March 6, 2011
Internet freedom is under attack in many countries in Southeast Asia. In Thailand, for example, a webmaster is facing prosecution for comments written by other people in an online forum. In Cambodia, anti-government websites have been inaccessible on numerous occasions since January. In Malaysia, meanwhile, a proposed new law would empower the government to censor Internet content.
Chiranuch Premchaiporn (known to friends as Jiew) is the editor of independent news website Prachatai.com. Jiew is accused of violating the Computer Crimes Act of Thailand, but her situation is somewhat bizarre because her alleged ‘criminal’ act refers only to her failure to moderate ten lese majeste comments that were posted on Prachatai’s public web board. She had already deleted the comments when she received a notice from the government, but this didn’t stop the authorities from arresting her last year. Jiew is facing 50 years in prison if found guilty.
Thailand has strict lese majeste laws and it is aggressive in blocking websites which are deemed insulting to the monarchy. Censorship intensified last year, especially at the height of the anti-government Red Shirt protests. It's estimated that more than 400,000 web pages are blocked in Thailand.
Meanwhile, Cambodian netizens have been having a difficult time accessing anti-government websites since January. But if the Thai government is admitting that it's blocking ‘harmful’ sites, Cambodian authorities have continued to deny ordering Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to ban opposition websites.
When major blogging portal Blogspot was banned in Cambodia last January, it generated significant protests from Internet users. Fortunately, access to the website was immediately restored. Service providers blamed it on technical issues, while the government insisted it was ignorant about the reasons behind the incident.
But the issue of web censorship in Cambodia continued to sizzle last month as media groups leaked a letter by government information authorities asking ISPs to censor websites that allegedly harm Cambodian morality and tradition. The letter specifically mentioned the KI-Media, Khmerization and Sacrava websites, all of which are critical of the government.
Naturally, human rights groups bemoaned this blatant censorship of online media in Cambodia. They also lambasted ISPs for cooperating with the undemocratic demands of the government.
Malaysia, on the other hand, is still preparing the legal framework to censor the Internet. Last January, the secretary general of the Home Ministry, Mahmood Adam, said that the government favours the amending of the Printing Presses and Publications Act in order to change the definition of ‘publication’ to include Internet content, which would cover blogs and social network sites like Facebook and YouTube.
Netizens were quick to denounce the proposals as a threat to democracy and freedom of speech. Teresa Kok, a member of parliament, wrote in her blog that the proposed amendment would ‘plunge Malaysia on a downward spiral towards being an authoritarian regime.’ She added that the government is ‘increasingly threatened by the rise and rise of online media as an agent for change and democratization in Malaysia.’
Burma and Vietnam may be the undisputed masters and experts of web censorship in the region, but we shouldn’t ignore the threats posed by rising Internet bullies in Thailand, Cambodia, and Malaysia, who are happy to implement various forms of media restriction in the name of defending against ‘harmful’ content.