Hedged condemnation of Hebdo attack across Southeast Asia

Zachary Abuza
No leader, or government, spoke out about the real attack, the one on press freedom, whether you agree that Charlie Hedbo was tasteful or not

Governments across Southeast Asia were quick to condemn the attack on the offices of French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and the murder of 12 individuals. They condemned what they broadly described as a “terrorist act” and offered their condolences to the victims. But no leader, or government, spoke out about the real attack, the one on press freedom, whether you agree that Charlie Hedbo was tasteful or not. This is no surprise in a region that has been sinking in media freedom indexes and curtailing free speech and Internet freedom in the past several years. 

Not one Southeast Asian government is rated by international watchdogs as having a free press. Reporters Without Borders finds Southeast Asian states in the bottom third of their rankings, including some of the most restrictive in the world. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 28 journalists were arrested in Southeast Asia in 2014. This represents more than 10% of the global total (220); up from 19 detentions in 2013. Likewise Freedom House‘s annual report on Internet freedom found that only the Philippines had a free Internet. Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Singapore were all rated “partly free,” while Thailand and Vietnam were rated “not free.” Only Malaysia improved in the rankings in 2014; all others backslid.

They doth protest too much.

In a letter to the French Prime Minister, Thailand’s coup leader Gen Prayut Chan-Ocha offered condolences to the victims and “condemn[ed]s this act of terrorism.” Though he referenced the magazine, he said nothing about the attack on press freedoms. The same day, the government sponsored a bill that would increase their ability to censor and eavesdrop on all communications and social media. The junta arrested two journalists in 2014, including an editor who simply published a work deemed to be in violation of the country’s draconian and archaic Lese Majeste law (article 112 of the Criminal Code). 

In late December, the Prime Minister and Defense Ministers expressed support for a proposal to shut down media outlets that were critical of the government, and Prayut has accused unnamed media of undermining the “reconciliation” program by publishing overly critical articles. The junta has met with media editors behind closed doors to serve them warnings. Authorities have tried 20 people for Article 112 violations since the May 2014 coup, more then in the past 5 years together.

Article 112, along with the Computer Crimes Act, has been used to silence all dissent to the junta. Anyone, including civilians, charged under Lese Majeste is tried in a military court where there is no right of appeal. The media has been under both censorship and extreme self-censorship. 

The Ministry of Information and Communications has shut down 1,200 websites deemed to violate the Lese Majeste statutes, while arresting anti-coup activists for their social media postings. It boasts the ability to shut down any offending website in 30 seconds. The government has now shifted the onus to ISPs to police their users’sites, and given them the authority to move against any sites deemed to violate Article 112 without any court order. 

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak condemned the attack in a Twitter post. “We must fight extremism with moderation.” The Malaysian Government’s statement said, “Nothing justifies taking innocent lives.” But again there was nothing about defense of freedom of speech. That comes as no surprise. Reporters Without Borders ranks Malaysia 147 of 180 in press freedoms.  Despite pledges by Prime Minister Najib to rescind the colonial era Sedition Act, in November 2014, he not only kept the decree but stepped up politically-motivated prosecutions under it. More than 10 sedition cases have been filed, mainly against prominent opposition politicians and youth activists, but also against a law professor for giving an expert opinion. Malaysia’s press freedom rankings continue to worsen, while the some 1,500 religious fatwas have greatly restricted freedom of expression.

Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean condemned the attack, saying that it was “sad to see how extremism can lead to violence and bloodshed.” Yet Singapore has some of the most restricted media laws in the region. It is ranked 150 out of 180 by Reporters Without Borders, and regularly uses libel laws to silence the media and the political opposition; the government has never lost a libel case, including against major Western news organs.

Days after their statement, a Singaporean court ordered a blogger to pay $28,000 in legal fees in a defamation case against the Prime Minister, that, not surprisingly he lost.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi likewise condemned the attack and offered her condolences. While Indonesia still has one of the freest presses in the region (132 of 180), it still has not recovered from the slide between 2009-2011 and attacks on journalists remain both high and under-prosecuted. Recent apostasy charges against the editor of the Jakarta Post, though later dropped, demonstrate just how fragile Indonesia’s gains are. Likewise on the Internet, Indonesia is still only ranked “Partly Free,” and it has the third lowest degree of Internet penetration in the region.

Vietnam’s Foreign Affairs spokeswoman condemned the attack as “barbaric and unacceptable“, while President Truong Tan Sang and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung sent condolences to their French counterparts. Yet Vietnam has the most restricted media in the region, ranked 174th of 180 countries surveyed by reporters Without Borders. Vietnam currently has 19 journalists and bloggers under arrest, making it the 5th leading jailer of journalists in the world.

In a one month period, between November and December 2014, Vietnam arrested 3 bloggers, charging them under vague national security provisions of the Criminal Code and for “abusing democratic freedoms.” Ironically, Vietnamese authorities shut down Haivl.com, the country’s widely popular on-line satirical magazine in mid-2014. The assault on bloggers and an overall restriction on intellectual discourse will only increase this year, ahead of the 12th Party Congress that will be held in early 2016.

And while the Philippines has a very free press, the impunity of attacks on journalists has made the country one of the most lethal in the world for journalists, dragging it down in annual rankings by media watchdogs. Repoorters Without Borders ranks the Philippines 149th of 180. Indeed, the same day of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, another Philippine journalist was gunned down, the 172nd since 1986. Indeed the Hebdo attack was the second most lethal attack on journalists in the world, following only the Maguindanao massacre of November 2009, in which 58 people were gunned down, including 32 journalists. Witnesses have been murdered and I know of not one person who has ever been convicted for killing a journalist in the Philippines. The government’s continued silence on the issue of impunity, speaks volumes. 

It’s time for the leaders to condemn more than the act of terrorism. Charlie Hebdo was attacked because of their mission to satire and make us question governments, policies, religions and ideologies. Journalists were killed for doing their job. An attack on freedom of expression unacceptable and cannot be justified, not in the name of religion, belief, or political ideology. Nothing is beyond criticism or questioning, no matter how irreverent or distasteful it might seem. And in Southeast Asia, journalists too are under assault for doing nothing more than providing information, shaping debates over public policy, and making governments more accountable. That is what truly needs to be condemned by the governments of Southeast Asia. We cannot allow governments to condemn the violence to justify further internet and media controls, while curbing free speech and Internet freedoms. – Rappler.com

Zach Abuza, PhD is principal of Southeast Asia Analytics. Follow him on Twitter @ZachAbuza.