SE Asia: The Curious Case of Internet Freedom

The World Press Freedom Index released every year by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) highlights the negative impact of conflicts on freedom of information. It reflects the degree of freedom that journalists, news organizations, and Netizens enjoy in each country, and the efforts made by the authorities to respect and ensure respect for this freedom. 

The index for this year for South-East Asia gives Malaysia the global rank of 147 out of 180, even though it is an open and moderate country. It is even below Thailand, Indonesia and Myanmar. Outer countries in the region also have a worrying ranking. The Philippines is placed at 149, Singapore at 150, Laos at 171 and Vietnam at 174. The report, however, did not disclose the reason for the latest decline.

The region’s best performers were Timor Leste at the 77th spot, followed by Brunei at 117th. Politically volatile Thailand shared the 130th position with Indonesia, while Cambodia rose to the 132nd spot from its previous 143rd position in 2013.

With such scores it is time to take stock of what is happening in the region and why these countries that seemingly have good governance and good economic performances, would falter in the case of press and internet freedom.

Methodology of the Index

The annual index is derived from RSF’s surveys with, among others, non-profit organizations, journalists and law experts. It takes into account the number of violations against press freedom in a country, such as censorship and assaults on journalists.

The surveys take account of the legal framework for the media. This includes penalties for press offences, the existence of a state monopoly on media, independence of the public, and violations of the free flow of information on the internet. Violence against journalists, Netizens, and media assistants, including abuses attributable to the state, armed militias, clandestine organizations, and pressure groups, are monitored. A smaller score corresponds to greater freedom of the press.

While the methodology appears sound, the extent of the depth of the research is unclear. This is a qualitative survey filled in by local representatives of RSF, and this can make the result quite subjective. However, there is clearly an effort to reach out to journalists and bloggers in the local countries. Another thing that has to be kept in mind is that the index only reflects one year. So a countries rating is not dependant on its previous status. A country can easily jump positions based on what happened during the last year, and then get worse again in the next year.

The Most Improved

Once regarded as a repressive state, Myanmar at the 145th position, has made strides in opening up its media. The state has issued more licences for new publications as well as allowed exiled media outlets to set up operations in Yangon. Myanmar might become Southeast Asia’s standard for positive change in freedom of information.

Sann Oo, editor of The Myanmar Times, an independent weekly newspaper published in Yangon, says that, “In the previous system, we needed to submit all our articles to the censor boards and we could publish only with their approval. Now we are free to publish whatever we want and whatever we write.” Yet the government still has control over radio and TV. Oo says that, “All the TV channels in Myanmar are joint ventures between government and private sector.”

Additionally, while the latest ranking reflects positively on Myanmar, the results were compiled before the police arrested four reporters and the chief executive of a Yangon-based weekly newspaper, the Unity Journal, for publishing a story on the construction of a weapons’ factory in the country. According to state media these journalists violated the 1923 State Secrets Act by entering a “prohibited area”. Benjamin Ismail, head of the RSF Asia-Pacific Desk, said this month’s arrests could bring down Myanmar’s future score.

The Malaysian Paradox

The worsened rank of Malaysia has come as a shock to the country. The Democratic Action Party parliamentary adviser Lim Kit Siang said the recent index is “the worst setback to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s ‘best democracy in the world’ claim”.

The causes could be the home ministry’s suspension of HCK Media’s weekly publication The Heat last year. The weekly paper was suspended over what was then believed to be a report on the prime minister’s spending, but the government insisted that the freeze was due to violations of provisions contained within its printing permit. The suspension was lifted in February.

Newspapers and periodicals in Malaysia are subject to the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) that requires a licence before they are allowed to operate. In 2011, Prime Minister Najib announced the cessation of the annual renewal of printing permits as part of his reforms to provide Malaysians with greater civil liberties.

Yet, although the opposition-controlled states of Selangor and Penang passed freedom of information laws in 2011, Malaysia has no federal law with such guarantees. Officials remain reluctant to share information with journalists, including the content of bills to be tabled, for fear of being charged under the Official Secrets Act.

Vietnam the Worst

The RSF says that Vietnam has “stepped up information control to the point of being close to catching up with its Chinese big brother.” The list of freedom violations is long. Independent news providers are subject to internet surveillance, directives, waves of arrests and sham trials. The index states that Vietnam continues to be the world’s second largest prison for bloggers and Netizens. Of the 34 bloggers currently detained, 25 were arrested since Nguyen Phu Trong became the Communist Party’s general secretary in January 2011.

Article 258 of the Vietnam Penal code is used to prosecute those whom the government says “abuse the rights to freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of belief, religion, assembly, association and other democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State, the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and/or citizens.”  This article means up to seven years’ imprisonment for those who commit this supposed offense. Vietnam’s politically controlled courts routinely apply such provisions to imprison people for peaceful expression.

The other draconian law that has hindered freedom is the issuing of Decree 72. This bans the use of blogs and social networks to share information about news developments and restricts discourse on social media to “personal” matters. This has been seen by media commentators such as Freedom House and RSF as the Communist Party being at war with the new-generation of internet users. It has always had tight control of traditional media, but the internet has opened up a new front for resistance and criticism.

“Vietnam’s strategy of repressing critics big and small will only lead the country deeper into crisis,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “The latest arrests and assaults on bloggers show how afraid the government is of open discussion on democracy and human rights.”

Other Cases and Conclusions

The Philippines saw its score fall two spots. This was due to the government’s apparent inaction toward the murders of media practitioners and the deaths of three radio broadcasters in a span of 11 days between November and December last year. Around 21 journalists have been killed since President Benigno Aquino III took power in June 2010.

All this signals a worrying situation of press freedom and internet freedom in the region. And while 2014’s Press Freedom Index shows some positive change in the region from 2013, many governments still show blatant disregard for the fifth estate. This is a region that is famous for it’s diversity of cultures and its economic successes.  Yet, even though the situation is worrying now, it will definitely improve especially in countries like Malaysia and the Philippines.

In Cambodia and Malaysia, political information being shared online has contributed to national elections causing opposition parties to make significant gains. In the Philippines, the recent murders of journalists have not prevented the independent press from exposing cases of corruption among government officials.  Even in Vietnam bloggers continue to investigate the inner workings of the communist party.

The internet media and social networking sites do a lot of things the mainstream media cannot do. They can report on corruption, police brutality, and protests. These mediums will continue to be a check on the power of the government.


Saadia Gardezi is a Political Scientist from Pakistan


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Saadia Gardezi

Saadia Gardezi is a political scientist from Pakistan

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