in Asian Cyberspace

Tesco’s billion-baht defamation suits threaten free speech in Thailand

TESCO Lotus, one of the biggest retailers in Thailand, has filed two staggering defamation cases against a Thai columnist and a former member of Parliament, sending a strong message to civil society and the press to tread carefully before criticizing the retailing giant in Thailand.

Tesco Lotus is suing columnist/academic Kamol Kamoltrakul and former Thai National Legislative Assembly (NLA) member Jit Siratranont for 100 million baht and one billion baht, respectively, after they criticized and questioned the aggressive expansion strategies of Tesco Lotus in Thailand.

Siratranont, currently the secretary general of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, was quoted by British newspaper “The Observer” as saying in a speech to 150 activists: “The large-scale expansion of the big retailers must be exercised with great care — not too aggressively and too rapidly — to reduce the potential tension, which could lead to serious conflict. There is also the need for the small retail traders to adjust to changes. Tesco Lotus must take all of this into account.”

Kamol was sued for an article published in the Thai-language “KrungThepTurakit” (BangkokBizNews), which expressed generally the same concerns about Tesco Lotus’ aggressiveness, and also what the columnist suggested was the retailing giant’s weak social responsibility in Thailand.

Both Siratranont and Kamol acknowledged erroneously saying that Tesco Lotus’ Thailand operations accounted for as much as 37 percent of the UK-based Tesco’s global revenue, but stressed that this did not detract from the main message of their concerns — concerns which, in any case, were of legitimate public interest in Thailand.

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March 20, 2008 Posted by | Free Expression in Asia | 4 Comments

Press freedom, free expression decline in Southeast Asia in 2007

THE state of press freedom and free expression declined across Southeast Asia in 2007, according to a yearend report of the Bangkok-based regional media watchdog, Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA).

A coalition of press freedom advocacy groups from Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, SEAPA aims to unite independent journalists and press-related organizations in the region into a force for the protection and promotion of press freedom and free expression in Southeast Asia. SEAPA is composed of the Alliance of Independent Journalists (Indonesia), the Jakarta-based Institute for the Study of the Free Flow of Information (ISAI), the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, and the Thai Journalists Association.

Below is the SEAPA media statement:

Press freedom and free expression decline throughout Southeast Asia in 2007

FROM the freest to the most restricted among them, the countries of Southeast Asia in 2007 suffered a weakening of press freedom.

The situation in Burma — already the worst in terms of environments for free expression and human rights — further deteriorated right before the whole world’s eyes. A notorious regime predictable for its censorship and tight controls now plunges into even more uncertain harshness.

Read the full country reports on Southeast Asia here.

Meanwhile, Singapore widened the scope of its uncompromising media laws to include the new media even as citizens are beginning to test the erstwhile freedom found on the Internet. A similar development transpired in Malaysia, which is showing signs of backing down from a long-standing promise to never censor the Internet and looking for ways to take on bloggers in court, while political protests in the last quarter of the year have put the government on edge.

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December 30, 2007 Posted by | Free Expression in Asia | , , , | Leave a comment

Philippines among worst-ranked countries in press freedom index

SEVEN Asian countries, including the Philippines, are in the bottom 20 of the fifth annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index released by the international press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

RSF Worldwide Press Freedom Index 2006The Philippines is among the worst-ranked countries for 2006 at 142nd place (in a tie with the Democratic Republic of Congo out of 168 countries surveyed), further slipping three places with the continuing murders of journalists and increased legal harassment in the form of libel suits, including those filed by First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo, husband of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

The country is now in the ignominious company of Bangladesh (137), Singapore (146), Vietnam (155), Laos (156), Pakistan (157) and Burma (164). (Download the Asia Index.)

Since it was introduced in 2002 to provide a worldwide index of countries according to their respect for press freedom, the RSF Index has documented the deterioration of press freedom in the Philippines under Arroyo’s rule, with the country sliding down the rankings from 89th in 2002 to 118th in 2003. Though it improved to 111th in 2004, the country endured a sharp decline to 139th in 2005.

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October 24, 2006 Posted by | Free Expression in Asia | 9 Comments

Litmus test for Thailand’s ruling military council: Leave the press alone

ROBY Alampay, executive director of the Bangkok-based regional media watchdog, Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), wrote an op-ed piece that came out in The Nation yesterday, appealing for help in getting the word out about the need to impress upon the military council — which has taken over the government of Thailand following a bloodless coup last Tuesday — the importance of keeping the Thai media free and independent in these abnormal times.

For sure, Alampay says, many Thais welcome the ouster of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. “Most people in Bangkok do seem genuinely thankful for the military action,” he says. “But the media environment has been especially vulnerable, unstable, and unpredictable the past week.”

For updates on the Thai situation, you can check out the SEAPA blog. Below is SEAPA’s column:

Litmus test for Thailand’s ruling military council: Leave the press alone

Special to The Nation

BANGKOK — After weeks of rumours, it was not soldiers in the streets that signalled to Thais that a coup was finally under way. The uniform playing of royalist songs over all the country’s TV and radio networks is what had the people sending text messages to each other and logging on to MSN. Even when CNN broke images of tanks rolling into Bangkok, without official confirmation CNN could only speculate as to what was probable. But it was the sudden interruption of those images and the blacking out of all news channels on cable that gave Thailand the real news.

Thais have seen coups before, and they’ve learned to read the signs. The media, in particular, has always been a reliable indicator of change in the air.

The very relationship that Thaksin had with the Thai press — one of the freest and most vibrant in Asia — had been held as the most concrete proof that the man was an enemy of democracy.

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September 24, 2006 Posted by | Free Expression in Asia | 3 Comments

Media, free expression under threat in wake of coup — SEAPA

September 21, 2006
Military asserts rules for Thai media following coup, silences dissenting voices, arrests demonstrators

Two days into the peaceful military takeover in Thailand, freedom of expression and the media is under threat as the interim Administrative Reform Council moves to isolate deposed caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and clamps down on expressions against the coup.

Foreign and local journalists still enjoy unrestricted movement, and the Internet seems to be left untouched by the military. However, local English broadsheet “The Nation” reports that the Council on 20 September empowered the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology to censor reports that are deemed conflicting to its interests.

The same day, international satellite-transmitted news services CNN and BBC were censored when the news programme featured background information on Thaksin. The screen went black before resuming, presumably after the Thaksin feature was finished.

On 21 September, an interview with the Council on a local television channel was cut short when reporters asked about Thaksin.

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September 21, 2006 Posted by | Free Expression in Asia | 1 Comment

Merdeka Day thoughts on media freedom

KUALA Lumpur — Malaysians celebrated Merdeka Day yesterday marking 49 years of the country’s independence from British colonial rule amid brewing racial and religious tensions that threaten the already fragile unity of Malaysia’s multi-racial society.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi acknowledged the situation in his independence day message as he appealed for unity, respect and cooperation among the country’s ethnic groups of Malays, Chinese and Indians, stressing that the strength of Malaysians lies in maintaining their solidarity.

But beyond race-based political problems, some consider issues pertaining to the rights of contemporary Malaysians, particularly freedoms of speech and expression, to be as serious and paramount, and hence deserve reflecting on in light of Merdeka Day.

Youth leaders like Lee Khai Loon, convenor of Youth for Change (Y4C), for instance, rue the divide-and-rule system the country inherited from the British that remains deeply rooted in Malaysian society. “Independence should not only mean the sovereignty of the country, but how the people live. Are they living in dignity and free from fear? Are they free from control by the authority?” he asks.

Steven Gan, founder and editor-in-chief of Malaysiakini, the country’s acknowledged independent online news site, says that Malaysians, rather than focusing on things that divide them, should instead find common aspirations in democracy, press freedom, and human rights.

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September 1, 2006 Posted by | Free Expression in Asia | Leave a comment

On Merdeka eve, free speech online gets a ‘blackeye’

KUALA LUMPUR — The latest buzz in the Malaysian blogosphere is about the apology of a commenter for a remark he (or she) posted on a blog seemingly suggesting that a journalist be shot for an article that disparaged the country’s former prime minister, Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad.

The incident highlights yet again the delicate balancing act that Malaysian bloggers have to do with respect to their exercise of free speech and free expression online, and takes significance especially coming as it does on the eve of festivities to commemorate 49 years of Merdeka, Malaysian independence from British colonial rule.

The individual, who used the alias IImran, issued an apology after posting “Somebody, please shoot this Gunasegaram for good” on Malaysia’s most prolific blogger Jeff Ooi’s site, Screenshots. The reference was to P. Gunasegaram, the executive editor of theSun and NexNews Group who wrote “The Myth of Mahathir’s Invincibility” which was published in theSun last week. The said article was republished on Ooi’s blog and sparked responses from bloggers, including IImran, who apparently did not approve of Gunasegaram’s attacks against Mahathir.

Yesterday, Gunasegaram lodged a complaint with the Communications and Multimedia Content Forum of Malaysia (CMCF) against Ooi’s blog for carrying the said comment. The CMCF was set up under the Communications and Multimedia Act of 1988 and is tasked with monitoring online content and handling complaints.

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August 30, 2006 Posted by | Free Expression in Asia | 1 Comment

SEAPA joins the blogosphere

REGIONAL press freedom watchdog, Southeast Asian Press Alliance, has recently carved its own space in the blogosphere, hosted on WordPress.

Writes Roby Alampay, SEAPA executive director, in announcing the good news:

Our aim here is not only transfer our Alerts dispatches to a new format, but equally important, to actively engage people in discussions about free expression in our region. Beyond Alerts, we will try our best to actively link to posts pertaining to free expression issues affecting us all. A point in the right direction will always be appreciated.

SEAPA remains an advocacy group for Southeast Asia in particular, but a big reason we’re also making this move is so that we can also reactivate our official conference blog last April — and continue our conversation about free expression in Asian cyberspace. With PCIJ‘s help, we intend to bring back that link as a live and active section where our discussions on free expression on the Internet can continue. (We have a lot of questions, for starters, about this
whole “Internet neutrality” thing.)

Go check SEAPA’s blog.

July 14, 2006 Posted by | General | Leave a comment

Charges against James Gomez dropped; passport returned

CHARGES against James Gomez have been dropped, his passport returned, but not without a stern warning from the police, who had him arrested at the airport last May 7 and detained for questioning for three consecutive days (May 7, 9 and 10) for 16 hours.

Check out his blog for more updates.

May 15, 2006 Posted by | Free Expression in Asia | 1 Comment

James Gomez harassed by Singapore authorities

JAMES Gomez, who was one of our panelists at the recently held “Free Expression in Asian Cyberspace” conference in Manila, has been asked to surrender his passport “voluntarily” and to help the Singaporean police with investigations over a complaint lodged against him by the Elections Department of Singapore.

Based on accounts posted on his blog, James was attempting to leave the country when he was stopped at the Changi Airport in Singapore and was subsequently escorted to the police station. He underwent three separate questioning sessions, lasting for 16 hours, in connection with the following charges: criminal intimidation, giving false information, and using threatening words and behavior. The police has not told him how long the investigations will last and when his passport will be returned.

James participated in the recent general elections under the Workers’ Party ticket. The party was able to garner 44 percent of the votes cast, a significant increase to make it the largest opposition party — though still with only one or two parliament seats out of 84. The ruling party retained a large majority with 67 percent of votes cast.

An online petition has been launched to express support for James. To sign the petition, click here.

You can also access information about his participation in the recent Singapore general elections and the petition on his blog. Jeff Ooi also has accounts of the airport incident and James’s arrest.

May 12, 2006 Posted by | Free Expression in Asia | 3 Comments