News / Asia

SE Asia Governments Appear to Squelch Social Media Commentary

A man uses his computer in a coffee shop in Shanghai, (File photo).
A man uses his computer in a coffee shop in Shanghai, (File photo).
China's suppression of public comment on political and other topics on social media is well known. Some Southeast Asian nations appear to be moving to emulate China in this regard.

Warnings from authorities and new regulations in countries such as Thailand and Vietnam may have some users of social media thinking twice about what they post or even click "Like" on the popular Facebook site.

Thailand has 15 million Facebook users, more than one-fifth of the country's population. And an estimated 40 percent of Vietnamese are now on the internet, with the surge in smartphones. Social media sites such as Facebook and Zing Me each have an estimated 12 million users in Vietnam.  

Amid the surge in commentary on social media, governments in the region, according to Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, are seeking to emulate China's success with controlling online discourse.

"Many of these Southeast Asian countries -- and we're talking about the likes of Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia -- are increasingly copying some of China's techniques and methods to suppress online freedoms and increasingly into social media spaces, as well," said Crispin.

Sermsuk Kasitipradit, senior editor, Thai Public Broadcasting Service, VOA/Steve Herman, Aug. 27, 2013.Sermsuk Kasitipradit, senior editor, Thai Public Broadcasting Service, VOA/Steve Herman, Aug. 27, 2013.
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Sermsuk Kasitipradit, senior editor, Thai Public Broadcasting Service, VOA/Steve Herman, Aug. 27, 2013.
Sermsuk Kasitipradit, senior editor, Thai Public Broadcasting Service, VOA/Steve Herman, Aug. 27, 2013.
Sermsuk Kasitipradit, a high profile Thai journalist popularly known by his blogger name "Pepsi," is one of several people recently singled out by authorities for questioning over his Facebook postings. The senior news editor at Thai PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) says police are trying to make an example out of him by an unprecedented application of the Computer Crime Act of 2007.

"I myself believe that it is some kind of intimidation for the people using social media. It never before happened in Thailand," he said.

Sermsuk said his online postings in question should have eased the concerns of authorities because he was knocking down rumors about another possible military coup in Thailand. He noted on Facebook that all previous successful coups had relied on the support of the army's commander. "So I made it clear in my posting that this kind of thing won't happen, you don't worry," he asserted. "The army commander would, no way, get himself involved in this kind of act."

Thai authorities have also been warning the public that sharing someone else's online comments or even clicking 'Like' on their Facebook posting could have them also facing the same punishment if the original comment is deemed illegal. Sermsuk disagrees.

"I think that is insane. This kind of thing should not happen because social media should be the way that the people should freely express their opinion, even on political issues," explained Sermsuk.

Shawn Crispin of the Committee to Protect Journalists says Thailand, amid increasing political polarization, has yet to actually arrest anyone for endorsing someone else's online comments. "Thailand could find itself in the league of some of the worst internet violators in the world if this actually were to come to pass," he said.

The Technology Crime Suppression Division of the Thai police has also expressed the intention to monitor the country's most popular chat site, Line, a Japanese spinoff of a South Korean company, with 15 million users in Thailand.  

An editorial in the Bangkok newspaper Nation  said "it would be a travesty" if the government initiated such surveillance.

The focus in Vietnam is on the just-enacted Decree 72, which appears to ban posting any news articles on blogs or social websites. The law also requires such popular international online services as Google, Facebook and Yahoo to maintain local computer servers inside the country.

Crispin notes the decree, which calls for postings on Twitter, Facebook and other sites to be limited to exchanges of personal information, could lead to the services being blocked in Vietnam.

"Some of our research shows, interestingly, that certain government agencies are actually now developing possible alternatives, local language alternatives, to Facebook, to Google which if these services are formally banned they're obviously going to hope to fill the space with these local platforms that have been government developed and, obviously, will be government controlled and monitored. So it looks like we're headed toward a certain confrontation between these international technology companies and Vietnamese authorities," Crispin noted.

Vietnam, which has a one-party political system, has jailed dozens of bloggers this year charged with anti-state activities.

Thailand strictly enforces laws forbidding criticism of its royal family, both online and offline.

In Malaysia, despite a government pledge of no online censorship, internet users are complaining that certain websites, Facebook accounts and other platforms are being filtered and visitors to them placed under cyber surveillance.

Pending cybercrime legislation in the Philippines is being criticized for threatening free speech.

Burma (also known as Myanmar) was, until recently, infamous for jailing bloggers, journalists and poets. Democratic reforms have led to internet service providers unblocking Facebook, which has emerged as a popular platform for bloggers and disseminating news.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steven L Herman is the Voice of America Asia correspondent.

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