Online media is the space to watch: Southeast Asia Press Freedom Challenges for 2012

In 2011, the control of most Southeast Asian states over their respective national press has been put under severe challenge as the media landscape shifts online and away from traditional broadcast and print media. Everywhere in the region Internet access has been rising, and social media use —especially as an alternative and quicker source of news and information—has been increasing.

This development highlights the rising importance of the issue of freedom of expression as a general concern of the public and not merely for the press. As online news grows in audience and importance, particularly with the integration of the more participatory social media interfaces, Southeast Asian peoples are claiming online space to underline the long- standing demand for press freedom.

While most Southeast Asian states and their business proxies continue to dominate the mainstream media—newspapers, radio and TV, many outlets have begun to venture into the World Wide Web. Mainstream media are putting up online versions of their usual fare of news and information ‘acceptable’ to the establishment.

However, these sites now face new competitors in the form of alternative online news websites sites and blogs, which are proliferating as their national populations continually search for more relevant information, and, perhaps more importantly, freer channels of expression.

Based on the 2011 country reports prepared by the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) with its members and partners, only the governments of Philippines and Timor Leste seem to have not made any effort to control online information. SEAPA observes that the rest of the countries—Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam—have all taken measures to control information online or penalize persons who violate established prohibitions that protect national security as well as dominant cultural norms.

In most countries, online news and information has been the most frequent source of attacks against journalists and bloggers who dare to relay important news and commentary that normally would not find space or airtime.

However, many countries are finding laws that impose control over traditional media are inapplicable to the internet, which until recently has not been a big concern in many countries because of poor access.

So far, five Southeast Asian countries have specific laws in place that will give governments a similar level of control over traditional media. And in 2011, Burma has used its Electronic Transactions Law to prosecute journalists and citizens who contribute stories or information to the exiled media. Meanwhile, Thailand is under scrutiny from the international community for its use of the Computer-related Crimes Act against persons or intermediaries who violate the anti-lese majeste Article 112 of the Penal Code.

Website filters have been in place, in these two countries as well as in Cambodia and Vietnam, to control ‘illegal’ websites, including those that pose threats to national security.

The rest of the governments are finding that tried and tested ways of controlling the traditional media—through arrests, censorship, closure, pressure and prosecution—are failing since online communications are more difficult to monitor and regulate.

These have not stopped governments from efforts to rein in the online press, upon which more and more countries are trying to put in place ad hoc measures to control. The Malaysian government attempted to widen the definition of “publication” to include blogs and Facebook accounts under the Printing Presses and Publications Act. It has tried also unsuccessfully to introduce a certification mechanism for IT professionals, who met the proposal with nearly unanimous opposition seeing it as a move to monitor and censure their activities. Cambodia, while having no law regulating the internet, is reportedly asking service providers to block certain websites that post reports critical of the government and the ruling party.

For both these countries, the quest for freedom of expression online reflects the struggles for democratization in the political space as governments quell rising offline and overt criticism of the establishment.

Vietnam’s approach is simply to extend its control of the press by cracking down on bloggers using broad prohibitions on anti-state propaganda or actions. A law imposing stricter regulations on Internet access is being studied and proposed and may see enactment in 2012.

Even Laos, with its limited media access, is noticing the growing importance of controlling Laotians’ access to cyberspace with reports of the introduction of filtering systems similar to neighbouring Vietnam and China. The internet is still the only medium outside state monopoly of media.

While the proportion of online media usage is still small, the rapidly rising online audience reflects the unyielding reality of the long-standing issues that beset the mainstream media in Southeast Asia. Censorship, both by the state and by one’s self, and limited access to information is still firmly in place, as governments continue to keep their populations in the dark about legitimate issues.

In countries with relatively freer press, violence is a problem that journalists still have to contend with in conducting their work. The numbers of killings of journalists—a constant concern in the Philippines–have seemingly gone down in 2011, but government inaction on these cases, including those that happened in previous years, still place an effective bar on reporting both on and offline.

As the Southeast Asian peoples increasingly turn to the Internet as a source of the news, online media will become a significantly contested space in 2012. People’s growing reliance on the online media has levelled the lopsided media reach of the opposition parties in Malaysia and Singapore, resulting in dramatic gains in government representation in elections in recent years. This is a development that is not lost on political leaders across the region who are now increasing their online presence, while at the same time putting in place measures to control access. Beginning in 2012 and beyond, online media will be the space to watch–and defend.

See SEAPA’s 2012 country reports on media freedom: