Like the Philippines, Malaysia has introduced amendments in the law which could curtail internet freedom. Under section 114A of the revised Evidence Act of 1950, law enforcement authorities are able to identify the persons who should be made accountable for uploading or publishing content on the internet. These persons are those who own, administer and edit websites, blogs and online forums. Also included in the amendment are persons who offer webhosting services or internet access. This means that a blogger or forum moderator who allows seditious comments on their site is liable under the law. An internet café manager is accountable if his customer sends illegal content online through the store’s WiFi network. A mobile phone owner is the outright suspect if defamatory content is traced back to his electronic device. Media freedom advocates have warned that the amendment could force online writers to resort to self-censorship and web moderators could disallow critical comments in order to avoid prosecution and harassment suits.
The Philippines and Malaysia may have been inspired by Thailand’s experience which has gained notoriety for using restrictive laws to punish government critics. Article 112 of Thailand’s criminal code is often described as the world’s harshest lèse majesté (anti-royal insult) law. The controversial law is often invoked to censor web content and shut down websites. Aside from webmasters, even ordinary citizens have been jailed for allegedly sending mobile phone text messages that insult the royal family. Scholars and activists have been demanding a reform in the antiquated law but the government has dismissed the petition.
Elsewhere, Vietnam has distinguished itself as the leading nation in the region with the largest number of jailed journalists (worldwide only Iran and China have more according to Reporters Without Borders). Even the Prime Minister has openly criticized some opposition-leaning bloggers whom he accused of fomenting disunity in the country. The government has taken up the habit of intermittently blocking popular social network sites and arresting bloggers accused of spreading subversive demands.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Governments in the region have justified the imposition of harsh web policies ostensibly to protect the rights of ordinary internet users and uphold public morality. While they pay homage to the positive wonders generated by the internet, they are also wary of the numerous crimes committed in cyberspace.
For example, Singapore’s Media Development Authority defended the creation of the Media Literacy Council by highlighting the need to instill awareness about the proliferation of illegal web activities that victimize the youth. “Social issues such as bullying, scamming, preying on the young and inappropriate comments have found new outlets and been magnified through the multiplier effects of the internet and social media,” the agency warned.
Similarly, the Cambodian government has also invoked public welfare concepts. It added that terrorist acts and other transboundary crimes which affect national traditions and cultural values are often done using telecommunications services.
Philippine Senator Edgardo Angara, the principal author of the Cybercrime Prevention Act, is confident that the law is necessary to bring out the benefits of the internet. “With this law, we hope to encourage the use of cyberspace for information, recreation, learning and commerce. By protecting all users from abuse and misuse, we enable netizens to use cyberspace more productively… Its enactment sends out a strong message to the world that the Philippines is serious about keeping cyberspace safe,” Angara said.
It’s convenient for governments in the region to raise the specter of cybercrimes and web misuse, but in many instances they exaggerated the threats to impose highly punitive measures and stricter media control. Their real aim could be to tame cyberspace and regulate it in the manner that they have successfully controlled traditional media. Web regulation has been deemed necessary because the existence of an unbridled new media has threatened the political hegemony of the political elite.
Online citizen movements have been quite successful in exposing the sinister motives of politicians who wanted to censor the internet but so far they have failed to prevent governments from implementing programs and laws that restrict free speech on the web. Southeast Asian governments, it seems, have been actively studying internet laws in the region and have been exchanging practices on how to effectively manage the dangerous potential of the internet. It’s time for Southeast Asian netizens to counter this disturbing regional trend with their own brand of regional cyber activism.