(Online) Censorship in Southeast Asia

I‘m just back from giving a talk on (Online) Censorship in Southeast Asia over there in Berlin at re:publica conference (#rp15). While being there and while talking about censorship in Thailand and Southeast Asia I also heard a lot of talks concerning this topic from other countries. It seems as if this topic is becoming more and more substantial again – in 2015! We all thought we left the old times behind, censorship was considered a thing of the past (with the exception of North Korea) and we, well most of us, were sure we are striving forwards towards a better together.

This does not seem to be the case. While new media certainly changes the world (for a better!?!) and lots of states open their great firewalls in order to let their citizens join the global communication it becomes more apparent that those states also spend more on surveying those now ‘free’ citizens – to maintain peace and order only, of course. When a country like Indonesia spends almost six million USD on surveillance technology you a) know something is wrong and b) don’t really want to think about how much other (your!) countries spend on that.

indonesia online censorship

When looking at all the countries in Southeast Asia there are certain things that become obvious. One of them: Indonesia is not alone. More or less all other countries here are dong something similar. Even though we are expected to celebrate as big happy family with AEC happening by the end of the year mistrust and fear of ones own people seem to be higher than ever.

I’ve compiled a few slides stating the ‘press freedom’ and the ‘freedom on the net’ (with numbers from reporters without frontiers and the freedom house)for my presentation in Germany (you can see the slides here: Online Censorship in Southeast Asia) so I’m only mentioning a few “highlights” in this article.

A few words to what we can see from the slides above. As mentioned before all countries have in common that they try to maintain their ‘power’ over their people. One way or another. A few ASEAN members try to block everything so that their people don’t get in touch with the outside world while others understood that this will not work forever and instead gain access to the outside world but monitor their user’s behavior quite intensely.

The Philippines surprise

When preparing my talk I was surprised to see some of the stats and cases that I came across. For once The Philippines were quite a surprise. They label themselves as quite liberal, I’ve heard that before, but after going through cases from other countries for hours and hours I was surprised when I eventually saw a country that was labeled as ‘free’.

But right when I wanted to give The Philippines credit for being the only cool country in the ASEAN community I discovered more information. It seems as if parts of the Philippines’ government were actually pulling for stricter surveillance laws and are continuously trying to increase the amount of interference possibilities in private lives and online user behavior. Some laws have been passed, some haven’t but the cyber crime act seems to become more strict and even though the freedom on the net score is the lowest (which is good) in ASEAN it still dropped compared to prior years and indicates a shift towards more monitoring.

ASEAN’s next role model – Singapore

If you somehow follow the news around Southeast Asia you are likely to have heard of Singapore’s fight with a young blogger / youtuber called Amos Yee. It’s not much of a fight though than more of a statement. And while he, Amos, certainly does not behave well and does not conduct himself in an appropriate manner (not caring about bail rules, telling lies about his bailor, trying to ‘fool’ the media, insulting believes and the late founding father of Singapore in more than harsh tones and posting obscene material) having him on trial for such a thing seems, from an outside perspective, quite strange. If a 16 year old boy would upload an inappropriate video in Europe he would either be ignored or scolded by his parents, friends, teachers…

The same goes for the case of “The Real Singapore” – an incredibly bad ‘news magazine’ that posts some very stupid and somewhat right-wing touched articles – like a bad yellow press outlet. They’ve now been ordered to close down and the two who started it can face a similar fate to Amos Yee with up to three years in jail.

All this added to some of those famous “don’t chew chewing gum” or “no satellite dishes allowed” laws shows that Singapore is not as forward thinking as it claims to be and therefore is a great example of the old saying “not all that glitters is gold”

Thailand (ประเทศไทย) – The Land of The Free

Now when we are coming back to Thailand things don’t seem too different here. We do have a very cool, hip and flourishing start up scene, lots of new media and online related events and even call some pretty neat original apps our own. What we don’t have too much: Freedom. It’s not as if there are soldiers patrolling around and watching what news outlets publish or broadcast (not anymore) but still the fear of doing something that might get you in trouble or land you in jail is omnipresent. What will happen if I publish a satirical article that gets misunderstood (sarcasm in Thailand is not always working well) or what if we publish a Meme that we think is funny but someone in charge doesn’t? Will my visa be in danger? Will I lose my work permit? Go to jail?

Again it’s not as if the country is waiting on you to say something stupid and then imprison you (I think. I hope) but not exactly knowing where the line is been drawn (actually it feels like that line moves a lot and is been redrawn all the time) leads to a lot of weird thoughts. And isn’t that exactly what governments (here) want? The netizens being afraid to say something that gets them into trouble so they censor themselves. Southeast Asia is on exactly that way.

I’d like to end with a quote from another speaker at the conference. He wasn’t talking about Southeast Asia but it fits here perfectly fine as well since it it’s a general approach to censorship:

“Censorship does not need to be technically advanced, it mainly relies on intimidation”

While there are still lots of differences between ASEAN member states this is something they all seem to have understood.

Sascha Funk

Founder / Editor at
Sascha is the publisher of and switched from an online marketing agency life in Europe to a teaching and education life in Thailand. He also writes about Teaching & Technology.

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