts to censor the Internet are spreading to Southeast Asia as governments turn to coercion and intimidation to rein in online criticism.

Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam lack the kind of technology and financial resources that China and some other large countries use to police the Internet. The Southeast Asian nations are using other methods — also seen in China — to tamp down criticism, including arresting some bloggers and individuals posting contentious views online.

That is distressing free-speech advocates who had hoped that Southeast Asia — until recently a region where Internet use was relatively unfettered — would become a model of open debate in the developing world as its economies modernize.

Malaysia has recently used its colonial-era Internal Security Act, which allows detention for up to two years without trial, to muzzle bloggers. Thailand is ramping up its reliance on a recently introduced Computer Crimes Act to restrict criticism of its royal family and limit the spread of what the government calls seditious material. Vietnam, an authoritarian Communist state, has been arresting people caught posting thoughts that run contrary to government policy, and has detained lawyers who try to defend them.

“A number of governments in the region have discovered they can’t use technology alone to block out dissent because people will always find a way around it,” says Roby Alampay, executive director of a Bangkok-based media advocacy group, the Southeast Asia Press Alliance. “Instead they are trying to send out the message that the government is watching what their citizens are up to, and many of these arrests are deliberately high-profile.”

To be sure, not every government in the region is trying to bolt down the Internet. Singapore, where mainstream media are largely controlled by the government, has taken a relatively hands-off approach to the Internet. The governments of Indonesia and the Philippines don’t limit political content on the Internet in their countries.

The case of Raja Petra Kamarudin, Malaysia’s best-known blogger, reveals a different approach. The 58-year-old prince, or raja, in one of Malaysia’s royal families started his feisty Malaysia Today news Web site a decade ago after the arrest of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on sodomy charges, which Mr. Anwar denied. Mr. Anwar was convicted, jailed until the conviction was overturned, and is now being prosecuted again on sodomy charges, which he again is denying.

Since launching his Web site, Raja Petra has been a thorn in the side of Malaysia’s ruling National Front coalition, posting a series of articles notable for their criticism of the government. His postings led to his detention for nearly two months under the Internal Security Act in 2008.

Malaysian authorities have accused Raja Petra of suggesting in a letter to prosecutors investigating the murder of a Mongolian model in 2006 that Prime Minister Najib Razak was involved in the killing, which Mr. Najib denies. Raja Petra was charged with sedition and went into hiding. He says the charge is misdirected because he didn’t publish the letter, though he admits writing it and stands by its contents.

Malaysian government spokesman Tengku Sharifuddin Tengku Ahmad declined to comment about Raja Petra’s allegations, and he didn’t respond to questions about the broader issues surrounding Internet users surf at a cyber cafe in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Aug. 7, 2009.

Malaysia’s government is careful not to be seen to be directly censoring the Internet because of a longstanding pledge not to interfere online and potentially scare off foreign technology companies, such as Microsoft Corp., which operate there.

In August, Mr. Najib’s government backed off from implementing Web filters similar to those used in China to weed out certain political topics and other contentious discussions. It has also considered requiring that bloggers register with the government, but decided not to implement the rule.

Instead, says Raja Petra, Malaysia’s authorities are using criminal laws “to make an example of me so that others will run away from the truth,” although he says their efforts will backfire. “Other bloggers are becoming more vocal and more aggressive.”

Some media analysts suggest governments are catching up with the impact of the Internet and mobile-phone messaging and how they helped to trigger social upheavals in countries such as Ukraine and the Philippines. Iran’s success in putting down Twitter and Facebook-driven protests this summer may have lent some indirect encouragement, too.

“Even if governments aren’t censoring outright, they are providing an adequate disincentive to posting criticism. People now know there will be consequences,” says Rebecca MacKinnon, a professor of journalism and media studies at Hong Kong University and a co-founder of GlobalVoices, an international citizens’ media Web site.

In Thailand, police last month arrested two people for forwarding an audio recording of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva purportedly ordering soldiers to attack antigovernment demonstrators. Mr. Abhisit said the recording is fake. Another Thai, Suwicha Thakor, was sentenced to 10 years in jail in June after pleading guilty to posting videos mocking Thailand’s revered monarchy.

Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn says the country’s computer-crime laws are designed to protect people from fraud and defamation, and says the laws are at times being used to address what he describes as “national security” issues.

In recent weeks in Vietnam, meanwhile, popular blogger Bui Thanh Hieu was detained for several days after criticizing the government’s mining policies; another blogger, Huy Duc, was fired from his job at a Ho Chi Minh City newspaper after the Communist Party complained about his posts, while others have also been briefly detained. A Vietnamese foreign-ministry spokeswoman on Thursday said the bloggers had been detained to enable police to investigate alleged violations of national security.

Internet-freedom advocates worry that more governments beyond Southeast Asia will follow the region’s lead and try to take additional steps to tighten Internet controls.

“Being blocked from visiting a Web site is frustrating,” Mr. Alampay, the Bangkok-based activist, says. “But when you see or hear about people being arrested, then that could stop you from logging on at all.”



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