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It's not just Cambodia, Vietnam - Southeast Asia struggles with Internet freedom

Online freedoms are under attack in large parts of Asia, especially Southeast Asia. A Freedom House study says most countries in the region are either "not free" or only "partly free."

While Cambodia's government considers a new law that would impose stiff penalties for online communications the government doesn't like, democratic Thailand continues to jail people for posts that criticize the monarchy. Myanmar has abolished some of the world's most restrictive censorship laws, but it is now struggling with hate speech online and its government appears unsure about what to do.

Laos and Vietnam continue their repression of voices that could challenge one-party rule. Vietnam has a large and flourishing online community, but posting about certain topics can result in jail time. Underdeveloped Laos is just starting to come online, but authorities there appear ready to follow their Chinese and Vietnamese neighbors in regulating online speech.

"From a legislative and content control point of view, clearly freedoms have taken a beating in Southeast Asia," says Gayathry Venkiteswaran, executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA).

"But the use of online for political expression, mobilization and alternative voices is on the rise," she adds. "In other words, people are claiming their spaces, but states are placing more and more restrictions."

Young gamers in an Internet café

Southeast Asian Internet freedom trends are "discouraging," but that's not stopping users - as in China

While Myanmar shows promise, the other nations in the region appear to be uncomfortable with too much free speech online and are considering tough new restrictions that don't bode well for democracy.

Vietnam

The most restrictive of the nations in mainland Southeast Asia is Vietnam.

Vietnam comes out near the bottom of the Asia regional ranking in

Freedom House's 2013 Freedom on the Net report

, only beating out China. It is classified as "not free."

Earlier this month, Vietnam arrested two democracy activists in Hanoi for posting online articles critical of the government. The two, Nguyen Huu Vinh and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, are accused of violating Article 258. The charge carries a maximum seven-year jail sentence. During the first three months of 2014, at least six other people were convicted on the same charge.

Vinh is the founder of the widely read Basam blog, which contains articles gleaned from the local press as well as pieces from dissidents critical of the government.

"Vietnam's arresting of bloggers for allegedly abusing 'democratic freedoms' is a cynical and chilling move," says Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "Vietnam should immediately drop these bogus charges, and then take the next step by scrapping Article 258 and other provisions of the penal code regularly used to punish free expression."

In 2013, Vietnam overtook Iran as the world's second-worst jailer of Internet users, after China. Reporters Without Borders says more than 30 people are behind bars. And the country has admitted to employing 1,000 pro-government "public opinion shapers" to slam critical voices.

Despite these heavy-handed tactics, Pham Doan Trang, a friend of Vinh's, who blogs for Basam.info, says the genie is out of the bottle. Vietnam has approximately 34 million Internet users, including 20 million Facebook subscribers.

China Internet Café

Third from bottom: China ranks as "not free" and a poor example for its Southeast Asian neighbors Vietnam and Myanmar

"It cannot go back to the years when the people have little access to the outside world. In other words, democracy is an inevitable and irreversible process," she told DW, adding that just five days after Vinh was arrested on May 5, his website was back online and was flooded with supportive comments.

But she says Vietnam is unlikely to build a Great Firewall, as China has. Not because it doesn't want to, but because of the costs and technical limitations.

Cambodia

This kingdom of 15 million sandwiched between Vietnam and Thailand leads the mainland Southeast Asia pack in the Freedom House ranking, and is categorized as "partly free."

Until recently, only few Cambodians had access to the Internet. About 80 percent of the population lives in rural areas, without even access to electricity. So, online communication was long limited to an urban minority more interested in celebrity news and dating than posting political content.

However, the country's Internet penetration rate has grown rapidly.

Data from the Ministry of Posts and Communications suggests Internet penetration to be between 18 and 20 percent - whereas just five years ago, the World Bank says penetration was down at 0.5 percent.

Cheaper smartphones, better 3G coverage and Facebook are all reasons for the surge. Now, the trend is videos of traffic accidents, crackdowns by security forces, and of officials caught in compromising situations.

In 2012, the government said it would adopt a Cybercrime Law to regulate Internet use and stop the spread of "false information" by "ill-willed people."

In April,

a draft of the legislation

was leaked to the London-based free expression organization Article 19. It contains provisions along the lines of Vietnam's Article 258.

"The law is vague and it challenges and criminalizes legitimate forms of online expression," says David Diaz-Jogeix, director of programs for Article 19.

Iranian students in an Internet café

While it's not in Southeast Asia, it's worth mentioning that Iran is bottom of the league

Free speech advocates and rights NGOs have called on the government to consult with legal experts and rights groups before finalizing the law. The Cambodian government has not responded. It's thought the bill could become law this year.

Thailand

Moving further west, Thailand falls several places below Cambodia in the Freedom House ranking, but still ranks, barely, in the "partly free" category.

Thais have been posting comments online since 1995. But there's been an uptick in restrictions since the 2006 military coup against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Computer crime laws were enacted, and existing lèse-majesté provisions in the legal code have been keenly enforced.

The Computer Crimes Act aims to stop the spread of content believed to threaten national security or create panic. But free speech advocates criticize it for making online users liable for reproducing material originally published by others.

According to Freedom House, the Thai state has blocked tens of thousands of websites (21,000 URLs in 2012, up from 5,000 the year before) and social media pages, and imprisoned several people for disseminating information and opinion online or via mobile phone under these laws.

Bangkok protest

Thailand has been almost constantly in protest mode since 2006 and Internet restrictions have not made it easy

Myanmar

Myanmar may well be seen as a bright spot in the region - at least compared to where it used to be.

It used to have one of the most repressive and underdeveloped telecommunication sectors. Then, in August 2012, the country lifted a policy of media censorship that had been in place for 48 years.

There are now few limits on online content. But repressive media laws remain in place, and could be used to punish online expression. Drafts to replace them have been slammed for keeping content restrictions and having harsh penalties for violations.

For this reason, Freedom House ranked Myanmar as "not free" in its 2013 report.

There are problems with access, as Internet connections remain too expensive for large parts of the population. A 2012 estimate put Internet penetration at just 2 percent.

In addition, ongoing problems with the country's ethnic minorities could spell trouble in cyberspace. Hate speech and racist propaganda are common online, and there are worries that the government could use this as an excuse to enshrine speech restrictions in new laws.

A role for ASEAN?

Many rights and press advocates had hoped that the ten-member ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, would enshrine freedom of expression on the Internet in its ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, which was unveiled in 2012.

They were disappointed.

Internet users in Indonesia

Indonesia meanwhile ranks moderately and is described as "partly free"

The document includes a guarantee on freedom of expression and opinion that is almost lifted word for word from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but which omits the phrase "regardless of frontiers."

"It is particularly alarming that the framers of the document opted to delete the phrase in the light of borderless communications through the Internet and with increasing integration and exchange among the regional media," says SEAPA's Gayathry Venkiteswaran.

"There are no binding instruments whatsoever in the region, nothing by way of ASEAN authority," she says. "Undoubtedly, the situation [in Southeast Asia] is one that is discouraging."

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