All of the countries of Southeast Asia currently sit in the bottom half of the World Press Freedom Index, with four – Brunei, Laos, Singapore and Vietnam – ranked below 150 in the 180-country list, and Myanmar expected to join them following its February 2020 coup.
In these countries, critical coverage is not formally banned but there is no presumption of the right to publish. In Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand, for example, a theoretical commitment to freedom of expression is marred by restrictive legislation, intimidation and even the killing of journalists.
The media in Southeast Asia faces two problems – vaguely worded laws open to abuse and politically-motivated prosecutions – and, in the absence of robust independent courts willing to challenge these governments, politicians have been able to pursue personal vendettas against publications and individuals with few limitations.
In both Malaysia and Singapore, for example, laws dating to the colonial period criminalize acts with a ‘seditious tendency’ or those likely to ‘excite disaffection against’ the government. Indeed, in Malaysia, these powers have been augmented by the 1988 Communications and Multimedia Act which bans the ‘improper use’ of network facilities while, in Singapore, the 2019 Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act empowers ministers to order websites to delete articles without a court order. Importantly, the vague language of ‘seditious’ and ‘improper’ in these cases allow prosecutors to define them at will.
Moreover, in Thailand, the authorities use laws of lèse-majesté to criminalize the ‘defamation or insult’ of the king while Indonesia’s Electronic Information and Transactions (ITE) Law bans online comments that ‘violate decency…insult or defame, spread false news…[or] cause hatred’.
In the Philippines, too, the Criminal Code outlaws libel but without providing a definition of the crime while the directors of two news websites in Cambodia, TVFB and Rithysen, were jailed in 2020 after their reporting was deemed ‘incitement to cause chaos and harm social security’.
Politically-motivated prosecutions of media outlets have been a particular problem in both the Philippines and Cambodia. In 2017, the English-language, Cambodia Daily was forced to close by the government’s tax authorities following a sudden inspection after the publication of a number of articles critical of the government.
Similarly, in 2020, Maria Ressa, the founding editor of Philippine news website, Rappler, was convicted of libel for a story published eight years earlier, the verdict coming just weeks after the television network, ABS-CBN, had been forced off air after President Duterte accused its owners of violating rules on foreign control.
However, the most concerning attacks on freedom of speech have been physical attacks on journalists, where in the Philippines alone, 18 were killed over the last five years and four in 2020 alone.
Government efforts to restrict freedom of expression have been challenged by the growth of international social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. However, most governments have introduced legislation to try to compel these companies to remove certain kinds of content, with many of these regulations having been introduced under the guise of protecting cybersecurity or guarding against ‘fake news’.
International social media companies have taken a stand in favour of freedom of expression in some cases by resisting pressure to censor posts in Myanmar, for example, but they have been obliged to comply with illiberal laws in places where governments have the power to block access to their sites or where local advertising streams make significant contributions to their income and are vulnerable to government pressure such as in Vietnam and Thailand.
Governments across Southeast Asia have little incentive to protect freedom of expression domestically. Human rights groups may exhort them to abide by international conventions but such appeals carry little weight in the absence of sanctions for non-compliance by the international community.
Furthermore, there are few resources available to defend freedom of expression across the region and many critical voices have chosen exile in order to speak more freely. Thailand, for example, has become a place where critics of illiberal regimes have found some sanctuary but, even here, certain speakers have been silenced.
The problem is deep. Without fully independent courts, even those countries with rules-based legal systems will fail to defend dissenting voices against politicians in power and, if there is no respect for the spirit of the law, it will not matter how carefully it’s drafted.
Until recently, respect for freedom of expression was often tied to agreements over aid, trade and investment with richer countries, notably those with Europe. But, more recently, this form of conditionality has become less powerful particularly with the rise of China as an alternative source of financial benefit without political strings attached.
Perhaps the greatest power that supporters of freedom of expression possess is the power of embarrassment. Highlighting abuses of the law and attacks on journalists and their publications by those in power might seem like small steps but, in Southeast Asia, they could mean the difference between freedom and its opposite.
For more on issues relating to freedom of expression in the Asia-Pacific region, read Battle lines being drawn over online freedoms in Asia and ’Restriction on online freedom of expression in China’.