By Erwin Lemuel Oliva
INQ7.net, Agence France-Presse
(UPDATE) IN SOME Asian countries where freedom of expression remains curtailed, the Internet has provided a venue to freely express views, a Filipino investigative journalist said during a forum in Manila.
"In our day and age, cyberspace remains the most promising outlet for the exercise of the most elemental of all our rights: the right to free expression. At little cost and with much more freedom than is possible in the real world, the Net provides a space for one of the most profound expressions of our humanity: the need to speak out. Those of us who have lived through repressive regimes in Asia know what it is like to be forced into silence. My own story is similar to that of many of yours," said Sheila Coronel, executive director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism during a keynote speech at the Southeast Asian Press Alliance-hosted forum on free expression in Asian cyberspace.
However, Asian governments will still try to crack down on new media, and advances in technology may actually help them monitor the messages being sent on the Internet, delegates at a Free Expression Asian Cyberspace conference warned.
Addressing journalists, webmasters, bloggers and other proponents of free expression in Asia, Coronel said in countries where freedom of expression is curtailed, the Internet has provided a haven or a "safe space" where people continue to "plant the seeds of a democratic discourse."
In Vietnam, Chi Dang, founder of new underground group Free Journalists Association in Vietnam, said that the Internet has changed public discourse in the country despite strong government controls.
Dang said that Vietnam has at least two million Internet users.
"Owners of websites [in Vietnam] have to submit their content to government," Dang said.
Steven Gan, editor at the Malaysiakini.com, said that the Internet in Malaysia is now the only democratic space left in their country.
He said that while the Malaysian government has promised not to censor the Internet, there have been instances where government has reprimanded citizens and journalists for expressing views against it. Gan, for instance, noted that Malaysiakini's office was raided by the police in January 2003. Police, however, found no reason to charge Malaysiakini.com.
In Burma, laws such as the 1996 Computer Science Development Law requires all network-ready computers, including facsimile machines. to be registered with the Ministry of Communications, Posts and Telegraph, according to Sein Win of mizzima.com in Burma. Failure to register will land a company or a person in jail, Win added.
However, he pointed out innovations like Skype, a free voice over Internet protocol service, are now allowing the Burmese citizens to communicate and exchange information though strict Internet access controls and content regulation imposed by the military government remain, particularly on matters pertaining to politics and the military rule.
Win said that the cost of broadband in Burma is around 1,300 dollars a month, while average monthly household income is only about 42 dollars, he said. Citizens are also going to Internet cafes in Mandalay or Rangoon to access the web.
Ying Chan, a professor of journalism and communications at the University of Hong Kong said that generally, advances in information technology forced societies to open up. But the case of China showed that high technology could also be used to stifle dissent.
"There's no automatic conclusion that techonology will lead to a more open society," she warned.
PCIJ's Coronel has indeed painted a picture of an Asian cyberspace still under the close watch of the "Big Brother."
"In Burma, clandestine pamphlets against a brutal and repressive junta are passed on from hand to hand despite the threat of torture and prison. In China, those posting on blogs and websites critical of the all-powerful Communist Party risk jail and interrogation just to get the word out to the world. In Singapore and Malaysia, bloggers and webmasters plod on despite the imminent possibility of being charged with criminal defamation and violation of the onerous Internal Security Act. In Nepal, journalists have been arrested for reporting that an absolute monarchy is plunging their country into absolute anarchy," she said.
"In many other countries across Asia, even in countries like the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand where there are constitutional guarantees of free speech, journalists and citizens use old and new media to speak truth to power no matter the consequences. If tyranny and oppression are part of the human condition, then so is speaking out. And thanks to technology, this is so much easier now. No need for banana leaves. No need even to stain our fingers with printer's ink. With proxy servers and anonymizing software, it is now possible to reach a global audience without being traced," she added.
Despite these restrictions, cyberspace has provided journalists, bloggers and proponents of freedom of expression in Asia a means to freely discuss issues that subsequently creates interactive communities of citizens.
In the Philippines, Coronel said that the PCIJ made a big leap from being a traditional news organization into a media organization that took advantage the Internet.
A year ago, PCIJ started blogging. The group's timing was good since six weeks later, the news organization found itself in the middle of biggest scandal to hit the presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
"The blog allowed us to update not just everyday, but several times a day. It also enabled us to post important material – notably a three-hour recording of the wiretapped conversations of an election official. Those conversations included 11 phone calls made by the president, during which she discussed election fraud with the official," Coronel said.
Last year, the PCIJ saw one million downloads of the Garcillano wiretapped recordings and the mobile-phone ring tones that unidentified composers fashioned from snippets of the phone conversations of the former election officer with the president.
"The Net has also gifted us with immediacy. We could report on events real time at almost no cost. No need for satellite dishes and expensive newsgathering facilities. Several times, including the release of the wiretapped conversations, we beat mainstream journalists to the draw. Thanks to the political crisis, the PCIJ blog exceeded our wildest expectations. In a span of a year, we amassed 2.5 million regular visitors, 12 million pageviews, 38 million hits and two terabytes of data transfer. We are now the top media and political blog in the Philippines," the PCIJ executive said.
PCIJ's success with blogging came with a price. It has been sued for libel and issued a temporary restraining order by a trial court judge. The Philippine Department of Justice has also threatened PCIJ for some of its posts, including the wiretapped recording, saying that the group could be liable for "inciting to sedition."
With a report from Agence France-Presse