Rights groups say media freedoms across Southeast Asia are under threat with arrests of reporters and bloggers and new legislation targeting journalists. There is a shifting legal landscape for journalists in Thailand, Vietnam and Burma.
In a report marking World Press Freedom Day, the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) says Southeast Asian governments are turning to new legislation in a bid to control new media.
SEAPA says the key trend is that governments are shifting focus from traditional broadcast and print media to social media and online news.
SEAPA Executive Director Gayathry Venkiteswaran said online news sites have become the most frequent target of government crackdowns.
“There is definitely attempts by the governments to block the holes because the traditional media, they know how to deal with that presumably," said Venkiteswaran. "Now with the onslaught of the online media, citizen agendas and bloggers - so there’s attempts to use some of the old approaches and at the same time to introduce control blocking, some successful, some unsuccessful.”
Restricting the Web
Five governments in Southeast Asia have set in place laws to control the Internet to the same degree as traditional media.
Vietnam has stepped up measures to control so-called “illegal websites.” The tough approach has led to 19 online reporters or ‘netizens’ being detained together with five journalists. Those detained include a Catholic priest and three other bloggers and writers accused of “anti-state propaganda.”
Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson said authorities are targeting individual cases to send a message to other writers.
“They’ll continue to go after the individual cases while they’re trying to find systematic approaches to shut down critical comment on the Internet. That could be a mixture of using fire walls, trying to block individual servers and then going after dissidents,” said Robertson.
Robertson said the general trend across Asia is of a retreat in media freedoms.
Battling for reforms amid crackdowns
Reporters without Borders listed Vietnam near the bottom (172nd) of the 179 countries on its press freedom index, saying arrests and harassment of pro-democracy supporters has been on the rise.
In Burma, authorities have relaxed strict media laws as part of a broad campaign to implement pro-democratic political reforms. New media legislation is expected to be presented in Burma’s parliament later this year that could further improve the country’s media environment.
But critics - including Debbie Stothard, spokesperson for rights group Alternative ASEAN Network - caution that the reforms could fall short of expectations.
“The authorities have not yet shared what’s in the text of the media law. But previously they have mentioned that although the law is supposed to be one of the most progressive media laws in the region, they were still drawing on elements from Vietnam, which is not exactly a bastion of media freedom,” said Stothard.
Aung Zaw, editor of the Thailand-based on-line newspaper, The Irrawaddy, fears the conservative forces within the Burmese government could undermine greater media freedoms.
“This is a very crucial time. This is a transitional time for the country. But we don‘t know where it will lead to, and as the government ministers and some officials are very cautious - extremely cautious about letting the media report freely. So that makes me really worried about the media development,” said Aung Zaw.
Various laws used to control social media
Media freedoms also face an uncertain future in Thailand, where a series of people have been prosecuted under the country’s Lese Majeste laws. Although analysts say Thailand’s media overall has been largely free to debate political and social issues, the laws protecting the country’s monarchy still carry harsh penalties.
Earlier this week, a Thai criminal court postponed a verdict in a case against Thai online editor, Chiranuch Premchai, who faces criminal charges under Lese Majeste laws. Chiranuch is charged with failing to delete comments from the website fast enough. If found guilty, she faces at least 20 years in jail. The laws have been reinforced with the Computer Crimes Act.
In December, a 54-year-old Thai-born American citizen, Joe Gordon, also known as Lerpong Wichaikhammat, was sentenced to two and a half years in jail after pleading guilty under the Lese Majeste laws.
Benjamin Zawacki, an Asia researcher for Amnesty International, said the rising trend in sentencing of those accused under the Lese Majeste laws has created a climate of fear.
"The message is one of fear, really. The Lese Majeste law has a very long arm already and that’s been proven, for example, by the Joe Gordon case - whose offense, alleged offense, took place on U.S. soil," said Zawacki. "But the Chiranuch case I think demonstrates just substantially how long the arm is because no one claims, not even the prosecution claims, that the offensive speech belongs to Chiranuch.”
More broadly in Asia, analysts say that online media has created more opportunities for political and social discussion, and in some countries has helped to “level” lopsided domestic media. They say new media in Malaysia and Singapore have helped opposition parties that have long struggled to grow their public voice.