As concerns grow in Southeast Asia over the use of national security, anti-terrorist and defamation laws to limit freedom of expression on the Internet, a coalition of international and local NGOs and activists from Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia urged governments to stop using vague legislation based on ill-defined concepts such as "national security", "sovereignty" or "lèse-majesté" to intimidate, harass and imprison independent voices. Speaking at an event in Geneva, which coincides with the 24th session of the UN Human Rights Council, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), IFEX, ARTICLE 19 and PEN International united to call for the urgent revision of these laws to bring them into line with international human rights standards.
Independent and dissenting voices, including bloggers and netizens, journalists, activists and human rights defenders, have increasingly been subjected to repression in Southeast Asia. In Vietnam, bloggers and journalists, such as Dieu Cày and Phan Thanh Hai, have been jailed for peacefully advocating for reform, denouncing power abuses and reporting on human rights. The recently adopted Decree 72 banned sharing news stories on social media and quoting news from press agencies. "Vietnam is pursuing the worst ever crack-down on pro-democracy activists and bloggers. At least 48 dissidents were convicted in 2013 alone", said Vo Van Ai, President of the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights, who was sitting as a panelist on 11 September.
The Thai authorities have mostly been using the lèse-majesté law (Article 112 of the Criminal Code, which punishes any word or deed which "defames, insults or threatens the King [ . . . ]") and the 2007 Computer Crimes Act to lock up journalists and critics. The most notorious case is that of Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, who was sentenced to ten years in prison for authorizing the publication, as editor, of two articles that were considered insulting to the royal family. Ironically, Somyot was arrested just a few days after launching an online petition calling for a review of Article 112. "In its commitment to cooperate with the UN, Thailand needs to go beyond words, immediately release Somyot and protect the right to freedom of expression of all citizens", said Somyot's wife, Sukanya.
The Cambodian government has also taken steps towards seriously limiting the use of the Internet. In 2012, it started drafting a cyber law, whose official aims included preventing "ill-willed people" from "spreading false information". This draft law has yet to be publicly circulated, and there are serious concerns that it will mirror the restrictive laws within the region. Websites and blogs critical of the government are routinely blocked by Internet service providers on the basis of "instructions" from the government. "I believe in the power of the Internet to spread information and opinions. The Internet should always be free and uncensored", said Ramana Sorn, Program Coordinator at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights and a panelist on 11 September.
"Authorities in Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia have been manipulating vague, malleable concepts to crack down on dissent and stifle independent voices online. They have done so in complete violation of international law", said FIDH, IFEX, Article 19 and PEN International. "We call on them to immediately and unconditionally release all bloggers, journalists, activists and human rights defenders detained for peacefully expressing their opinion, and to stop harassment and intimidation of free voices. Everyone has a right to discuss and challenge government policies and matters of public interest".
Thailand, despite commitments made during its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in 2011, has failed to improve its freedom of expression record during its term as Human Rights Council member, which it will complete on 31 December 2013. Vietnam is running as a candidate for membership in the Human Rights Council (2014-2016) and will be reviewed in the framework of the UPR in early 2014, at the same session in which Cambodia will be reviewed.
Click here to read the testimony of a Vietnamese blogger on the difficulties to exercise his right to freedom of expression