5 Apr 2007

Some Asian Governments Want to Control Those Pesky Bloggers

From Asia Sentinel
Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob
04 April 2007

Will the online gadflies be able to outsmart the authoritarian impulses of their rulers? They have so far.

In a sign that the ubiquitous critics and observers harrying governments and other institutions from behind the relative impunity of their computer screens are starting to bite, Thailand ‘s Information and Communications Technology Ministry on Tuesday ordered its staff to shut down websites deemed to be violating the orders of the junta that seized power in September or insulting the Thai monarch.

The move appears to be directed at growing numbers of anti-coup activists who use Web sites and blogs to snipe at the junta-directed government. One site, for example, is being used to organize a petition drive directed calling on the powerful Privy Council and former premier, Prem Tinsulanonda to be removed from the council. The site, www.saturdayvoice.com, is planning to locate outside the country because of the pressure, according to press reports.

The spokesman for the Council on National Security, the ruling junta, said the campaign against Prem was ''inappropriate''. Since Prem was appointed president of the Privy Council by the King, the spokesman told the Bangkok Post, it was improper to do anything that could be deemed as insulting to the King

Not only in Thailand, but across much of Southeast Asia, the rise of bloggers and independent all-Internet news sites has caught governments in a quandary. What has long been predicted is coming to pass, particularly in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, each of which has begun to take action. The ability of bloggers to circumvent press laws and national borders is frustrating for countries that at least putatively consider themselves parliamentary democracies.

Thailand’s leaders in particular seem to be feeling the heat as their government stumbles from crisis to crisis and protesters continue to multiply. Sitthichai Pookaiyaudom, the information minister, said he had been given authority to block websites by the junta.

But other governments are having trouble figuring out the blogosphere as well. Singapore and Malaysia in particular have staked their future on high technology. The Malaysian government is actively promoting Internet access even in remote village areas. So far, Malaysia has refused to censor the Internet although it appears to be trying other methods of limiting access. The governments are thus learning that limiting access to some kinds of information is difficult without limiting access to all of it.

In the meantime, this newfound freedom of speech and expression, which is not available through the subservient local media, is regarded as an avenue to challenge the established system on issues ranging from race relations to economic mismanagement. Although China over the last decade has got most of the publicity in Asia for Internet censorship, having passed scores of regulations attempting to harness free speech on line, but there are these unsettling developments elsewhere:

Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister Paiboon Wattanasiritham said on March 28 that the Thai government has set up a national committee to place controls on television, film, magazines and websites to ensure a "safe and creative media.” The committee will be tasked with putting tight controls on media content to ensure items that it deems to be inappropriate for young people are not published. While Paiboon said the controls are aimed at Internet pornography, few in Thailand had any illusions that they could and would be used against critics of the government. One Bangkok group told the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission that as many as 32,500 websites are being blocked by the police and another 13,500 by the Information and Communications Technology Ministry, with 11% of the blocked sites categorized as "a threat to national security."

In Singapore, long known for its tight grip on the media and low tolerance for dissent, bloggers are now in the cross hairs. The government announced recently that it is reviewing the code that governs competition in the print and broadcast media markets to include new media. As long ago as 2006, the weekly column of popular blogger Lee Kin Mun, alias "Mr Brown", in the daily newspaper Today was axed after he criticized a member of the government. The blogger has received several warnings since. The government also has also gone after news, podcasts or videos on the Web. Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) activist Yap Keng Ho was fined S$2,000 in November 2006 for posting a video of an illegal gathering of his party on his blog. After he refused to pay, he was jailed for 10 days.

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