THE PHILIPPINES is well on her way to joining a roll of dishonor of nations in Southeast Asia that are restricting online freedom. That is, if President Aquino should insist on enforcing the much-criticized Cybercrime Prevention Act.
It is not a charming company at all of countries in the region that are now infringing on freedom of expression in cyberspace through national security-hinged laws, judicial crackdown, surveillance and censorship.
These are the findings of a fresh report, “In Asia, Three Nations Clip Once-Budding Online Freedom,” by Shawn W. Crispin, senior representative for Southeast Asia of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
In particular, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam — “countries that once had some of the region’s most promising online openings and vibrant blogospheres — stand out as the most egregious backsliders due to official crackdowns,” he said.
And yet, it was “through critical postings and commentaries, online journalists in the three countries had challenged officialdom’s traditional control over the mainstream media,” Crispin noted. “Their independent reporting opened once untouchable institutions and largely unaccountable politicians to more public scrutiny and criticism.”
Seeing online commentaries as “a threat to their authority,” the governments in these nations “are fighting back with a vengeance, employing increasingly harsh tactics including the imposition of intermediary liability and local data hosting requirements, and the use of underlying anti-state and national security laws to crack down on Internet freedoms,” he said.
In China, Crispin said journalists believe “Beijing’s repressive model” now seems to be serving other governments a reference. Thus, the deployment of “Internet agents,” known respectively in Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam as “cybertroopers,” “cyberscouts,” and “red guards,” are now “flooding online political forums with pro-government propaganda or undermine critical bloggers through ad hominem attacks.”
Nonetheless, the Philippines, Cambodia, and Singapore are charting parallel restrictive tracks. The three nations, Crispin averred, “are moving more tentatively, mostly through legal measures governing the Internet, in the same restrictive direction.”
For the here and now, “they have only partially succeeded,”because “tech-savvy reporters have made effective use of proxy servers and other technological roundabouts to circumvent state-administered blocks and maintain their online anonymity and security.
Indeed, across Southeast Asia, Crispin wrote, “governments have curtailed Internet freedoms through increasingly restrictive practices, including prohibitive laws, heightened surveillance and censorship, and threats of imprisonment on various national security-related offenses.”
“In Thailand, a court recently ruled that website editor Chiranuch Premchaiporn criminally liable for a criticism of the monarchy that an anonymous visitor had posted on her news website Prachatai. The landmark verdict, Crispin wrote, “effectively shifted the onus of Internet censorship in Thailand from government authorities to Internet intermediaries.”
Because she failed to remove the comment quickly enough — it lingered for over 20 days on Prachatai — the court ruled that Chiranuch had “mutually consented” to the critical comment.
She was acquitted of nine other charges but in this intance, Chiranuch was dealt an eight-month suspended prison term under the 2007 Computer Crime Act. This law passed in May 2012 in the wake of a military coup applies Thailand’s strict lese majeste law to online content, among other restrictions.
“While the ruling sent a stark warning to all online journalists in Thailand,” Crispin said, “it also implied that Web managers of user-generated platforms like political chat rooms, social media applications, and e-commerce hubs could also be held accountable for content posted to their sites deemed offensive to the royal family, a criminal offense punishable by 15 years in prison under Thai law.”
“The verdict,” Chiranuch was quoted as saying, “confirmed that the [Computer Crime Act] could be implemented to restrict Internet freedom by requiring intermediaries to police Internet content.” The law, she lamented, “has had direct effects on freedom of expression and free flow of information because Internet intermediaries now must practice self-censorship.”
Meanwhile in Vietnam, “pseudonymous bloggers have gravitated from domestic to foreign-hosted platforms to conceal their identities.”
Thirteen of the 14 journalists imprisoned in late 2012 were jailed “primarily for their online writings.” They include prominent bloggers Nguyen Van Hai, Ta Phong Tan, and Phan Thanh Hai, who were sentenced respectively to 12, 10, and four years in prison for online postings, Crispin reported. The judge assigned to the case ruled that the bloggers had “abused the popularity of the Internet” and “destroyed people’s trust in the state.”
Bloggers Dinh Dang Dinh and Le Thanh Tung had also been slapped jail terms to six and five years for supposedly mounting “propaganda against the state” online.
In Malaysia, “where the government tries to maintain the illusion of an uncensored Internet,” Crispin said, “curbs against online freedom have been less overt but similarly disruptive for journalists.”
“In 1996, in an effort to lure foreign investment to the Multimedia Super Corridor, a state-led information technology development project, then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and other senior officials vowed not to censor the Internet,” he recalled. “The no-censorship promise was also included in the corridor’s 10-point ‘bill of guarantees’ and the 1998 Communication and Multimedia Act.”
“Despite the Internet freedoms guaranteed under the Communication and Multimedia Act, bloggers have been detained and charged under provisions of the Official Secrets Act, the Sedition Act, and the Security Offenses Act for postings on such sensitive topics as race, religion, and official corruption. The vague national security-related laws have recently been extended to stifle online criticism of Malaysia’s royal sultans.”
In July 2012, Crispin said, blogger Syed Abdullah Syed Hussein al-Attas was briefly detained by the police under the Official Secrets Act over a series of investigative articles he posted about the sultan of the state of Johor.
In 2010, Khairul Nizam Abd Ghani, who blogs under the name Aduka Taruna, was detained under the Sedition Act for postings considered insulting to Johor state’s royal family, Crispin wrote. The blogger was acquitted in June 2012 “after state prosecutors failed to present evidence to justify the charges.”
Additionally, “Malaysiakini, the country’s leading online news portal, has been persistently singled out for harassment, both from official and anonymous sources,” Crispin said. “Days before a pivotal state election in 2011, Malaysiakini and two other news websites were hit by debilitating denial-of-service attacks of unknown origin that forced them to publish through alternative domain names and platforms.”
The CPJ’s research showed that the news portal “has also been hit by unexplained cyber attacks at least 35 times since the site was founded in 1999.”
In April 2012, Malaysia’s parliament passed an amendment to the 1950 Evidence Act “that made intermediaries liable for any seditious postings made by anonymous visitors to their online platforms or over their Wi-Fi networks.”
Crispin wrote: “The amendment threatened to ‘open the door to selective, politically motivated prosecutions,’ the U.S. government-funded Freedom House said in a September report on global Internet conditions.”
“The amendment has sent a chill down the spine of Internet users,” Crispin quoted Anil Netto, a prominent Malaysian political blogger, as saying. “It makes me more careful about moderating comments that are posted on my blog… just to be on the safe side against seditious or potentially libelous remarks.”
Crispin is a reporter and editor for Asia Times Online, and author of the 2012 CPJ report, “As Vietnam’s economy opens, press freedom shrinks.”