By Josef Benedict
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Apr
Governments across the region have been passing legislation ostensibly aimed at regulating online space, often in the name of national security or to preserve public morality. But the laws mask a more insidious intention: the stifling of dissent and the silencing of views that deviate from the state-ordained line.
The trend of online restrictions is a continuation of the long-running campaign of free speech and media freedom restrictions that many states have been exercising offline. The effect of the legislation is to create a climate of intimidation and self-censorship in a space – social media – that has proven an effective tool in awareness-raising and
It comes as no surprise that such tools of repression are on the rise in authoritarian-leaning countries such as Vietnam and Thailand – the former a one-party state, the latter ruled for the last five years by a military junta – in a bid to try and influence and control the popular narrative.
In Thailand, for example,
No provision has been made for citizens to appeal such seizures. The purported justification is to prevent government websites and databases from being hacked, but the reality is that this law infringes on people’s right to privacy.
What makes it even worse is that this cyberlaw
It is one thing to outlaw hate speech, expressed online or offline, that could potentially incite violence or discord. It is quite another when all elements of daily life and business are being policed and censored by an omnipotent Big Brother-like system, serving to chill free expression through a climate of fear.
But in Southeast Asia, such repressive laws are proliferating. Last year, Vietnamese legislators approved a cybersecurity law that tightens control of the internet.
Having come into effect in January amid widespread protests that saw demonstrators being beaten and arrested last year, it gives the government sweeping powers to censor social media posts and the authority to force global technology companies operating in the country to hand over users’ data, which they have to store locally.
Many of these laws are vaguely worded, are overbroad in their scope and are widely open to interpretation – and abuse.
Vietnam’s new law, by way of example, stipulates that it is a crime to post material online that “offends the nation, the national flag, the national emblem, the national anthem, great people, leaders, notable people
Elsewhere, in states such as Malaysia and Indonesia with multiparty democratic systems of government, the iron fist regulating online activity is often more subtle but no less alarming.
In both countries, laws governing the digital space seem intent on silencing criticism and dissent. In Malaysia, lawyer and activist Fadiah Nadwa Fikri was investigated under
In Indonesia, activist and human rights defender Robertus
Further complicating matters in the region is when a government institutes laws that forbid what it construes as blasphemy or religious defamation. This turns the state into the self-styled arbiter of public morality and raises the
It’s becoming increasingly common for people who are peacefully exercising their freedom of speech on social media platforms across the region to be arrested, prosecuted and punished for
Amid the physical assaults, intimidation
The Thai Netizen Network managed to force some important amendments to the new cyberlaw before it was passed, in Indonesia a Constitutional Court legal challenge also led to progressive revisions to the restrictive legislation, and in Malaysia, civil society is lobbying the new government for similar amendments.
While Southeast Asia is certainly not alone when it comes to statutory moves to silence critics and quash online dissent in the name of national stability and security – similar censorship is being mulled or rolled out in China, Russia, in some European and African countries, and even the United States – the training and installing of actual “cyberpolice” in places such as Vietnam cannot be allowed to go unchallenged.
Media and citizens are being effectively gagged from having legitimate conversations through this social policing, potentially leading to increasing self-censorship,
In the region and beyond, the crisis is of serious concern to human rights defenders and
It’s encouraging that David Kaye, the United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, has spoken out strongly against such
But it is also incumbent on all of us as civil society to deepen our national and international advocacy efforts in this area.
Civil society activists and rights defenders cannot afford to ease up on the pressure, as the quality of democracy is taking a serious hit due, ironically, to the sustained squeezing of the very space that holds such rich potential to deepen democracy – the digital realm.
(This article is part of a series on the state of civil society
Josef Benedict is a civic space researcher with global civil society alliance, CIVICUS.)
By Josef Benedict