Some Asian Governments Want to Control Those Pesky Bloggers

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.

In Malaysia on March 13 the Internal Security Ministry sent a circular to top editors of local mainstream newspapers and television stations warning not to quote or reproduce anti-government comments posted online. Fittingly, the circular, issued by the ministry’s secretary-general, Zainuddin Maidin, was brought to light by the independent online magazine Malaysiakini.com. The ministry reminded newspapers that under the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, it is the responsibility of newspaper editors to take reasonable steps to ensure the correctness and truth of news before publishing. The presses act, a holdover from British colonial days, requires publications to be licensed annually by the ministry and allows it to shut down publications at any time without recourse.

The feisty online communities in all of the countries are hardly being cowed. In Malaysia and Singapore and Thailand, seemingly dozens of websites pour out unrepentant and unremitting criticism of the government. Malaysiakini, which was established a few years ago precisely to take advantage of Malaysia’s tolerance for Web sites, has grown into one of the strongest all-Internet journalism sites in Asia, practicing respectable professional journalism despite frequent provocations from the government.

Zainuddin, the information ministry’s secretary general, has told local newspapers not to refer and quote from blogs or the online media and accused them of spreading rumors. He said that the blogs are mainly run by frustrated journalists and political pundits.

"Do not quote them because you are disgracing yourself as you are the authority. Do not give credit to such anarchist websites," Zainuddin said in a press conference. The national news agency Bernama also quoted Zainuddin as saying that "The information posted on the blog website may be something provocative, politically motivated, inaccurate and is mostly rumor floated for the interests of certain parties.”

In response to Zainuddin’s comments, Tricia Yeoh, a Senior Research Analyst attached to the Center for Public Policy Studies, Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute (ASLI), a prominent Malaysian think tank, told Asia Sentinel that “Making generalized and sweeping statements is never wise. Likewise, accusing all bloggers across the board as mere troublemakers is reflective of a lack of information and understanding. Who are bloggers? Bloggers are merely citizens of a nation; do citizens have legitimate concerns and is it legitimate for them to voice these out?”

Yeoh posited that “Because of its non-censorship policy of the Internet, Malaysians are privileged to be allowed open debate online, something we may be deprived of otherwise. It is this dynamic interaction between online community members that allows for critical examination and open dialogue, a process so necessary in the maturing of society”.

The government appears to be trying a new tack against bloggers – without leaving fingerprints. The New Straits Times newspaper, generally regarded as the the mouthpiece of the United Malays National Organisation, the leading ethnic party in Malaysia’s national ruling coalition, filed libel suits against two prominent political bloggers, Jeff Ooi and Ahiruddin Atan.

To a question of whether such a suit would put the brakes on blogging, activist Marina Mahathir, the daughter of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, told Asia Sentinel “No, not at all. In fact I think it's really led to an upsurge in blogging. More and more people have become interested in blogs, either just to read or to start their own. It's kind of an 'up yours' reaction. So I think if anything its breathed new life into blogging.

The tension between bloggers and the blogged about escalated to new levels when Malaysia’s tourism minister, Tengku Adnan Mansor sparked a controversy by reportedly describing bloggers as “liars” and “mostly jobless women.”

“'From my understanding, out of 10,000 unemployed bloggers, 8,000 are women.'” He was quoted as saying by the local Chinese-language newspaper Sin Chew Jit Poh “Bloggers like to spread rumors; they do not like national unity.”

Bloggers United, an unofficial coalition of bloggers set up in the wake of the suit against Ooi and Atan, in turn launched its own war of words against Adnan. Popular blogs such as Screenshots and Rocky’s Bru as well as bloggers and women’s rights proponents have spoken out strongly.

Marina Mahathir thinks this is only the beginning. “Unless the government aims to sue each and every blogger, I reckon the build-up to the general election (expected this year or next) will mean lots of activity in the blogosphere. And there's not a lot that the government can do about it except fight on the same ground, which of course they are welcome to do. But they must ensure their own bloggers are credible. Right now, there are some pro-government bloggers but they are so crude and clumsy that nobody bothers with them”.