Censorship in Southeast Asia: A Rapid Rise

Censorship in Southeast Asia is rising. Are online freedoms under any real threat?

It seems like governments in Southeast Asia have had enough of the freedoms afforded to the people by the internet.

Thus, they have begun clamping down hard on social media and the general internet.

From Indonesia to Myanmar, internet censorship is on the rise.

Many independent internet monitoring cells have documented the rise in the number of sites that governments in Southeast Asia have started to block.

These monitoring cells have also found out that the phenomena of internet censorship is not just rising in one or two countries in Southeast Asia.

It is rising in almost every single nation in Southeast Asia.

Some feel such censorship programs are just a small portion of a much broader and comprehensive downturn in citizens’ right to freedom of information on the internet throughout the region.

Of course, internet censorship did not start this way.

In the beginning, governments only wanted to censor the internet as a move to simply limit rather than restrict access to specific websites.

The governments in Southeast Asia called these sites as illicit ones.

These websites include those services that offered users free copyrighted content and/or hosted pornography.

But now those same censorship programs have morphed.

They have morphed into these unchecked, broad and powerful tools that those in power use in order to curb the “internet”.

More specifically, it is the internet governing body in any country that is responsible for blocking access to any given website.

The problem with current censorship programs is that there is little, if any, oversight.

Moreover, governments in these Southeast Asian countries are increasingly arresting their citizens for what these citizens post online on various social media platforms.

According to the Asia research analyst working at Freedom House, Madeline Earp, government censorship was definitely on the rise in Southeast Asia and rights such as internet freedom were declining at the same time.

Madeline mentioned that Freedom House was also observing government agencies making use of some very specific tactics to curtail internet freedom.

Some of those tactics included,

  • Cyber attacks
  • Arrests
  • Website blocking

And also some other online rights violations.

Freedom House also published a Freedom on the Net report a while back sometime towards the end of the year 2017.

According to that report, Freedom House found that the scores of a total of seven Southeast Asian countries from a total of eight fell in a survey it carried out.

Today, Freedom House only ranks the Philippines as one country in Southeast Asia that is, from an internet freedom perspective, mostly free.

That is of course because of the fact that the government in the country has made use of as little censorship as possible.

However, Philippines’ score has also fallen from previous years.

The reason for that is simple as well.

Freedom House reported a general rise in the government’s use of online opinion shapers.

These are people that the government hires in order to push rhetoric that is pro-government in nature.

Freedom House also revealed that the government also tried to curb the freedom of the internet in the country by carrying out targeted attacks on political activists as well as journalists.

One high profile example of this targeting includes Mia Manuelita Mascarinas-Green, a lawyer, who was murdered back in February.

While all of these incidents of intimidation and murder are disturbing, the biggest disappointment came from none other than Myanmar.

Freedom House brought the country’s rating down by a large margin.

And it happened despite the fact that the country brought into power the NLD, or National League for Democracy, after holding its first open elections.

As a result of that election, Aung San Suu Kyi also took the opportunity to come into power.

According to some, the main culprit of all the problems in the country was fake news.

And of course, some recent arrests of various journalists working in the country.


The Southeast Asian Press Alliance executive director, Ed Legaspi, recently mentioned that there were more journalists facing various types of charges currently when compared with the Thein Sein government’s record.

The Thein Sein regime ruled the country for four years spanning between 2011 and 2015.

With that said, now low scores in internet freedom have become the norm rather than the exception as far as Southeast Asia is concerned.

This is especially true for the region’s more autocratic states.

Such states include,

  • Singapore
  • Vietnam
  • Cambodia
  • Thailand
  • Laos

However, even in these already “bad” countries, the situation with the freedom of the internet is actually getting worse instead of improving.

Again, the reason is simple.

The government’s control over what the people it governs see is growing at an increasing rate.

This has also lead to the arrest of many people who posted somewhat controversial content online via various social media platforms.

But there is one country that actually managed to improve its score.

And that was Malaysia.

Of course, it is another fact that even after improving its score, Malaysia’s track record isn’t something that the country should feel proud of.

Various media reports have revealed that the improvements in its score only came because of the growth of the use of the internet in Malaysia.

Better internet access usually leads to more internet freedom.

That is, until the government figures out that it is probably not in the interest of the nation to let people see and read whatever they want their people to see and read.

Earp recently told reporters that the current year represented a special year in Malaysia.

In this year, the people living in the country saw the government censoring more sites than ever.

Moreover, the government imprisoned at least one person for posting a comment on Facebook.

Apart from that, there are still many more ongoing prosecutions in Malaysia.

Overall, compared to the rest of the world, the current year was not a good year for countries like Malaysia.

Some feel that the Malaysian example really exemplified a genuine tragedy.

And that tragedy had everything to do with the fact that as internet access all across the country grew, so did all the censorship programs and online threats.

Some are even right now.

And of course, it is not right as internet access continues to grow in the region.

Various reports have found out that, for the year 2017, the number of new internet users is in fact in the millions as far as Southeast Asia is concerned.

However, most of these users would not get to access the free internet because they would only access that internet which has tons of filters working on it.

In other words, they would experience a less open internet.

The extent to which governments have started to “govern” the internet is higher than ever.

However, such measures are bound to produce serious consequences for democracy as well as information access.

Let’s not forget, a tight control over access to the internet will also hurt any meaningful future development of the Southeast Asian region.

In order to have equitable development, governments will have to loosen up.

The situation is even worse if one looks at it in context

Rewinding the clock back just a small number of years and Southeast Asia seemed like the ideal emerging development model for the rest of the world to look forward to.

The region had a multiple number of growing economies along with functional entities in the region such as ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and, most importantly, stability.

All the while, the region was slowly but surely expanding and improving in other areas well.

The Southeast Asia region saw a good number of strong and determined social movements which were aimed at removing corruption from countries such as Indonesia and for a clean and open election in countries such as Malaysia.

Other movements dealt with garment workers whose rights were being trampled on in Cambodia.

There are also supporting movements for the shutting down of various environment-polluting coal-fired power plants in countries such as the Philippines.

And all of these social movements took help from the internet in order to grow, attract more followers and raise the issue at higher levels of the government.

The internet essentially allowed these movements to build power.

According to Earp, just a little while back, monitoring cells were observing the civil society, the media and the human rights community wholeheartedly embracing the online world.

Earp believed that the internet enabled a lot of genuinely interesting and exciting grassroots movements.

All of these movements found success in leveraging the internet in places such as Cambodia, Malaysia and especially Singapore.

But now, across almost the whole of the region, the democratic progress had stalled.


All those social movements that were so successful in their initial phase had started to falter.

And the reason for their failure is fairly straightforward as well.

That reason is the government.

Social movements now have no choice but to face pro-government, conservative and powerful forces in the online world.

This is something that Legaspi has seen all across the Southeast Asian region.

Legaspi has also pointed out in the past that pro-establishment and/or conservative groups in a lot of Southeast Asian countries were not only very potent propaganda channels but they were also actively harassing and threatening netizens who had critical views of their governments.

The other thing that observers have now started to watch carefully is the heavy role of the Southeast Asian region’s largest trading partner and massive neighbor:


Freedom Watch has ranked China as the worst abuser of online freedoms in the world for the third straight year running.

And there is little doubt about the fact that China has made huge strides in online censorship.

China is perhaps the only country that is fast moving towards perfecting its systems related to internet surveillance.

In fact, if one looked at the past 12 months alone, some of the most shocking online stories that news websites such as The Wall Street Journal and Buzzfeed have published, all have come out of China.

Other documents show an ever-pervasive online monitoring system in the country.

The Chinese government has tried to control what people do, say, buy and think on the internet via apps such as WeChat (which has become ubiquitous in China).

It has also sought assistance from the growing network of cameras that make use of artificial intelligence in order to enable them to look at people and identify them more accurately.

The Chinese government is rolling these out in vast numbers.

Most of these cameras are being put to work in restive parts such as Xinjiang and Tibet.

According to Earp, if there is one country in the Southeast Asian region that is coming the closest to resembling China then that is Vietnam.

While it is true that Vietnam has never managed to perform well on any given internet or press freedom ranking, the recent rise in the rates of social media activists and bloggers arrests is concerning.

But that’s not all.

Vietnam has also started to use the ever-growing and sophisticated censorship technology in order to control what people see on the internet.

That too, to some, is worrying.

Earp also believes that Vietnam was trying to replicate China in terms of the tactics it was using to curb the freedoms of the internet.

This, according to Earp, set a troubling tone not just for Vietnam but for the whole Southeast Asian region.

Earp further said that not monitoring cells had started to see prison sentences lasting a decade and sometimes even more for social media activists and bloggers who try to criticize their governments.

So where is Southeast Asia headed?

Fake news is rising.

So are the organizations and publishing entities that abuse the internet to mislead the growing number of online users by spreading hoaxes pretty much have consequences as dangerous as the real world.

For example, just this past September, a rumor spread in Indonesia.

According to the rumor, a local non-profit had set up a meeting at its office with the Indonesian Communist Party.

For those who don’t know, the Indonesian Communist Party is still banned in Indonesia.

That rumor led an angry mob attacking the non-profit’s local office.

And without some serious police intervention, it is highly likely that the mob could have caused significant violence.

Talking about violence, there is also Myanmar.

Now, Myanmar probably has experienced more violence than all the countries in the region.

Myanmar has now become a country where anti-Islamic and blatantly racist rumors along with fake news regularly play a critical role in raising up tensions within the population.

One such incident occurred last year which resulted in a massive anti-Rohingya purge.

Of course, the other problem is the response to these incidents.

That response, has now actually become even worse than the actual problem.

Because of the fact that there is so much misinformation on various social media platforms, the governments in the region are ramping up their efforts to utilize existing laws in order to control more of the internet and its content.

According to Legaspi, there were worrying signs that the government in these countries and supporters of the governments had taken advantage of the already existing online mechanisms in social media in order to assist governments in blocking “illegal” sites and content by doing nothing more than just citing current laws against these “illegal” and/or “unacceptable” websites.

Governments in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia have used laws such as lese majeste, the Sedition Act and the Blasphemy Law respectively to curtail freedom of speech on the internet.

However, one should also not understate the role of social media companies in this situation.

Their quiet acquiescence has allowed governments to carry out their censorship programs without much hindrance.

Global technology companies have provided governments with products that have now become the primary source of knowledge and information for the majority of people living in the Southeast Asian region.

These companies include,

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Instagram

And apps like,

  • WeChat
  • WhatsApp
  • Line

Although all of these apps have certain good in them, their actual role in encouraging, promoting and enabling free expression has diminished a lot as the years have gone by.


According to Legaspi,  if one looked back four or even three years back, online platforms that came in the category of social media actually provided a pretty effective refuge for activists and critics.

In fact, social media platforms enabled both of them to not only continue to spread their message but also thrive in doing that.

In simpler terms, social media platforms allowed online activists and journalists to circumvent tools that governments used to block URLs.

However, that situation has now changed.

In today’s world, social media platforms and companies have insisted on full compliance in following government requests to block or take-down a specific piece of content which they think are violating local laws.

The number of online users who the government is putting into jails is increasing by the year.

And it’s not because they are activists or journalists.

These are just average online users who posted some content on one of the above-mentioned social media platforms.

In one instance, the government took action against a user who didn’t do anything other than getting tagged in someone else’s content/post.

Moreover, the fact that technology companies behind these social media platforms are not making any moves in order to provide protection to online users from governments really shows that they are only concerned about their profits.

Or at least, it shows that these technology companies have their priorities somewhere else.

This is why many believe that the coming year’s election in the Southeast Asian region will play a key role in genuinely understanding the negative (or positive depending on one’s point of view) effects of fake news and censorship.

And even though people in Malaysia finally elected the person they wanted to elect as their leader, it doesn’t change the fact that Malaysia’s elections were heavily gerrymandered.

The same was the case with Cambodia where the elections were opposition free.

Indonesia also went through its own regional races in the middle of this June and observers made sure to have as many eyeballs as possible on them.

One simply cannot ignore the fact that rumor-filled and fake news campaigns doomed Indonesia’s Basuki Ahok Tjahaja Purnama in the past as well.

Just like Myanmar, Indonesia is defying everyone’s expectations.

But it is doing that in the wrong way.

According to Earp, Indonesia experienced the biggest of all declines in Asia.

And the decline was not just observed in a single category.

Indonesia experienced a decline in multiple categories such as,

  • Violence
  • Arrests
  • Attacks
  • Censorship.

A lot of people fear that the government in Indonesia, in its attempt to curb domestic problems and fake news would actually end up doing more harm than good.

Example include the government’s attempt, in July 2017, to expand its ability to disband problematic groups which the government feels are working to undermine the state of Indonesia.

Any right-wing politician could use those expanded abilities in order to win future elections and/or even clamp down on those NGOs which are legitimately helping the country.

With that said, let’s also not forget how such powers can be used against minority leaders.

In a worst-case scenario, any state that makes efforts to grow its ability to capture and then control the online world will actually limit the ability of groups such as activists, the media, the opposition and others across the region to do their best work for the country.

Along with that, such attempts will entrench the existing parties in power.

Not to mention entities such as the military.

Such a situation could have side effects of its own like,

  • Exacerbating inequality
  • Delegitimizing various minority groups even further
  • Increasing corruption

Many feel that the year 2018 has turned out to be pretty similar to 2017 in more ways than one.

There is more censorship and more fake news along with more pro-government online commentators.

And social media networks enable different actors to do their work with more effectiveness.

Some are calling it a really sad turn of events for countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam.

Many in the international community had high hopes for the Southeast Asian region in terms of becoming one of the foremost regions in the world.

As for the end users (online consumers, activists, journalists, and others), they can start to protect themselves by signing up for a VPN service that works in countries such as Malaysia, Singapore,  Indonesia and Myanmar in order to continue their work for more accountability and transparency.


Zohair A. Zohair is currently a content crafter at Security Gladiators and has been involved in the technology industry for more than a decade. He is an engineer by training and, naturally, likes to help people solve their tech related problems. When he is not writing, he can usually be found practicing his free-kicks in the ground beside his house.
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