The Internet, social media in particular, has become one of the most powerful tools for expressing opinions around the world. The ability to reach millions of readers and organize activist campaigns has made the Internet a favorite medium for protesters. The Arab Spring was greatly empowered by social media and online activism. The result was a series of powerful revolutions, civil wars, and protests movements that swept several governments out of power, and challenged the authority of many others. For better or (most likely) worse, many Asian governments have learnt an important lesson and are now cracking down on free speech via the Internet.
China is perhaps the most stunning example of tight control on social media and the Internet. The Communist Party of China (CPC) has maintained tight control over its 1.2 billion citizens and their access to the Internet. You won’t find Facebook and Twitter in China, they are both banned, though Chinese citizens have access to Chinese equivalents of these social media sites. These sites, in turn, closely monitor their users and what they are posting. Chinese citizens are still able to access Twitter and other websites by circumventing the government’s security measures. This has resulted in persecution, however, and in November (2012), Zhai Xiaobing was arrested for posting an offensive joke about the CPC. With tens of thousands of protests occurring every year, the Chinese party has worked hard to isolate and minimize activists and their ability to organize through the Internet. As a result the government has been able to maintain control, and admittedly enforced a cynical stability over its vast population.
Vietnam, still ruled by the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), is now ratcheting up control of online media. Popular blogger and lawyer, Le Quoc Quan, was arrested a few days ago. He runs a widely-read blog critical of the Vietnamese government and its alleged human rights abuses. With over a third of Vietnamese citizens having access to the Internet, the online community is becoming a favorite place for dissidents to spread their message. Prime Minister Mr. Dung has warned dissidents to tread carefully or else face reprisal.
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In Thailand criticism of the local king is a highly persecuted crime. A number of people have been arrested and jailed for criticizing King Bhumibol Adulyadej via the Internet and text messages. Even speculating on his personal health is a jailable offense, as several people learnt when they were arrested in 2009 for discussing the King’s personal health. One of these online commentators, Mr. Katha, a former marketing executive, was recently sentenced to four years in jail for posting comments deemed as speculative and defamatory. Others have been arrested for sending text-messages, running websites deemed as offensive, and engaging in other electronic “crimes.”
It’s not just developing Asian nations that are launching this crackdown. Numerous people in developed Asian countries have been arrested in recent years for defaming their government, questioning the legal system, or posting racist comments online. In 2011, the Singaporean government arrested a British writer, Alan Shadrake, for writing a book critical on Singapore’s judicial system. He was jailed for 8 weeks. In 2010, Abdul Malik Ghazali was arrested for posting comments on his Facebook page critical of the government, and especially the Sports ministry for spending a large sum of money to host the Youth Olympics game. Not even U.S. citizens are out of the reach of the People’s Action Party (PAP), Gopalan Nair, a former Singaporean, was arrested while traveling in Singapore for insulting a civil servant via email. Mr. Nair also runs the popular blog ‘Singaporean Dissident’ which is widely known for criticizing the Singaporean government.
While Asia is a rapidly progressing region, and many governments, such as Singapore’s PAP, have done an astounding job managing the development of their respective nations, Freedom of Speech remains a lagging issue. Progress is inevitable and eventually Asian governments will have to learn to cope with and respond appropriately to criticisms. Tightening controls will only buy time, as online activists continue to figure out ways to subvert tight restrictions and spread their message. Proof lies in the widespread access of Twitter and Facebook in China, determined activists and people in general have found ways to circumvent government control. Feedback from increasingly educated citizens is a vital part of the evolution of a nation and should be viewed as a sign of progress, not something to be scorned and persecuted.