Political protesters caught in a web of censorship
The Age, Ben Doherty
BANGKOK: Governments across south-east Asia are following China's authoritarian censorship of the digital world to keep political dissent in check.
Vietnam, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines have all moved, or are moving towards, monitoring internet use, blocking international sites and silencing web dissidents.
While much is made of China's authoritarian attitude towards the internet, a majority of south-east Asian governments have similar controls and many are moving towards tighter regulation.
Five of the region's leading bloggers spoke about the present restrictions they face, and future fears, for this report.
Raymond Palatino, a Filipino MP and editor with the Global Voices website, says governments are starting to use arguments of morality and decency to censor access to information.
''There is direct censorship to block political dissent. You have repressive laws in Myanmar [Burma], in Vietnam, in Singapore. In fact, I think Vietnam is catching up with China in terms of building strong firewalls to prevent dissidents from accessing critical content on the internet.
''But we also see governments using the excuse of protecting the public morality in order to censor internet content. Governments use the excuse of censoring pornography as a safe argument to make censorship acceptable to the public.''
More than a decade ago, the former US president George Bush jnr asked people to ''imagine if the internet took hold in China. Imagine how freedom would spread''. But rather than emerging as a catalyst for democracy, the internet has become another way to to stifle dissent.
Palatino sees governments using the internet to their own advantage. ''They are learning how to prevent people for using the internet to criticise government. Instead of being a potent tool for empowering the people, the internet will be in the hands of an authoritative, repressive government.''
With a population of more than 600 million, south-east Asia has about 123 million internet users. But penetration rates vary from 0.2 per cent in Burma and East Timor to more than 80 per cent in Brunei Darussalam and 77 per cent in Singapore. But south-east Asian use is still dwarfed by China's 384 million users.
In the Philippines, cybercrime legislation before the parliament would outlaw anything obscene or indecent. Palatino says: ''The laws are deliberately broad and vague so they can be used to shut down anything subversive.''
Cambodia's government is seeking to monitor all internet use inside the country, by appointing the state-owned telephone company to operate the sole internet exchange.
Websites will be monitored to filter out pornography, officials say, but opponents say sites critical of the government are also likely to be blocked.
In Thailand, century-old lese-majeste legislation is combined with new computer-related crime laws, to mute criticism on the web. Lese-majesty laws - defaming the monarchy - are imposed inconsistently in Thailand, but wielded often enough, and against defendants of sufficient profile, to stifle almost any discussion of the monarchy's role in a country riven by political factionalism.
Chiranuch Premchiaporn, the editor of the Thai English-language news website Prachatai .com, faces up to 70 years in jail for allowing the monarch to be insulted online. The charges relate to five of 200 comments posted about an interview with a Thai man who was charged for refusing to stand for the anthem in a theatre.
Premchiaporn, known as Jiew, did not write the comments, and pulled them from the website but, according to police, allowed them to stay up ''longer than the appropriate period'', a period never defined by authorities.
Thailand's strict laws and harsh punishments have had a chilling effect on political discussion on web boards and blogs.
''I think the biggest problem in Thai media is self-censorship … but we started Prachatai for the ideals of believing in the rights of people to access information … from many sources and not be dominated by just one source,'' Jiew says.
Prachatai is blocked in Thailand and is just one of the more than 100,000 websites blocked in the country.
In Vietnam, web users can become ''friends'' with their communist government, joining the country's own version of Facebook. A trial version of go.vn was launched in May. A full version is expected soon.
There are news links, historical articles on Ho Chi Minh and other revolutionary heroes, and members can also play state-approved network games (in one violent example, players join a band of militants sworn to fight the spread of global capitalism).
The site is monitored by the government's security services and while, for many, the attraction of the internet lies in its anonymity, go.vn users must submit their full names and state-issued identity numbers.
Burma has one of the poorest records on internet freedom in the region. All ''.mm'' sites and email addresses are monitored by the military junta, and international sites banned, but the tiny internet cafes that dot the former capital, Rangoon, are adept at bypassing the government's firewalls, using proxy servers to evade the censors and access banned sites.
Outfoxed on technology, the junta responds during times of stress by unplugging the internet, especially to stop unwelcome news getting out of the country.
With Burma heading towards its first elections in a generation early next month, and the anticipated release of the political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi a week later, there is an expectation the web blackout may be repeated.
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