Watchdog Report: Internet Freedom Declined in 2019 in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Philippines

Shailaja Neelakantan
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201014-BD-freedom-house-protest1000 Bangladeshi activists in Dhaka hold signs protesting the Digital Security Act, Feb. 2, 2018.

The coronavirus pandemic is accelerating a dramatic decline in global internet freedom, including in Bangladesh, the Philippines and Indonesia, an independent watchdog group said in a report released Wednesday.

Meanwhile, for a seventh year running, Thailand was rated as “not free” for online speech, according to an annual report published by U.S.-based Freedom House, which also noted that Malaysia kept showing improvement.

Freedom House said political leaders worldwide used the pandemic as a pretext to limit access to information and cited COVID-19 to justify expanded surveillance. Countries, meanwhile, restricted the flow of information across national borders at a time when connectivity is not a convenience, but a necessity, Freedom House said in a report that covers developments between June 2019 and May 2020.

“The pandemic is accelerating society’s reliance on digital technologies at a time when the internet is becoming less and less free,” Michael J. Abramowitz, the watchdog group’s president, said in a news release that accompanied the report.

Titled The Pandemic’s Digital Shadow, the group’s annual report on internet freedom surveyed 65 countries.

“Without adequate safeguards for privacy and the rule of law, these technologies can be easily repurposed for political repression,” Abramowitz said.

Bangladesh ‘blocks sites’

In Bangladesh, the ruling Awami League has consolidated power through the harassment of critics and the opposition, Freedom House said, reporting that the government has used the excuse of the pandemic to curtail digital freedom and muzzle its critics.

The country fell to 42 from 44 in 2019 out of a top score of 100, the Washington-based democracy monitor reported.

Bangladesh’s government amplified the use of its Digital Security Act to arrest its detractors, said the report. It also blocked 50 websites for allegedly spreading misinformation, the report said.

The English and Bengali versions of BenarNews have been blocked since early April in the South Asian country. The sites were made inaccessible days after they reported on an internal U.N. memo projecting that Bangladesh could see as many as 2 million deaths from COVID-19.

BenarNews is an online affiliate of Radio Free Asia, a U.S. government-funded group that provides uncensored and reliable news and information to audiences in Asia.

On Wednesday, Bangladesh Telecommunication Minister Mostofa Jabbar told BenarNews that he had not seen the Freedom House report. The government only blocks sites that spread rumor and disinformation, he said.

When BenarNews asked the minister why its sites were blocked, he didn’t state a reason.

“The BenarNews management can apply before the BTRC [Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission] if they think that the blocking of the site was unjustified,” Jabbar said.

Philippine ‘slide’ continues

In the Philippines, digital freedom declined further as the government continued to target people and organizations critical of the war on drugs, Freedom House said, adding that the country’s score fell two points to 64.

The government’s emergency COVID-19 decree further criminalized some forms of online speech, leading to users being arrested and charged for their social media posts about the pandemic, the report said.

Additionally, in June, journalist Maria Ressa, the CEO and executive editor of online Philippine news site Rappler, was convicted of cyber libel. Rappler has been reporting critically about President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs.

In July, the government passed the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020. The report said the act includes language that could be used to prosecute online speech.

Indonesia’s ‘pro-government propaganda’ sites

Indonesia has made impressive democratic gains since the fall of an authoritarian government in 1998, but digital freedom was further constrained last year, Freedom House said. The country’s score fell to 49 from 51 last year.

The report said the government repeatedly restricted internet connectivity amid protests in the far-eastern Papua region where separatist rebels are waging an insurgency.

On the flip side, Reuters reported in January that the military was operating and funding a network of 10 online news sites that published pro-government propaganda and criticize government critics.

Thailand ‘Not Free’

Thailand’s score in this year’s Freedom House stayed the same as in 2019 – 35 out of 100 – but it was rated as “not free” for the seventh straight year.

The government of Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who is the former army chief and who led the 2014 military coup, continues to restrict civil and political rights and suppress dissent, the report said.

When the pandemic hit, the government declared an emergency and arrested and criminally charged internet users who criticized the government’s public health policies, according to Freedom House.

Thailand has also been coercing social media platforms to remove content that criticizes the monarchy, and has directly pressured social media users to delete their posts, the group said.

Malaysia’s new ruling coalition ‘threatens recent gains’

Of the 65 countries that Freedom House assessed for internet freedom, only 22 showed an improvement last year, and Malaysia was one of them. Its score rose to 58 from 57 in 2019, and 55 in 2018.

However “the accession to power of a new ruling coalition in March 2020 threatens recent gains,” the report said, citing the legal proceedings started by the government in June against news portal Malaysiakini, after readers posted comments allegedly criticizing the judiciary.

Muhyiddin Yassin’s unelected coalition came to power in March after the collapse of the Pakatan Harapan coalition government in February.

Kamran Reza Chowdhury in Dhaka contributed to this report.


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