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Internet and democracy

Asian media landscapes

by Peter Hauff

In brief

The annual march for democracy in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia was put down by force last summer

The annual march for democracy in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia was put down by force last summer

Authoritarian regimes fear the free circulation of information, which undermines state control. In Asian countries in particular, the ways press and internet function as democratic tools differ greatly. By Peter Hauff

The fatwa against Saudi Arabian blogger Hamsa Kashgari shows the flip side of freedom in the internet. In February, his openly expressed ideas about Islamic prophet Mohammed caused fierce protests. Now, thousands of Arabs in social networks are calling for the 23-year-old to be put to death. At the end of February, an outraged Facebook group called “The Saudi people demand punishment for Hamza Kashgari” had more than 25,000 followers. In contrast, the English-language group “Save Hamza Kashgari” only had 8,100 supporters.

On his way to New Zealand, the blogger from Jeddah fled to Malaysia. In the southeast Asian country, however, Kashgari was arrested at the airport and later deported back to Saudi Arabia. Malaysia is often praised for its religious and cultural tolerance, but Hamsa Kashgari may have overestimated Malaysia’s freedom. There is indeed a wide gap between print and digital media, writes Eva Eichenauer in Austria’s Journal for Development Policy (JEP). In her essay, the sociologist from Berlin’s Humboldt University tackles the “Allah debate” of 2010 and shows how the powers-that-be exploit religious conflicts in Malaysia for their own purposes – and how they obstruct democracy.

Websites without license

In January 2010, the Supreme Court allowed the Malaysian edition of a Catholic weekly to refer to the Christian God as “Allah”, resulting in several attacks on churches. Print media in cohorts with the state refrained from reporting on the events in depth. Very early on, commentators put an end to the debate under the pretext of national security.

One reason social dissent is hardly visible in the Malaysian press is that every publishing house has to renew its license from the country’s Home Office in Kuala Lumpur each year. In contrast, online portals such as MalasysiaKini do not need a license.

As Eichenauer explains, this online competition to more established media started 12 years ago. It made the dispute between Catholics and Muslims an issue in the country. For instance, the web gives Malaysians a degree of freedom of expression that is unimaginable in print media. MalasysiaKini charges user fees for full ­access to all information; only the headlines and teasers can be read for free.

JEP editor Frederik Holst argues that Malaysian politicians did not realise in the 1990s how important the online world would become. He adds, however, that thinking along ethnic lines dominates cyberspace in Malaysia even today.

Other politicians in Asia reacted to new media faster, as the example of Thailand shows. Since 2009, the Thai government has regularly blocked unwelcome websites and censored web content. The OpenNet Initiative says that a quarter of Thai households had internet access in 2007. In comparison, densely populated Singapore now has 99 % coverage, whereas less than one percent of Burmese people had internet access in 2005.

In light of these figures, internet use varies greatly across Asia. South Korea has a different communication culture than Taiwan does, although both nations have improved their democratic environments in past decades. According to a study by the World Bank (2008), the concentration of all media in a few hands is problematic in Singapore, where the government has expanded its control considerably since 2009. “The victory of conser­vatives in 2007 has further marginalised the internet,” state Sang-Hui Nam and Thomas Kern in a comparison of four Asian countries published in the JEP.

Thinking along ethnic lines is common

Some consider Taiwan’s media as more diversified. Nonetheless, politicians still manipulate public opinion. Widespread cable broadcasting has left the internet little room to grow in Taiwan. And in the Philippines (as in the majority of African countries), there is a lack of landline connections. On the other hand, people’s use of mobile telephones played a crucial role in their democratic movement in Manila back in 2001. The Filipino press, however, remains in the hands of a few families that make money mainly with politically conformist yellow-press issues.

Critical journalists live dangerously in the Philippines; many have been murdered (see Alan Robles: “Media massacre” in D+C/E+Z 2009/05, p. 188ff.). The JEP authors conclude that Filipinos base their opinions less on media than on “ethnic, regional, religious and family ties”.

Peter Hauff