Dire state of freedom of expression in SEA mirrors global trend

State violations of this fundamental right run the gamut from use of ambiguous laws to official inaction that perpetuates impunity


The continuing rise of autocratic forces across the globe weakened checks and balances for democracy such as free media, civic groups, and an independent judiciary in 2018 – and Southeast Asia was no exception. These are documented in the newly released World Report 2019 of the Human Rights Watch (HRW). 

In 2018, these autocratic rulers persisted with their “legacy of abuse” replete with impunity and government unaccountability. Myanmar army’s atrocities against the Rohingya Muslims and the Philippines’ “drug war” were identified in the keynote of the HRW report. Other Southeast Asian countries included in the 674-page report were Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. 

The human rights issues observed in the region ranged from freedom of expression, media freedom, freedom of assembly and association, freedom of religion, women’s and girls’ rights, and attacks on human rights defenders and journalists.  


The World Report 2019 described 2018 as the year media freedom in Cambodia “collapsed”. In May 2018, the Phnom Penh Post – known for its investigative reporting and as the last independent media standing – closed down in the face of a massive tax bill. Free media advocate Pa Nguon Teang, director of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media was charged with embezzlement, a payback move for his involvement in the funeral of political commentator Kem Ley. 

The Cambodian government passed laws and amendments that restricted freedom of association and increased government surveillance and interventions. To “defend the motherland”, amendments to articles 34 and 42 of Cambodia’s Constitution allowed the government to take action against political parties that do not “place the country and nation’s interest first.” An amendment to Cambodia’s penal code also legislated a new lese majeste law (insulting the monarchy) with a fine of $2,500 and maximum of five years imprisonment. 

Social media and website content that the government approximates to “incitement, breaking solidarity, discrimination and willfully creating turmoil that undermines national security, public interest and social order” will be taken down, as per national decree of the Ministries of Interior, Information, and Posts and Telecommunications. In June 2018, 117 Cambodian civil society organizations signed a joint statement decrying this proclamation that censors and criminalizes online expression. 

HRW noted that for 2018, “democratic space in Cambodia reached its lowest level” since the end of the country’s civil war 25 years ago.   


The death of a journalist in police custody and harassment of two foreign journalists defined the state of press freedom in Indonesia in 2018, according to the HRW report.

Muhammad Yusuf died in police custody on June 10 while detained for criminal defamation, in Kotabaru, South Kalimantan. The police failed to provide Yusuf medical attention for breathing difficulties, his family alleged. The Alliance of Independent Journalists denounced the application of a criminal case against Yusuf. 

BBC correspondent Rebecca Henschke was arrested in February 2018 in Papua for “illegal reporting” even with legitimate travel document and was questioned for 17 hours before being released. Polish freelancer Jakub Fabian Skrzypski, who did not have a travel permit for Papua, was arrested in August 2018. Five others were arrested separately in connection with Skrzypski’s case.

As the country heads to its general elections in April, “there is little sign that Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is willing to extend the necessary political capital to make human rights a meaningful component of his campaign for re-election in 2019,” said the report. 


In Malaysia, 2018 was a transition period as HRW noted that then Prime Minister Najib Razak “intensified suppression of freedom of speech” prior to the election but since the Pakatan Harapan government took office, “the situation for freedom of speech has improved dramatically.”

Malaysian authorities prosecuted individuals who held peaceful assemblies without notice in the run up to the May 2018 election.

Graphic artist Fahmi Reza was sentenced to one month in jail and a fine for posting a caricature of PM Najib Razak as a clown. While a Danish citizen was sentenced to one week in prison plus fine in April “for posting a video criticizing the police’s response to a targeted killing in Kuala Lumpur.”

Rafizi Ramli, an opposition member of parliament, was sentenced to 30 months in prison “for leaking bank details as part of an effort to expose corruption.”

The highly contested Anti-Fake News law was passed in March 2018. A measure was passed to repeal the law in August but was blocked by the Senate in September. 

Despite promise to repeal the Sedition Act, the new administration has opened at least three new sedition investigation in July and August against individuals accused of insulting Malaysian royalty.


With its “broad and vaguely worded laws” that restrict free expression, the Myanmar government has restricted journalists from doing their jobs, the HRW reported. Journalists and activists were prosecuted for criminal defamation under section 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Act. Most of the complainants were officials of the state, military, or political party.

In September 2018, Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were sentenced to seven years in prison under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act. They were reporting on a military massacre of Rohingya in the Rakhine State.

The country’s Privacy Law was also used to curtail freedom of expression in social media. A man was sentenced to prison for one year for his post found to be critical of a Mon State official. A human rights defender was sentenced to three months in prison for posting a video of a satirical play armed conflict in Facebook. 

A United Nations fact-finding mission criticized Facebook for remiss in addressing the spread of anti-Muslim hate speech and incitement to violence in Myanmar. The company responded with measures to review posts in Myanmar language.


President Rodrigo Duterte directed his ire at individuals and groups perceived as undermining his authority in 2018.

The Duterte administration “ratcheted up its attack on media freedom” with the threat to close online news site Rappler and its subsequent indictment for tax evasion in November 2018 including its editor and founder Maria Ressa. The online news outlet is known for its critical reports on Duterte’s “war on drugs,” among other issues. 

HRW also noted the recorded six journalist killings and the move of the legislature to ban journalists whose report they deem to “besmirch” the reputation of lawmakers, as actions against the free press in the country.

High-profile critics of the Duterte administration, including a senator and the chief magistrate of the Supreme Court, were also not spared by the government’s maneuver to stifle opposition.


Individuals and groups continue to challenge the limits to free speech in Singapore, but the “severe restrictions” are evident as any action the government perceive as crossing the limits are prosecuted. HRW noted the following incidents in their report.

Seen as “contrary to national interests,” the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (ARCA) denied PJ Thum and Kirsten Han a permit to register a company to organize discussion and provide editorial services to the website New Naratif. 

Activist Jolovan Wham was prosecuted for violation the Public Order Act when he organized two peaceful protests and a candlelight vigil. He was also changed with ‘scandalizing the judiciary in May 2018 folr posting on Facebook “Malaysia’s judges are more independent than Singapore’s for cases with political implications.”

Performance artist Seelan Palay was convicted in October 2018 for violating the Public Order Act and was sentenced to two weeks in prison after refusing to pay a fine of SGD2,500 (USD1,800).

Singapore has also pushed the restrictions further when it passed the Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Act, “which provides Singapore’s home affairs minister with sweeping powers if a ‘serious incident’ has been, is being, or is likely to be committed.”

In April 2018, a parliament committee held hearings on “deliberate online falsehoods” where invited speakers were “harangued.” Some filed a complaint for misrepresenting their testimonies.


Four years since military coup, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) military junta continued with its violations of fundamental rights and severe restrictions on free expression, association, and assembly in 2018, according to HRW. 

Some 130 democracy activists in Bangkok and other provinces were slapped with illegal assembly charges (and sedition) as they clamored for no delays in the conduct of the upcoming election. 

The sedition law and the Computer-Related Crime Act (CCA) were also used to prosecute individuals for their posts in the internet and social media. An arrest warrant was issued for London-based Watana Ebbage who posted corruption in the military on her Facebook page; at least 29 Thailand-based citizens who shared her posts were arrested.

In the media, Peace TV was shut down while Voice TV’s outspoken news talk programs “Tonight Thailand” and “Wake UP News” were each suspended for 15 days.   

The UN secretary-general listed Thailand among the 38 states where individuals faced intimidation or reprisals for cooperating with the UN on human rights. 


The Communist Party of Vietnam’s absolute power over the government, political and social organization restricted freedom of expression, association, and peaceful public assembly in the country, HRW said in the annual report. Longer prison terms were handed out to dissidents while state-sponsored physical attacks were launched at rights defenders. 

Broadcast and print media remained to be government-controlled in this country where independent media is banned. Disseminating materials interpreted as threat to national security and as promotion of “reactionary” ideas also have criminal penalties, the HRW reported.

At least 12 people were put on trial in 2018 for “conducting propaganda against the state.” These activists and bloggers were sentenced to 4 to 12 years of imprisonment.

In 2018, Vietnam’s National Assembly passed the cybersecurity law that empowers the Ministry of Public Security or the Ministry of Information and Communications to take down content deemed offensive and to get  government access to user data without a court order.


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