An absolute monarchy whose leader, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, rules by decree, tiny Brunei has enormous oil and gas reserves and is one of the richest countries in the world on a per capita basis. This wealth has not made for a free press, however. The government controls the electronic media through Radio Television Brunei, and newspapers must exercise caution when covering religious and political issues to survive in the conservative, Muslim-dominated country.
Sultan Bolkiah, reputed to be one of the richest people in the world, rules under an ideology he calls “Malay Muslim Monarchy,” according to which the monarchy is the defender of the Islamic faith. The ideology, introduced in 1991, appeared aimed at stalling calls for democratization and further isolating the country’s wealthy Chinese minority.
In October, harsh amendments to the Press Law went into effect. The revised law gives the home affairs minister power to suspend local newspapers and withdraw permits for imported publications, an authority that is not subject to appeal or judicial review. The legislation also imposes stiff fines and jail sentences on journalists who publish “false news.”
Foreign journalists must now secure government permits to work for local publications, and media outlets must have government approval to receive foreign financing. Because many foreigners in Brunei work for the English-language media, these journalists are almost certain to come under increased pressure to mute their coverage or risk losing their jobs.
It appeared that the Press Law was aimed largely at the country’s sole independent newspaper, the News Express. The paper, which employs many ethnic Chinese from neighboring Malaysia and Singapore, exists outside the country’s traditional power structure and has often provided critical coverage. The other English-language daily, the Borneo Bulletin, has close links to the sultan’s family and is seen as a semiofficial government voice. Local sources report that censorious articles in the News Express about a financial scandal involving members of the royal family may have helped trigger the new media restrictions.
In September, CPJ protested the law as an attack on press freedom in a country that had previously been known for its relatively liberal media climate. The legislation seemed to be modeled on similar tough statutes in Malaysia.
Sweeping amendments to an existing press law were expected to severely curtail freedom of information in Brunei by imposing strict licensing requirements on newspapers and imposing jail terms on journalists who published “false news.”
The law, the Local Newspapers (Amendment) Order 2001, went into effect on October 1. It requires newspapers to apply to the minister of home affairs for annual publishing permits. The minister has sole discretionary power to grant permits, which are not subject to appeal or judicial review. In addition, the new law grants the government absolute power to bar the distribution of foreign periodicals in Brunei.
The law requires newspapers applying for permits to deposit 100,000 Bruneian dollars (US$57,700) in cash with the government. Anyone who publishes without a license is liable to a fine of up to 40,000 dollars (US$23,100) or three years in jail. Other provisions allow the minister of home affairs to charge journalists with publishing malicious reports or false news, a crime punishable by a fine of 40,000 dollars, three months in jail, or both.
The law also requires individuals who are not Bruneian citizens or permanent residents to obtain prior approval from the Office of the Prime Minister before working in the press. The majority of the staff at Brunei’s two English-language dailies, the Borneo Bulletin and the News Express, are foreigners. If enacted, the law could threaten the survival of these newspapers.
On September 25, CPJ wrote a letter to His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah, warning him that if the new law was allowed to stand, it would severely limit the free flow of information in Brunei and would provide a negative example to the rest of Southeast Asia.