Intermediaries are targets in new attempts to suppress free expression online in Southeast Asia

Internet experts from Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia expressed concern about the ongoing regional trend of targeting online intermediaries in attempts to control the flow of information in cyberspace.

The Internet’s function as a tool for change as seens recently in Egypt was also discussed in the forum entitled, “Internet Freedom in Southeast Asia: New Frontier, New Barriers” held on 17 February 2011 in Bangkok, Thailand, jointly organised by the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), the Thai Netizens Network (TNN) and the Thai Media Policy Center of Chulalongkorn University.

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Steve Gan of Malaysiakini, Megi Margiyono of AJI, Gayathry Venkiteswaran of SEAPA and Supinya Klangnarong of CPMR discuss issues concerning freedom of expression online.

The case of Thai webmaster Chiranuch Premchaiporn, who stands accused of 10 counts of violating the Computer Crime Act (CCA) was one of the highlights of the discussions. SEAPA Executive Director Gayathry Venkiteswaran noted that Chiranuch’s case, which involves the criminal liability of online intermediaries like Internet service providers (ISPs), webmasters and forum moderators, is crucial not only to Thailand but to the region as well. After five days of hearing, Chiranuch’s trial was postponed for September this year.

Supinya Klangnarong, vice chair of the Campaign for Popular Media Reform (CPMR) in Thailand quoted the Ministry of Information Communication and Technology (MICT) that it regularly orders Thailand’s 125 registered ISPs to block URL that the MICT deemed as having lese majeste content. Supinya said that on a ‘regular’ day, an average of 300 URLs are slated for blocking. During times of crisis, she said MICT orders the shutdown of an average of 500-600 URLs daily. She said the government should promote self-regulation among websites rather than resorting to punitive measures.

Sarinee Achavanuntakul of TNN shared the following observations on Chiranuch’s trial:
1. The trial underscores a clear lack of procedures in enforcing the CCA in Thailand;
2. MICT authorities showed a lack of understanding of the nature of the Internet;
3. An intermediary has limited control over his or her website;
4. MICT officials were arbitrary in monitoring lese majeste cases; and
5. Local media provided a limited coverage of the case.Megi Margiyono, campaign manager of the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) based in Jakarta said that in Indonesia, both government agencies and non-state players posed a threat to online freedom.

Among a list of Indonesian laws and legislative bills that have a negative impact on free expression online, Megi said there was a pending bill on mandatory Internet filtering that makes ISPs responsible for filtering contents deemed blasphemous or defamatory, aside from the usual pornographic content.

Also, several conservative Muslim groups have openly expressed their opposition not only to the Web itself but social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, which they claimed were tools of Western imperialism. A fundamentalist group even labeled Facebook as ‘haram’ or forbidden for Muslim.

Indonesia has the second largest number of Facebook users in the world with 33.9 million accounts, according to Megi. It also has the biggest number of Twitter users in the region with 2.4 million accounts, the sixth biggest in the world. There are also 1 million blogs in Indonesia.

Megi said AJI has undertaken engagement efforts to promote Internet freedom through Facebook, Twitter and other online social media, mainstream media outlets, civil society groups and businesses. They are now planning to elevate the discussion in government forums.

Steven Gan, editor-in-chief and co-owner of independent news website Malaysiakini recounted how the Malaysian authorities intimidated their website on at least two occasions because Malaysiakini posted messages and videos authorities did not agree with.In 2003, Malaysian police raided Malaysiakini’s office and confiscated its computers based on a complaint that the news website posted an anonymous letter poking fun at the youth wing of the Malay party in the ruling coalition. In 2009, the Home Ministry responsible for internal security tried to apply pressure on Malaysiakini to take down videos of the infamous ‘Cow’s Head Protest’ incident. In the incident, a group of Muslim protestors had staged a demonstration against the construction of a Hindu temple in their residential area, and used the severed head of a cow. Hindus consider the cow a sacred animal.

Gan said that Malaysia has some 35 laws that impinge on freedom of expression, and cyberspace is the only democratic space left for dissent. This freedom has been guaranteed by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad through his guidelines for a Silicon-valley like project known as the Multimedia Super Corridor.

The forum also tackled the growing power of the Internet as a tool for social change. The recent political upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries reflected the extent to which the online medium was connecting people and used to share information within and outside of the country.

Danny O’Brien of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) noted that although Egypt had no previous record of blocking numerous websites, authorities constantly harassed and intimidated bloggers. He said CPJ observed that the situation in Egypt was nearing the tipping point earlier this year, as the government tried to co-opt ISPs and intermediaries and placed controls over mobile phones’ mass SMS sending features in November last year.

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About SEAPA
SEAPA is the only regional organization with the specific mandate of promoting and protecting press freedom in Southeast Asia. It is composed of the Jakarta-based Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) and the Institute for Studies on the Free Flow of Information (ISAI); the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom andResponsibility (CMFR) and Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ); the Bangkok-based Thai Journalists Association (TJA); and the network’s Kuala Lumpur-based associate member, the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ).