Southeast Asia

Battling big brother

From professional journalists to bloggers and musicians, citizens are paying a high price for voicing unconformist opinions

Sacha Passi
December 17, 2012
Battling big brother
March on: members of the press in Myanmar demonstrate after two local journals were suspended for failing to submit stories for pre-publication scrutiny. Photo by Ye Aung Thu/AFP

The death of Amphon Tangnoppakul, also known as ‘Akong’ or ‘Uncle SMS’, in May while he was serving a 20-year prison term after being convicted of defaming Thailand’s royal family in text messages was not only a sad end to the 19-month saga, but served to highlight the ultimate price of communicating freely in Southeast Asia.

In perhaps the most unjust twist in the Uncle SMS case, the 62-year-old maintained his innocence throughout the ordeal, yet under Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws – widely touted as among the harshest anti-royal insult prohibitions in the world – it was a case of guilty until proven innocent for the retired grandfather.

“There was no clear evidence over whether Akong sent out those SMSs, but he was found guilty,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a political and strategic affairs expert at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, as well as an avid activist for Amphon’s release. “The lèse-majesté law is now used as a political weapon to undermine those with different political ideas from the conservative and powerful royalists. A harsh prosecution against Akong was possibly meant as a warning not to challenge the monarchy.”

It was not the first time a person has met an unfair end for voicing an opinion in the region, nor will it be the last. Benjamin Ismaïl, head of the Asia-Pacific Desk for Reporters Without Borders, said freedom of expression and access to information in the region has deteriorated, or at least not improved, in many countries over the past year, with Myanmar being the sole country in Southeast Asia to demonstrate a shift towards reducing media censorship. “Throughout 2012 we observed many changes in Southeast Asia but the situation is different in each country,” said Ismaïl.

After nearly five decades of stringent media controls in Myanmar, pre-publication approval by the Censorship Board for all articles and stories published by the media was removed in August. In the same month, international journalists were among more than 2,000 names removed from a government blacklist drafted by the former military junta to block those deemed undesirable from entering the country.

Photo by Ye Aung Thu/AFP. Silenced: Vietnam jailed two songwriters in November for posting anti-government songs
Photo by Ye Aung Thu/AFP. Silenced: Vietnam jailed two songwriters in November for posting anti-government songs

Despite well-publicised moves towards greater journalistic freedom and access to news and information, the media reforms in Myanmar have been marginal in the wider press freedom landscape, with the country ranking only ten notches above bottom place in Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index 2011/12.

Journalists are now turning to Myanmar’s recently appointed information minister, U Aung Kyi, to push for the abolishment of the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Law (PPR), as well as other repressive legislation that allows authorities to arrest, detain and jail journalists and bloggers using legal loopholes. “The 1962 PPR law embodies the dictatorship of the military junta and its treatment of the media. There can be no real press freedom in Burma while this law is still in place,” said Ismaïl.

In other parts of the region progress has not fared well. Reporters Without Borders has noted increased insecurity across the region, particularly in Cambodia’s fragile media sector.

The gruesome murder of a Cambodian journalist, Hang Serei Oudom, who was hacked to death within days of reporting links between the local military and illegal logging in a Cambodian news publication, marked the first media-related death in the country since 2008. This brutal silencing is a confronting demonstration that press freedom in the Kingdom is tentative at best. The murder occurred just over two months after the jailing of Mam Sonando, the owner of Beehive Radio – Cambodia’s predominant independent radio station – on charges of ‘insurrection’ and inciting others to ‘take up arms against the state’ in relation to protests over land seizures in Kratie province.

“As intended, this sends a message to other journalists that it is dangerous to oppose the government,” said Rob Faris, research director for the Berkman Centre at Harvard University. “There are many ways to chill speech, and this is a common one.”

It was a case of history repeating itself for the outspoken journalist, who was also jailed in 2003 for his supposed role in stoking anti-Thai riots that saw the Thai embassy and more than a dozen Thai-owned businesses in Phnom Penh set ablaze, looted and vandalised: a situation that strained Cambodian-Thai relations. With the assistance of visiting officials from the United States, Sonando was released. In 2012, however, external pressure for his liberation failed to materialise.

“Timing was not a coincidence: his most recent arrest came after Hillary Clinton’s visit and after the Asean summit when international eyes were no longer on Cambodia,” said Geoffrey Cain, correspondent for Index on Censorship.

“At the same time, the Obama administration, and particularly the most recent ambassador Carol Rodley, seems to have taken a quieter and softer stance towards human rights abuses in Cambodia, probably to get closer to the government and offset Chinese influence. So this time around, the hammer came down on Sonando and diplomats haven’t done nearly as much to get him out.”

Although media censorship in Cambodia proved regressive in 2012, the country’s lacklustre performance was far surpassed by that of Vietnam, which ranks alongside China, Iran and North Korea as one of the worst censors worldwide, according to major press freedom monitors such as Freedom House.

All of the approximately 80 news publications in Vietnam are owned and controlled by the government, which implements stringent measures to regulate official content, including regular meetings with editors and officials from the Central Propaganda Department to set weekly news agendas.

With a tight grip on official press publications, online content produced by independent bloggers poses the greatest threat to the communist state’s control over freedom of information.

With a population of just under 89 million, Vietnam’s internet usage rate ranks among the highest in the world, with nearly one-third of the country going online to access information. As the government recognises the central importance the internet plays in promoting Vietnam as a globalised and open economy, it has chosen not to restrict access to the web, but rather use anti-state statutes to stifle voices.

In early November, two Vietnamese songwriters were sentenced to harsh prison terms for posting anti-government songs online – just one in a string of trumped up charges in the country this year.

The inherent freedom of speech that online access provides is not a challenge unique to Vietnam, with governments in Southeast Asia increasingly unable to ignore the political and social consequences of smothering connectivity and opinion.

In the Philippines, the temporary suspension of a new cybercrime law marked a win for vocal protestors who publically condemned the legislation that would make defamatory online content punishable by up to 12 years in jail. Public outcry was further fuelled by concerns of privacy intrusions allowed by the law in the name of fighting pornography, hacking and identity theft.

The perceived threat of independent online content is a recent development in the Philippines. To the credit of the government, the enforcement of the law’s suspension following the public chorus of disapproval is a positive move, but the government’s failure to solve media-related murders remains an enduring oversight.

“Despite their boisterous reporting, Filipino journalists still suffer some of the worst impunity in the region, which mostly comes from local clans and strongmen rather than the national government,” said Cain.

It is a point best highlighted by the ongoing Maguindanao massacre trial, which has been tainted by delays, witness intimidation and allegations of bribery, as prosecutors fight for justice for the victims of a politically motivated ambush in 2009, which killed at least 20 journalists.

In November, the drive-by shooting of a radio host brought the Philippine death toll of media workers for 2012 to five. Though confirmation that all the murders were work-related is pending, on average the number of journalists murdered has remained constant in recent years, making the country the deadliest in the region and among the five most deadly countries in the world for journalists.

Governments across Southeast Asia parrot various justifications for the repression of press freedom, and ultimately freedom of speech, under the guise of protecting national security, social cohesion or cultural sensitivity. Whether this serves to protect the people or the politicians is a question of perspective.

“Access to information – about the government and business – is a prerequisite to democracy,” said Cain. “Transparency is a clichéd buzzword in the development field, but there’s something to it.”

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