BANGKOK – Legal curbs on free speech, litigious politicians and self-censorship are making life tough for writers and journalists in southeast Asia. That was the message at an award ceremony in Bangkok yesterday, honouring under-pressure cartoonists, bloggers, editors, poets, musicians, webmasters from the region and beyond.
One winner, Chiranuch Premchaiporn of Thailand-based current affairs website Prachatai, is currently in court over alleged breaches of Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act, which makes it an offence for websites to contain content that breaches the country’s separate laws against defaming the monarchy. She was joined by Heng Chakra, a Cambodian journalist whose muckraking exposés of the country’s politicians and businessmen have earned him numerous lawsuits and physical threats, and by Zulkiflee SM Anwar Ul Haque. Better-known as Zunar, the latter is a Malaysian cartoonist and commentator whose work appears in Malaysiakini, a well-known news website that counters the usually-meek line toed by the country’s older print media, which are linked to the Malaysia’s governing parties.
Recalling his detention in a Cambodian cell, Heng Chakra said that his health deteriorated, but that he will “continue to do his job without fear”, citing the need for journalists in his country to cover the spate of land-grabs and enforced homelessness affecting thousands of people who have had to make way for construction projects.
Ms Chiranuch hinted that her award was a bittersweet one, as it showed that “freedom of expression in this country has drastically declined since the 19 September 2006 coup”, when Thailand’s army deposed the Government headed by then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. She criticised the new Government in Thailand, headed by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck, for not showing “any understanding or intention to reduce the problem of the violations of the freedom of expression”. The country’s Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung has pledged to increase curbs on publications and websites that defame the country’s monarchy, a trend that “seems to be even more worrying”, according to the Prachatai director.
The Malaysian Government has banned some of Zunar’s work, but he defiantly concluded his comments at yesterday’s award ceremony by saying that “if they want to stop me they will have to stop the supply of ink into Malaysia”. Every year, Malaysian media groups must apply for a renewal of their publishing permit, a legal hurdle that fosters self-censorship and tame reporting. However, an unintended consequence has been the growth of more aggressive and critical online reporting, which to date is not subject to the Press and Publications Act. That too might be in jeopardy , however, as the Malaysian Government ponders a new regime for administering online content.
The trio in Bangkok were among forty-eight writers from 24 countries who received 2011 Hellman/Hammett grants “for their commitment to free expression and their courage in the face of persecution”, according to award administrator Human Rights Watch, which added that seven of the grant-winners asked not to be named, to avoid additional persecution.
According to Human Rights Watch “Governments have used arbitrary arrest and detention, politically motivated criminal charges, and overbroad libel and sedition laws to try to silence this year’s Hellman/Hammett awardees.”
Eight Vietnamese winners were named among the group, though none of the octet could travel to Bangkok to receive their accolade, as they were either in detention of risked arrest should they travel, according to Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative of the Committee to Protest Journalists. Among the Vietnamese award winner were Cu Huy Ha Vu, a prominent lawyer and dissident jailed last April for seven years in what his supporters derided as a show trial. A son of one of Ho Chi Minh’s closest confidants, he was accused of trying to undermine Vietnam’s one-party state, after previously attempting twice to sue the country’s Prime Minister.
The awards were handed out the same day that Sithu Zeya, a 21 year old journalist working for the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) news agency, was handed an additional ten years in jail for violations of the nominally civilian-run country’s Electronics Act. The Burmese Government has made small changes to the country’s censorship laws, but, in all, there are an estimated 23 journalists in jail in Burma, said Crispin. He added in an email that “so far the government’s talk about allowing for more press freedom has been more rhetoric than reality. Until Thein Sein’s government stops pre-censoring news publications and releases all of the journalists it holds behind bars, Burma’s will still rank as one of the most restricted media environments in the world.”Show