With broader sectors active in the input and output of information, the internet has clearly democratized the process of communication. Digital media has reduced the gap between the strong and the weak by empowering ordinary citizens, and it has also lowered the costs of coordination and collective action. In countries with less free regimes, it has eventually crafted a cyber-haven for civil society. However, this sort of interaction has been under the thumb of authoritarian governments, and for people in the Mekong region, it has yielded serious consequences. Moves by governments to oppose and criminalize free media in the internet era can be seen as a continuum of the old-days. Take Myanmar, for example. The coup d'etat in 1962 signaled a 26-year long military and intellectual besiegement; the journalist and leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), U Win Tin, who languished behind bars for 19 years, became a world-known icon for his unbending resilience.
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For the vast majority of people who endured decades of isolation, the advent of the internet was manna from heaven. The overnight success, achieved through the 2013 reforms, did not come without drawbacks. Even the NLD government has powerfully used the controversial Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, which criminalizes online defamation. More than 70 cases have gone to court, and many have been arrested or interrogated for satirical social media posts deemed insulting to the government. Moving from Myanmar to Vietnam it does not get much better. All media in the country must serve as the mouthpiece of party organizations, and a new law in 2013 extended state censorship to social media. In light of the limited space for an independent press, blogging has become an escapade for free information. Very swiftly, Vietnam has become one of the countries in Southeast Asia with the highest number of prisoners of conscience, according to Amnesty International. Among 97 detainees, there are journalists, members of the internet-based pro-democracy group Bloc 8406, bloggers and netizens who have criticized the government through posts and videos. Moreover, many similarities can be seen between Vietnam's cybersecurity bill and China's cybersecurity law. If the bill passes, it will require all internet users to cooperate with the government in providing information. As for Cambodia, despite scoring slightly better than neighboring countries in terms of internet freedom, the brazen attacks against the press have raised questions on its condition and survival. In more than three decades of despotic power, Hun Sen has used all methods to cripple opposing views. In face of the elections in July 2018, the escalation has further intensified: around 30 radio stations, the Cambodia Daily
and Phnom Penh-based Radio Free Asia office have shut down; more recently, two RFA reporters have been charged with espionage. The 2015 Telecommunications Law worsened things: Human rights organization Licadho warned that it "allows the government to secretly intrude into the private lives of individuals" among other things. Additionally, if the cybercrime law passes, the already volatile media landscape will likely deteriorate further. Most recently, the announcement of an anti-fake news draft came on the heels of Malaysia's adoption of an anti fake-news law. Thailand has also kept a tight grip on expression online. The Computer-Related Crime Act (CCA) adopted in December 2016, has given sweeping powers to the military government on curbing free speech, and to enforce surveillance and censorship. Article 19 has vaguely-defined enhancements to offenses that can multiply prison sentences by up to 10 or 20 times without any requirement of serious harm. Lese majeste lawsuits
increased following the military coup in 2014. Since then, Thailand's ruling National Council for People and Order (NCPO) has arrested and filed criminal charges against critical posts on Facebook. Privacy International (PI) has also reported on the Thai government's complex web surveillance, aided by the control of internet infrastructure and by a close and informal relationship with Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Reporters Without Borders's World Press Freedom Index for 2018
did not show any sign of improvement for the Laotian press. Yet again it is confined to the bottom of the list with thee one-party government strictly muzzling criticism. As the Laotian media has consolidated its presence on the net, it has also depicted its leader as a man of the people. Support Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, the Facebook account of the PM, has allegedly boosted his popularity and approval ratings. Meanwhile, the 2014 Web Decree — formulated after China and Vietnam's regulatory models — has banned online criticism against government authorities. For Laotian citizens, it has resulted in a manhunt for critics, both online and offline, inside and outside Laos. The Facebook conundrum
With over 50 million Facebook users, Vietnam leads the pack in the Mekong region. However, the "toxic" material circulated through Facebook has annoyed the authorities, which asked the company to delete 159 anti-government accounts. It is not only ordinary citizens that have reaped the benefits of social media, so have governments. The Facebook-aficionado Hun Sen has used his account as a platform to push his playbook and gain support. Sam Rainsy, the exiled opposition leader, has accused him of orchestrating sham likes ahead of the elections. Governments have also used social media to try and sweep controversial topics under the carpet. In Myanmar, as the crackdown in Rakhine State intensified, Facebook posts exposed the crimes of the Tatmadaw to a dismayed international community. The Myanmar Information Committee responded by blaming fake news. In addition, complaints from rights groups denounced Facebook's lack of responsibility in fanning hatred against Rohingya people. The internet has also prompted strategic measures to serve authoritarian commands: cyber-troops is one of its main by-products. A study conducted at Oxford University
defines cyber troops as "government, military or political party teams committed to manipulating public opinion over social media." Force 47 is the name of Vietnam's 10,000-strong military cyber warfare unit to counter "wrong" views on the internet. Freedom House has also explained that one of the methods used is "astroturfing" in which orchestrated comments create the illusion of widespread local support for the government and its policies. Thailand has moved in an analogous manner, by training more than 100,000 students as "cyber scouts" to monitor and report online criticism damaging national security. A closing takeaway
Many have hailed digital media as a game changer in democratizing communication and structures of power. While elsewhere we have seen that social media has succeeded in mobilizing masses and calling for accountability, for people in the Mekong cyber space has become a new minefield aimed at silencing people's voices and punishing dissent. Rulers have swiftly jeopardized democratic aspirations and through government-to-government learning strategies they've controlled people online. Moreover, tinkering with the law has resulted in broadly worded regulations leading to an increment of criminalization. It is worth recalling that Tim Berners Lee
, the mind behind the invention of the World Wide Web, has warned against the weaponization of the internet and has called for preserving a democratic network where power and information are equally distributed. Under the current scenario, his words resonate with deep concerns. Joana Bala is a human rights and development worker in Laos. She previously worked as a Human Rights Intern at the UN OHCHR regional office for Southeast Asia. She has a Bachelor's degree in Oriental Studies, from the Sapienza University of Rome, and a Master's Degree in Diplomacy from Shanghai International Studies University.