Singapore Internet crackdown reflects growing Southeast Asian trend
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Singapore Internet crackdown reflects growing Southeast Asian trend

Bloggers and those opposed to the Singapore government’s new licensing scheme, which requires news websites that draw traffic of 50,000 users or more to obtain individual licenses and remove content deemed unacceptable by the authorities, will gather in Hong Lim Park tomorrow to protest the new regulations.

In Singapore on Thursday, bloggers took their sites offline for 24 hours in protest, although the law currently only applies to major news sites. Singapore’s Media Development Authority posted a seven-point clarification of the licensing plan on its Facebook page on May 31 that said, “The licensing framework only applies to sites that focus on reporting Singapore news and are notified by MDA that they meet the licensing criteria. An individual publishing views on current affairs and trends on his/her personal website or blog does not amount to news reporting.”

The MDA statement also said the move is not an attempt to influence “editorial news slant” and that it will only step in when complaints are raised about content on these major sites. Concerns have been expressed, however, that blogs covering current events or reporting on events could ultimately be swept up into the law, prompting outcry among bloggers and press freedom observers.

Human Rights Watch has called for the Singapore government to withdraw its “onerous new licensing requirement” on the grounds that these “will further discourage independent commentary and reporting on the Internet in Singapore.”

Yet the MDA’s actions, and Singapore bloggers’ struggle, falls into a pattern seen widely throughout Southeast Asia of governments and other groups seeking to restrict access to certain websites.

In Malaysia, the NGO Gagasan Anti-Penyelewengan Selangor (GAPS), called for a ban on Facebook. The organization’s chairman Hamidzun Khairuddin reasoned that some users and groups spread lies, race and religious insults and condemn royalty, according to Yahoo News Malaysia.

Badrul Hisham Badrudin, chairman of Majlis Belia Selangor (Selangor Youth Council) spoke on favor of such a proposal and is quoted as saying, “Social networking sites should be used responsibly and not to insult or slander. If Facebook is not banned, it would lead to greater disadvantages. I don’t think parents or scholars would object if the government bans Facebook.”

Both cited the policies of countries such as China, Iran, Pakistan and Vietnam, where Facebook is banned. A Malaysian woman has been detained and may be charged with sedition after posting critical comments on Facebook about Yang di-Pertuan Agong Tuanku Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah, Malaysia’s king.

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra recently urged mass media to act responsibly, and told a crowd at the Centara Grand Hotel in Bangkok that “freedom is not unlimited even in an advanced democracy.”

Journalists in Thailand can be thrown into jail for violating the country’s strict lese majeste law forbidding criticisms of the monarchy. In February, journalist and political activist Somyot Prueksakasemsuk was sentenced to five years in prison for publishing two articles in magazine of which he was editor-in-chief that were critical of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s family.

In Vietnam, bloggers have been jailed for writings that were deemed “anti-state,” the most recent case being that of Truong Duy Nhat, who was arrested on May 27. He is charged with “abusing democratic freedoms to encroach upon the interests of the state,” according to Radio Free Asia. This arrest is one in a line of ongoing crackdowns against online dissent and criticism of the one-party communist government.

The picture is not much better in Laos, where much of the media is state-run or controlled, and news outlets serve as a mouthpiece for the government, not a voice for the people, according to the Southeast Asian Press Alliance.

The Nation quoted one reporter in Laos as saying, “Getting access to sources is difficult when reporters want to interview them or need comments on emerging issues or shortcomings within their area of responsibility”.

Cambodia does not appear to be doing much better, as it dropped in Freedom House’s rankings for the sixth consecutive year and now ranks 149th, due to journalist jailings and press restrictions. Freedom House describes legal and physical intimidation against journalists, and others have expressed concern that journalists self-censor to avoid repercussions.

All of this is particularly troubling as each of these countries continues to develop and form more international partnerships and development projects that could have long-lasting impacts on the people there. One can only hope that the brave individuals pushing for press freedom and those bloggers daring to continue writing in the face of risk will keep on fighting the good fight and let the world know what is happening in their countries.