The power of the internet has been in the spotlight in the last few weeks thanks to the U.S. election – but while American netizens have to contend with fake news and annoying status updates, in many parts of the world just sharing an opinion can end in jail time (or worse). Freedom House, a U.S.-based NGO/research organization, released their annual Freedom of the Net report last week, and overall the results were not good.
Internet freedom has declined around the world for the sixth year in a row thanks to censorship and government monitoring of messaging apps. While there are worse places to use the internet than Southeast Asia – such as blogging about religious freedom in Saudi Arabia or Bangladesh – the region is still struggling. The entire report spans a thousand pages, but here’s a breakdown of the five worst offenders in Southeast Asia. Please note that the 2016 report only reviewed 65 countries in the world and it did not include Myanmar so it is not included in this list. Myanmar is, however, included in the 2015 report.
#5 Cambodia: As a reporter based in Cambodia, I can attest that it’s a country seemingly very skilled at what could be called “low-grade repression” – using tactics that are just enough to get the message across to the populace without attracting a massive amount of attention from the foreign media/international NGOs. Case in point are Cambodia’s prosecution of Facebook users, such as 26-year old Kong Raya, who received an 18-month prison sentence for calling for a “color revolution in order to change the cheap regime running Cambodian society.” English-language content, however, seems to mostly fly below the government’s radar, including a popular/satirical Twitter account about Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ever-critical newspaper The Cambodia Daily. It is also noteworthy that getting arrested in Cambodia can lead to months of pre-trial detention and then a trial before a court that has not hesitated to convict government opponents without evidence and in absentia. Grade: Partly free.
#4 Indonesia: As it turns out, the government of the world’s largest Muslim democracy does not like online LGBT content. In 2014, it successfully pressured messaging app LINE to remove LGBT content from its online shop, according to Freedom House. The same year a decree gave internet service providers the power to restrict “negative content” that violates national security or “morality”. Netflix, Reddit, Imgur and VIMEO have all had content blocked for various reasons. Freedom House reported 144 ongoing cases against internet users who are being prosecuted for online content – which can range from “defamatory posts” to ones about political corruption. Grade: Partly Free.
#3 Malaysia: In the middle of the pack, Malaysian internet freedom is on the decline after the government censored news/reports/information about a massive corruption scandal involving Prime Minister Najib Razak – who may or may not have stolen millions of dollars from a government investment fund. The Malaysian Insider, Malaysia Chronicle, Asian Sentinel have all been blocked for reporting on the story. Blogging or writing about Islam in a comedic or critical way can also end in trouble for internet and social media users. In total, Malaysia blocked 1,263 websites in 2015 and 399 in the first two months of 2016, according to Freedom House. Grade: partly free
#2/#1 Thailand and Vietnam: Freedom House gave Thailand a slightly higher grade than Vietnam, but as the report seems to have been written earlier in the year and did not take into account the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej on October 13 and the controversy surrounding his heir, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. The same laws have led to some contorted reporting by even international news agencies, who could only report the former king was in his “twilight years of his reign” and not that he was dying. Tweeting, Facebook posts, and personal messages critical of the military government can also all end in detention and jail time. The same is true for satire, as was the case of a group that ran a humorous Facebook about General Prayuth Chan-ocha.
Vietnam, meanwhile, has its own share of internet censorship, which comes as no surprise under the leadership of the Communist Party – an organization not known to appreciate political satire or criticism. As of 2015, 15 bloggers were still in prison with three more sentenced this year. Freedom House reports that Vietnamese internet users tend to practice self-censorship because the government has an ever-changing and “unpredictable” list of banned topics, so they often stay away from controversial topics. Facebook has been blocked on occasion, as have certain webpages. Threats can also be carried out offline, as 40 bloggers and rights activists were beaten by plains clothes police in 2015, according to Human Rights Watch. Grade: Not Free/Not Free