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How courts in Southeast Asia are muzzling free expression

Jakarta Globe - July 19, 2011

Amy Sim The United Nations special rapporteur for freedom of expression, Frank La Rue, ended his nine-day visit to Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia and Thailand this past weekend. In those nine days, a number of events highlighted the dire state of freedom of expression in Southeast Asia and pointed toward a number of key trends and new forms of censorship.

The first instance was on July 9 when Indonesia's Supreme Court found Prita Mulyasari, a mother of three, guilty of criminal defamation and gave her a six-month suspended sentence for sending e-mails to friends complaining about the medical service she had received at a hospital. This judgment contradicted a previous ruling by the Supreme Court in a civil defamation suit in favor of Prita.

Her case clearly exposes the problems with the 2008 Electronic Transactions and Information Law, demonstrating how legitimate speech or complaints of service can easily be criminalized. Under this law, alleged defamation by an individual communicated over the Internet can be punished by up to six years in prison and a fine of up to Rp 1 billion ($117,000), more than the maximum penalty for criminal defamation under the Criminal Code.

Then in Thailand a Royal Thai Air Force commander became the first military officer to face trial under the lese-majeste law, which protects the monarch from offensive remarks, and the Computer Crime Act for posting messages on his Facebook page referring to the dictatorial father in a TV soap opera and song. Following the political unrest in Thailand, the Internet has become a battleground for different parties. The government has aggressively used the 2007 Computer Crime Act to limit online speech, especially speech by the supporters of the opposition.

The CCA severely undermines the right to freely provide and receive information over the Internet by using vague and broad provisions subject to interpretation, imposing liability on Internet service providers, carrying out surveillance of users not suspected of a crime and blocking Web sites.

In addition, the CCA is often used together with lese-majeste charges under the Penal Code by the government to silence its critics. Tens of thousands of Web sites are being blocked, many without any judicial authority. The number of CCA legal cases rose from 28 in 2008 to 76 in 2010.

Although public access to the Internet is generally promoted in Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia and Thailand, governments are taking action and putting in place measures to unduly restrict freedom of expression on the Internet. Rules on freedom of expression are well established in international human rights law through Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Governments must recognize that these rules on freedom of expression apply to Internet communications as well.

Recent events also include the dramatic crackdown on the Bersih 2.0 campaign in Malaysia. Some 50,000 citizens peacefully took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur on July 9 to call for fair elections, only to face tear gas and police beatings. Police arrested and then released without charges 1,667 protesters.

Before the rally, the government also arrested around 40 people under the Societies Act for possessing Bersih T-shirts and other "illegal" materials. They are faced with the threat of five years in prison for exercising their right to freedom of expression, assembly and association. Furthermore, six activists remain detained indefinitely without charge, arrested while traveling to the Bersih 2.0 event on the suspicion of "waging war against the king."

In Cambodia on Thursday, the Supreme Court upheld the two- to three-year jail sentences of four men convicted of distributing leaflets allegedly criticizing the government's relationship with Vietnam. They were found guilty of incitement under the Penal Code. A common thread runs through these cases: the frequent use of laws to suppress speech and opinions. While the region has been undergoing a process of democratization with the waning of authoritarian governments in the last two decades, state actors have found in the justice system an effective tool to silence dissent and to demonize the opposition. By passing vague and overbroad laws, they are now able to legalize the suppression of expression.

With the censors becoming more sophisticated in their attempts to restrict freedom of expression, free speech advocates must also step up their game to monitor both blatant and subtle forms of censorship in Southeast Asia and reverse the chilling effect these actions have on freedom of expression.

[Amy Sim is senior program officer at Article 19, a London-based NGO that works globally to promote and protect the right to freedom of expression.]

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