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Date: Mon, 18 Jan 1999 11:47:14 -0600 (CST)
From: rich@pencil.math.missouri.edu (Rich Winkel)
Organization: PACH
Subject: SOUTH-EAST ASIA: The Internet, a Handy Political Weapon
Article: 52413
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <bulk.18127.19990119121621@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

/** ips.english: 433.0 **/
** Topic: SOUTH-EAST ASIA: The Internet, a Handy Political Weapon **
** Written 3:05 PM Jan 17, 1999 by newsdesk in cdp:ips.english **

The Internet, a Handy Political Weapon

By Alecks Pabico, IPS, 14 January 1999

MANILA, Jan 14 (IPS) - A few years ago, a despot who wanted to control information needed only to take over broadcast and print media organisations, if not shut them down completely.

Today's strongmen still do that, but with much less effect, as some of South-east Asia's well-entrenched regimes are finding out. Now they have something called the Web to contend with, and just how do you control that?

Indonesia's former President Suharto would have wanted to know. Before he was forced to resign last May, the general had been South-east Asia's longest reigning leader, thanks in part to decades of media repression that had denied Indonesians access to accurate information.

But then came the Internet, and Indonesians soon found the means out of the rut of muzzled journalism of the mainstream media. Journalists who used to work for media organisations closed down by the government quickly found their way into cyberspace.

When former staff of the banned newsmagazine 'Tempo' set up the online 'Tempo Interaktif' to pursue investigative reporting, other journalist groups followed suit, creating more alternative sources of news such as SiaR, MateBEAN, MeunaSAH and MamberaMO.

To many Indonesians, Suharto's downfall was precipitated partly by a cyberspace expose of the assets owned by him, his family and his cronies, particularly on the mailing list Indonesia-L.

This US-based listserv -- more popularly known as Apakabar --was instrumental in providing up-to-date information about Indonesia all over the globe.

Says Indonesian journalist T Basuki: Apakabar helped accelerate Indonesian society's awareness of the need for change as it encouraged open and democratic debate on issues.

These days the Web still looms large over Suharto's successor and erstwhile protege, Bacharuddin J. Habibie, who has to worry about what is disseminated on NusaNet, an e-mail network linking NGOs in Indonesia.

The Habibie government has been proceeding cautiously and has relaxed some media restrictions, but the military is not pleased with what goes on in the wilds of the World Wide Web.

The Indonesian government is not the only one in the region probably wishing its citizens had not gotten caught up in the Web. Any country that has problems with free speech and free flow of information is bound to find itself dealing with dissent in cyberspace.

In South-east Asia that would mean, apart from Indonesia, Burma, Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore, based on the 1997 report of the Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists. And of these, Burma has by far the strictest controls on the media.

Ruled by a military junta that renamed itself State Peace and Development Council or SPDC, Burma does have some publications but they operate within the purview of what the junta allows.

SPDC has also imposed restrictions on the ownership of most forms of communication tools, including typewriters, fax machines, photocopiers and modems. Radio is permitted and widely used, but is known to be filled with SPDC propaganda.

Not surprisingly, the Burmese pro-democracy movement in exile was among the first to make its presence felt on the Internet. But while outsiders can easily access sites like BurmaNet, Free Burma Coalition and BurmaWeb -- aside from that of the junta itself -- most Burmese make do with word-of-mouth relays of Web news.

Other governments are trying to thwart dissent on the Net through censorship. In March 1997, Vietnam passed a law allowing the state to control and censor all Internet communications.

But no one country has gone as far as Singapore in instituting resolutions for the complete regulation of the Internet.

At best, these rules reflect Singapore Premier Goh Chok Tong's exhortation to the local press to forge consensus and not foment confrontation, facilitate nation building and not fray the social fabric.

The Net falls under the ambit of the Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA), which issues licenses to service providers and those wanting to put up online sites.

The authority also determines what content is allowed on Internet sites. Anything from pornography to areas which may undermine public morals, political stability or religious harmony is considered objectionable.

CCPJ findings show at least eight state-hired censors who search the Net daily in search of objectionable content. These sites are then blocked by the local Internet service providers.

In Malaysia, official pronouncements make it seem the government of Premier Mahathir Mohamad has yet to resort to censorship of online communication, despite the growing use of the Net by the 'reformasi' movement begun by jailed former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim.

But a closer look at the acceptable use policy at Jaring, the main Internet backbone there, indicates it is enough to curtail the Net's use for activities not allowed under law.

The policy justifies surveillance of all Internet communications on Anwar's case and places restrictions on the content of online messages.

With supposed transgressions, Mimos, the state agency that administers Jaring, has helped police track down four people accused of causing panic in Kuala Lumpur after posting rumors of riots on the Internet. Authorities have threatened more arrests for similar offences.

But given the mainstream media's treatment of Anwar's case as a non-event, Malaysians, have been enlisting in mailing lists and bulletin board services for wire-service reports, opinions, eyewitness accounts and schedules of events.

Zaharom Nain of the independent magazine 'Aliran', which maintains an online news site, says: By and large, the Malaysian media have never aspired to be the guardians of the freedom of speech. Thus far, they have been nothing more than the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition's mouthpieces.

Other controls on the media include laws like the Printing Presses and Publications Act, Broadcasting Act, Control of Imported Publications Act, the Internal Security Act, the Sedition Act, and the Official Secrets Act.

Ironically, though, it is a system that imposes licensing stipulations, intimidation and censorship on the media that gives rise to alternative journalism.

Lukas Luwarso, chairperson of the Jakarta-based Alliance of Independent Journalists, does not deny the activist dimension to the group's work. He notes: We cannot work simply in an objective and balanced fashion as demanded by the profession.