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    Silenced South East Asian Countries – Freedom of Expression under Threat – By: Maha Naveed

    Silenced South East Asian Countries – Freedom of Expression under Threat – By: Maha Naveed

     

    Southeast Asia’s countries are all in the bottom half of the World Press Freedom Index, with four of them — Brunei, Laos, Singapore, and Vietnam – ranking below 150 out of 180 countries.

    Critical reporting is not explicitly prohibited in these countries, although there is no guarantee of the right to publish. Restrictive regulation, intimidation, and even the murder of journalists tarnish a theoretical commitment to freedom of expression in Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand.

    In Southeast Asia, the media faces two issues: vaguely worded laws that can be abused and politically motivated prosecutions- and, in the absence of strong independent courts willing to challenge these governments, politicians have been able to pursue personal vendettas against publications and individuals with little restraint.

    Acts with a ‘seditious tendency’ or those intended to ‘excite disaffection against’ the government are illegal in Malaysia and Singapore, under legislation dating back to the colonial period. Indeed, the 1988 Communications and Multimedia Act in Malaysia bolsters these powers by prohibiting the “improper use” of network facilities, while the 2019 Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act in Singapore empowers ministers to order websites to delete articles without a court order. In many circumstances, the broad terminology of ‘seditious’ and ‘improper’ allows prosecutors to define them as they see fit.

    Furthermore, in Thailand, lèse-majesté laws are used to punish “defamation or insult” of the king, whilst Indonesia’s Electronic Information and Transactions (ITE) Law prohibits online remarks that “violate decency…insult or defame, spread false news…[or] promote hatred.”

    In the Philippines, the Criminal Code prohibits defamation but does not define the offence, whereas the directors of two Cambodian news websites, TVFB and Rithysen, were sentenced to prison in 2020 for reporting that was judged “incitement to cause chaos and harm social security.”

    Prosecutions of media outlets for political reasons have been a particular problem in both the Philippines and Cambodia. The government’s tax authorities forced the English-language Cambodia Daily to close in 2017 after a surprise inspection following the publication of a number of pieces critical of the administration.

    Similarly, Maria Ressa, the founding editor of the Philippine news website Rappler, was found guilty of libel in 2020 for a story published eight years prior, the verdict coming just weeks after President Duterte ordered the television network, ABS-CBN off the air after accusing its owners of violating foreign control rules.

    Physical attacks on journalists have been the most serious attacks on freedom of speech, with 18 murdered in the Philippines alone in the last five years and four in 2020.

    The rise of worldwide social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp has hindered government efforts to restrict freedom of expression. Most governments, on the other hand, have enacted legislation to compel these corporations to remove particular types of content, with many of these laws being enacted under the pretense of defending cyber security or combating “fake news.”

    In some cases, international social media companies have stood up for freedom of expression by refusing to censor posts in Myanmar, for example, but they have been forced to comply with illiberal laws in countries where governments have the power to block access to their sites or where local advertising streams contribute significantly to their revenue and are vulnerable to government pressure, such as Vietnam and Thailand.

    Governments in Southeast Asia have little motive to safeguard domestic freedom of expression. Human rights organizations may urge them to follow international conventions, but such appeals are largely ineffective in the absence of international sanctions for non-compliance.

    Furthermore, there are little resources available in the region to safeguard freedom of expression, and many critical voices have chosen exile as a means of speaking more openly. Thailand, for example, has been a haven for critics of repressive regimes, yet even here, some voices have been stifled.

    The issue is serious. Even countries with rules-based legal systems that lack fully independent courts will fail to safeguard dissenting voices against powerful politicians, and no matter how meticulously the law is worded, it will not be respected if the spirit of the law is not respected.

     

    By: Maha Naveed
    IIU Islamabad.

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