Media Freedom Stalls as China Sets the Course

China’s media-control model s being embraced in Southeast Asian nations as diverse as communist-led Vietnam, military-run Burma, ostensibly democratic Thailand, and predominantly Muslim Malaysia. By Bob Dietz and Shawn W. Crispin


As China emerges as a dynamic modern economy and Western countries make room for it on the world stage, Asian governments no longer feel obliged to follow through on the democratic reforms they had once been pressured to adopt. That the world is not only willing but eager to engage with an authoritarian government on major international events such as the Olympics has sent a strong message to smaller nations that they, too, can back away from democratic commitments and still retain ties to the West. And just as countries are emulating China’s model of authoritarian governance and free market economics, they are adopting some of China’s tactics for controlling media.

China’s model of Internet censorship is being embraced in Southeast Asian countries as disparate as communist-led Vietnam, military-run Burma, and ostensibly democratic Thailand. In the city-state of Singapore, a system of media control has emerged that is equal to that of China, while in predominantly Muslim Malaysia, the government has started taking pages from China’s Internet manual.

Most of these countries have had restrictive media policies for a long time. But after the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games cemented China’s position as a powerful international player, many Southeast Asian nations looked to it with renewed admiration. China managed to burnish its image while paying little price for failing to meet its promises to the International Olympic Committee to allow greater press freedom.

China was roundly criticized when it shut down coverage of ethnic rioting in Tibet in March, yet few governments protested when the Games rolled around. When the melamine-tainted-milk scandal surfaced in September, China was not afraid to clamp down on domestic reporting on the situation—to the point of suppressing dissemination of the number of children affected. The lesson: Even with international scrutiny, strict media control was possible.

During the Games, more than 30 visiting journalists were harassed, beaten, or detained. More than two dozen Chinese journalists were behind bars for their work, a tally higher than in any other country in the world. Internet access was restricted, even for international journalists working in the official Olympic press venue. While more than 20,000 accredited journalists traveled to Beijing, many reporters were denied visas for reasons that were never explained.

China imposes state control on all media, but it allows leeway for independent coverage of stories that are not perceived as threats to social stability or the Communist Party. China-watchers are accustomed to seeing cycles of suppression and liberalization according to economic conditions and changes in party policy. Chinese journalists understand the limits of the government’s tolerance, but they also know they can push those limits at times.

Integral to these policies is the government’s commitment to expanding Internet access as part of its drive to modernize. With more than 250 million online users in July 2008, according to the semi-official China Internet Network Information Center, the task of monitoring online activity is assigned to the country’s private Internet service providers. They have a thick sheaf of government regulations to guide them on who can post news and what news can be posted.

Those same mechanisms of control over old and new media are cropping up across Southeast Asia. Vietnam takes an approach that is remarkably similar to that of China—not surprising given the two countries have monolithic communist parties that do not tolerate organized political opposition. Vietnam saw significant growth in print media as its economy expanded throughout the 1990s, though, as in China, all media are bound by law to a state-run organization or an arm of the Vietnamese Communist Party.

A fragile degree of liberalism emerged earlier this decade as Hanoi worked toward accession to the World Trade Organization. Once Vietnam was accepted into the global trade club in January 2007, advancements in media freedom quickly melted away. There were clear parallels to Beijing’s broken promises to the international community to allow greater press freedom in exchange for hosting the Olympic Games.

A major corruption scandal that embroiled top officials in 2006 offers a prime example of Vietnam’s reversals on press freedom. State-controlled domestic newspapers and Internet publications were uncharacteristically aggressive in their coverage of the investigation, beginning with allegations in January that Transport Ministry officials had embezzled billions in Vietnamese dong to bet on soccer matches. Demanding accountability and a response to the public’s anger, the news media played a major role in prompting the resignation of Transport Minister Dao Dinh Binh and in spurring criminal investigations against a coterie of government officials.

Yet two years later, reporters Nguyen Van Hai and Nguyen Viet Chien were convicted of “abusing freedom and democracy” for their coverage of the case. Their main source, Lt. Col. Dinh Van Huynh, was given a one-year sentence for “deliberately revealing state secrets,” and Pham Xuan Quac, a retired general who headed the government’s corruption inquiry, was given an official reprimand. The use of state-secrets laws and vague charges such as “abusing freedom and democracy” are a standard tactic used against journalists in China. At least 22 Chinese journalists were being held on antistate charges in late year.

Vietnamese authorities, like their Chinese counterparts, grasp the importance of widespread Internet access for economic modernization. The official Vietnam Internet Network Information Center reports more than 20 million Internet users, about a quarter of the population. OpenNet Initiative, an academic partnership that studies Internet censorship, found Vietnam engages in “pervasive” filtering of the Internet for political issues—but considerably less censorship when it comes to social issues. The approach is similar to that taken by Chinese authorities. Both systems hold privately owned Internet service providers responsible for content the government finds offensive, though users in Vietnam say the system seems a bit more benign than that used in China. As one expatriate put it, Vietnam deploys a “bamboo firewall” instead of China’s highly vaunted “great firewall.”

Burma, long home to one of Asia’s most repressive media environments, has also taken Internet censorship cues from China, its staunchest international ally. Analysts say Burma’s security police have received Internet censorship and surveillance training from experts in China—training they have used to monitor online journalists and bloggers and launch cyber-attacks on exile-run Web publications.

Internet access is exceedingly hard to come by in Burma, due in part to the high cost and bureaucratic headache of getting a basic connection. Tough security requirements, including a pledge not to use the Internet for political purposes, raise the bar even higher. Most Burmese surf the Web from privately run Internet cafés, which have proliferated in urban areas. Authorities have maintained strict bans on political opposition Web sites and even internationally hosted e-mail service providers such as Yahoo and Gmail, but the use of proxy servers to get around government-administered blocks is pervasive.

Shortcomings in the ruling junta’s censorship capabilities became apparent in the wake of the 2007 Saffron Revolution, when undercover reporters transmitted over the Internet stories, images, and video clips of a violent government crackdown on Buddhist monks. The authorities pulled the plug on the Internet altogether before launching their final crackdown, which resulted in the deaths of 31 people, according to a U.N. tally.

Censorship gaps were revealed again during coverage in May of Cyclone Nargis. Information and images of the disaster were initially scarce, but that was most likely due to cyclone-related electricity cuts in Rangoon, which was hard hit by the storm. Once power was restored and Internet cafés reopened, detailed news of the storm and the government’s poor response began to leak out of the country again. At least five local journalists were jailed for cyclone coverage, although it’s unclear whether the government’s Internet surveillance techniques played a role in the detentions.

It was not for lack of trying on the government’s part. News reports revealed that Burmese military officials received technical training in computing and information technology in China and Russia throughout 2008. A spate of “distributed denial of service” attacks targeted and disabled several exile-run media Web sites between September 17 and 19, coinciding with the anniversary of the Saffron Revolution. The Thailand-based Irrawaddy news site and the Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma news agency said they had traced cyber-attacks to China and Russia, though they could not confirm exactly who was behind them.

The New Delhi-based Mizzima, an exile-run news agency, was similarly hit with “denial of service” attacks in July and October. An attack on October 9 caused Mizzima to lose all of its data on four different Web sites. A subsequent attempt to hack the sites came from a file named “spdc.php.” “SPDC” is the acronym for the ruling military junta, the State Peace and Development Council.

Soe Myint, Mizzima’s editor and founder, sees a connection between Burma’s improving Internet censorship capabilities and the training that authorities have received in China. “Looking at what China is doing with Internet censorship, Burma is also doing similar things,” he told CPJ. “The Burmese regime has become more sophisticated in censorship, and it is obvious that they are copying and getting Chinese methods and models.”

Malaysia has taken more indirect cues from China’s repressive example. Malaysia never really emerged from the authoritarian rule of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who stepped down in 2003 after 22 years. As Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s government came under increasing political opposition throughout 2008, media restrictions intensified. As in China, broadly defined national security laws, in this case the Internal Security Act and the Sedition Act, have been used to keep traditional news media in check.

What was supposed to be different in Malaysia was the openness of the Internet, which Mahathir promised to keep uncensored—a pledge he made in 1995 to attract foreign investors to his Multimedia Super Corridor project, meant to be Malaysia’s rendition of Silicon Valley. In 2008, the government broke its no-censorship pledge for the first time when authorities arrested a prominent blogger and tried to shut down his Web site.

Even Mahathir—out of power for years and no friend to open media when he ran the country—used his blog, Chedet, to criticize Abdullah’s actions. “To break a promise and openly show that you can meddle with the security of the Internet is to expose a degree of oppressive arrogance worthy of a totalitarian state,” he posted in August.

Mahathir’s vision of establishing Malaysia as a developed world economy by 2020 emphasized the free flow of information, a reality embraced by China as well. In August, Malaysian Information Minister Ahmad Shabery Cheek said the government had invested 3 billion ringgit (US$860,000) in technology infrastructure, while the private sector was expected to devote an additional 18 billion ringgit (US$5.4  million) for high-speed broadband connections. The Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission said Internet penetration had reached 59 percent by 2007, although only a small fraction had a broadband connection.

Malaysia has yet to deploy Chinese-style filtering and monitoring technology. In a May 2007 report, OpenNet Initiative noted: “There is no evidence of technological Internet filtering in Malaysia. However, pervasive state controls on traditional media spill over to the Internet at times, leading to self-censorship and reports that the state investigates and harasses bloggers and cyber-dissidents.” The case against blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin reflects that approach. Raja Petra, founder of the popular Malaysia Today Web site, was arrested in September and given a two-year jail sentence under the Internal Security Act for postings deemed a threat to social stability. The sentence was overturned within weeks, but Raja Petra continued to face charges in late year that were related to his blogging.

Thailand, once seen as a standard-bearer for regional press freedom, has, like China, enacted and enforced some of the strictest Internet legislation in the world. That includes possible jail terms for Web users who use proxy servers to access material the government has banned. Targeted sites include those critical of the Thai monarchy or supportive of Muslim insurgents in the country’s restive southernmost region.

Thailand lacks the sophisticated censorship tools developed and deployed by China, although both democratically elected and military-appointed administrations have demonstrated a willingness to violate free expression norms online. In 2007, in reaction to a clip that ridiculed the country’s monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thai authorities pulled the plug on the video-sharing site YouTube. Owner Google protested the move but, according to the Ministry of Information, eventually assisted Thai authorities in developing more sophisticated censorship techniques to block specific clips rather than the entire site. This year, the Thai government shut down hundreds of Web sites that posted material considered offensive to the monarchy. Many journalists fear that the repressive trend could widen beyond monarchy-related materials as political tensions between pro- and antigovernment groups mount.

Throughout the 1990s, successive Thai governments were responsive to U.S. and European pressure for more democracy and press freedom. But as authoritarian China has more recently emerged as a countervailing force in the region, Thailand has played West against East diplomatically. The end result has been less Western pressure to democratize.

U.S. commitment to promoting democracy in Thailand waned as its global war on terror and security issues took policy precedence. That’s one reason Washington only mildly criticized the 2006 military coup that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s democratically elected government and installed a civilian government that implemented legislation, including the Cyber Crime Act, that rolled back free expression on the Internet.

As Internet penetration deepens throughout the region, government control of traditional print and broadcast media will spread to mass digital platforms—everything from Web sites and blogs to phone texting and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. China watchers know that media restrictions are cyclical—they grow and shrink depending on fluctuating political and economic conditions. For now, though, there is a clear sense that movement toward greater media freedom has stalled in many Asian countries. China is setting the course.

Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator, blogged about press freedom problems during the Olympic Games. Shawn W. Crispin, CPJ’s Asia program consultant, conducted reporting missions to Burma, Malaysia, and Thailand in 2007 and 2008.

ASIA: Country Summaries

Afghanistan Pakistan
Burma Philippines
China Sri Lanka
India Thailand
Malaysia Vietnam
Nepal Other Attacks and Developments in the Region

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