By Sidan Qi
In Southeast Asia, media freedoms are in crisis. According to the 2015 Map of World Press Freedom of Freedom House, most countries in Southeast Asia are either “partly free” or “not free” at all.
“Both off and online, censorship is still enforced in several countries through the use of harsh laws and strict media regulation,” says Mong Palatino, Southeast Asia editor of the Global Voices, an international network of citizen journalists.
Media groups have denounced certain draconian laws and regulations as tools of media restriction in Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Cambodia.
Thailand government jails journalists who break the Article 112 of the country’s Criminal Code, also known as the lese majeste law. The law assigns penalties of up to 15 years in prison for anyone who “defames, insults, or threatens the King, Queen, the Heir-apparent, or the Regent.”
Vietnam government enacted a new law that extends state censorship to social media platforms in September 2013. Under the regulation, independent bloggers who report on sensitive issues have faced persecution through surveillance, harsh prison sentences and other forms of harassment. The Census of the Committee to Protect Journalists says six online journalists were jailed for anti-state charges in Vietnam last year.
While Cambodia’s government considers a new cyber bill that undermines Internet freedom through criminalizing the web content that “hinders the sovereignty and integrity of the Kingdom of Cambodia,” Malaysia has already strengthened its controversial sedition law. Under the new law, Malaysia’s government can block electronic media that is deemed to be seditious. The term “seditious” remains ambiguous, which infinitely extends government’s reach into online media landscape.
“From a legislative and content control point of view, clearly freedoms have taken a beating in Southeast Asia,” says Gayathry Venkiteswaran, executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance.
“But the use of online for political expression, mobilization and alternative voices is on the rise,” she adds. “In other words, people are claiming their spaces, but states are placing more and more restrictions.”