While Southeast Asian governments are enhancing the delivery of online services for the benefit of their citizens, they are also instituting tougher internet regulations which many analysts believe could be used to curtail media freedom.
This post is a summary of recent Global Voices articles which discussed several controversial internet regulation policies in the region.
In Cambodia, the government is enforcing a circular drafted earlier this year which requires internet cafes to set up surveillance cameras and to register callers. It’s supposedly a crime prevention measure but critics have argued that it violates privacy rights.
In Singapore, the proposed Code of Conduct for bloggers which didn’t get a favorable response from the local internet community was finally discarded by the government in favor of a Media Literacy Council. Established last August 1, the council is tasked to promote public education on media literacy and cyber wellness. But critics have questioned the lack of transparency in appointing the members of the council which is seen by some as another internet censorship tool.
Andrew Loh reminds the Singaporean government that netizens or bloggers should not be viewed as troublemakers:
"The problem is not with the Internet, or its practitioners. The problem is not with bloggers or, as the Government like to call them, “netizens”. It is not a problem with those who are actually active online, as opposed to those who sit in their comfortable offices tucked somewhere in some unknown places dictating what and how the online landscape should look like.
Nah, the problem is with a Government which still wields much control, and which has little patience for messiness, for diversity, for spontaneity and indeed for robust debates and disagreements."
Recently, the Philippines enacted the Anti-Cybercrime Law which aims to prevent the cyberspace from degenerating into a ‘lawless realm.’ But the law was described as a threat to media freedom by journalists who protested the last-minute inclusion of libel in the law.
Lawyer JGBernasSJ Blogs mentions the ‘frightening’ provisions of the law:
"Libel has been decriminalized in other civilized jurisdictions. Our legislature, instead, will throw us back to the dark ages by imposing a higher penalty for libel. In effect, advance in communication technology is being treated not as a boon but as bane."
Like the Philippines, Malaysia has introduced amendments in the law which could curtail internet freedom. Under section 114A of the revised Evidence Act of 1950, law enforcement authorities are able to identify the persons who should be made accountable for uploading or publishing content in the internet. Media freedom advocates have warned that the amendment could force online writers to resort to self-censorship and web moderators could disallow critical comments in order to avoid prosecution and harassment suits.
The Lee & Chong Team explains how the amendment can affect ordinary internet users:
"This amendment will create troubles for the public. Everybody is using the Internet daily and with this new amendment, the public has to change the password for the network service and also social network site frequently to avoid being misuse by other people. Besides that, the café or restaurant that used to provide free wifi service may no longer provide the free wifi service to their customer. This will indirectly affect the business of the restaurant or café"
The Philippines and Malaysia may have been inspired by Thailand’s experience which has gained notoriety for using restrictive laws to punish government critics. Article 112 of Thailand’s criminal code is often described as the world’s harshest Lese Majeste (anti-royal insult) law. The controversial law is often invoked to censor web content and shut down websites. Global Voices conducted an interview with a former member of the police committee that handles Lese Majeste cases.
Elsewhere, Vietnam has recently convicted three bloggers accused of spreading anti-government propaganda. Earlier, the Prime Minister has openly criticized some opposition-leaning blogs whom he accused of fomenting disunity in the country.
Governments in the region have justified the imposition of harsh web policies ostensibly to protect the rights of ordinary internet users and uphold public morality. The new policies were met with public opposition but so far the governments have remained firm in implementing the new internet laws.