Home » Blog » Blogs and bloggers » Some different perspectives on censorship around Southeast Asia

Some different perspectives on censorship around Southeast Asia

Sein Win of Mizzima, a Burma-focused news site operated from Thailand and India, documents some of the barriers towards internet use in Burma. Under the military junta, all computers and fax machines must be registered with the Ministry of Posts and Communication – violating this law can leave one facing a 7-15 year prison sentence. Even with a registered computer, it’s incredibly expensive to get online – $1300 a month for a broadband internet connection, in a country where average monthly income is $42. Even access via cybercafes in Rangoon or Mandalay costs $1.50 an hour, which is prohibitvely high via local standards.

Even if you can afford to get online, there’s some very strong incentives to be very careful about pages you view. Internet Cafe operators are required to take screenshots of every computer every five minutes and burn these screenshots onto CDs for review by the government. This gives cafes a strong incentive not to let their users access human rights information or other banned sites.

(Nart’s got more information on current censorship information in Burma based on recent ONI research conducted there.)

Steven Gan, the editor of Malaysiakini (Malaysia Now, one of Malaysia’s most important news outlets), points out that death is the ultimate form of censorship, invoking his friend Amnat Jongyotying, who received four bullets in his abdomen for exposing mafia corruption in Chiang Mai. (He survived, and continues to report in Thailand, wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying a gun.)

Last year, the Philippines were the second most-dangerous place for a journalist to work (after Iraq.) In countries like Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, there’s press freedom, but a real danger that exercising this freedom can have deadly implications. As he puts it, “In Malaysia, there’s freedom of speech, but not freedom after speech”. It’s very difficult to report in Malaysia in part because of media ownership – the vast majority of Malaysian media outlets are owned by the dominant political party, or people closely connected to that party.

Malaysiakini discovered how much danger they could be in when they experienced a police raid after posting a comment from an anonymous blogger. The police seized 19 computers, writing the name of each reporter on the computer she was using, and investigated them to see whether they had any information on the commenter’s identity. In the meantime, readers – including affiliated blogger Jeff Ooi – stepped up and lent their computers to Malaysiakini so they could keep reporting in the meantime. (Jeff tells us that he offered Malaysiakini his daughter’s computer – no word on how she felt about that…)

Chi Dang, representing an underground journalism association, gives a chilling picture of the dangers of speech online in Vietnam. Two of her colleagues were detained in Viet Nam when they attempted to attend this conference – they’ve been released, but it’s unclear what the implications for them may be.

While the Internet is catching on in Viet Nam – 2 million internet subscribers, probably 10 million internet users, which represents 19% of the population – it’s heavily controlled. There are roughly 5,000 websites in the country, all of which are published by sending content to the government for review before it gets posted. Seizure of computers is routine, and all five national ISPs route their traffic through a central computer so the government can monitor and filter it.

The approach to working in this sort of environment, Chi Dang tells us, is not to attempt to stay ahead of the government technologically, but to try to avoid calling attention to oneself. She mentions that having PGP-encrypted files on one’s laptop would be very incrimination – and would likely lead to being tortured to reveal the password – so suggests that those files be hidden somewhere inoccuous, for instance in a collection of photos.

She details a couple of techniques people are using in Vietnam to try to stay anonymous. Unfortunately, one of the techiques she talks about – using a Yahoo Mail account to share drafts of mail to emulate a wiki – are horribly insecure and can easily lead to people’s identities being compromised. I’m hopeful that I can talk with her between now and Friday’s workshops so that Nart and I can offer some more secure solutions to the problems she and her colleagues are facing.

Other posts from FEAC 2006: