The Limited Freedom of Speech and Expression in Asian Countries

Freedom of speech — the right to seek, communicate, and gain information across all different sorts of ideas within a country, by any means. It is a significant human right that ensures individuals the liberty to openly express and exchange ideas without restrictions, including ideas that may be seen as offensive. Regardless, due to specific political circumstances in certain countries especially those located in Asia, freedom of speech is often restricted and influenced by their governments, leading to many citizens taking fervent actions to combat this and fight for the right they deserve.  

Foremost, one of the Asian countries that has been miserably encountering high restrictions on freedom of speech the most is Myanmar, for instance. From being a country with democratic rights to becoming a country under oppressive control ever since the military coup on February 1, the citizens have been limited in expressing their beliefs, even across various social media platforms. Officials in charge have cut off internet access nationwide from 1-9 a.m. everyday, and social media applications, including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have been banned without the use of VPN. Celebrities, influencers, and selected people from the general public are forcefully arrested without a warrant, merely for speaking up and supporting the Civil Disobedience Movement, not to mention people who have gotten shot and killed by the police during the peaceful pro-democratic protests. Citizens of Myanmar are not giving up in fighting for those who have sacrificed and lost their lives, and have been continuing the CDM protests with all of their power, until the country has gained back its detained democratic leaders and democracy.

2019 Internet freedom in Asia

Equally important, another country in Asia that has been living through limited freedom of speech is the Philippines. Although the constitution of the Philippines has not passed or implemented any specific laws that contradict the freedom of speech or expression, there are certain laws restricting this freedom. In fact, the Philippines has one of the highest number of journalists killed in the world, and according to the International Federation of Journalists, the country is ranked to be worse, regarding the impunity for attacks on the media. Following the election of President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016, press freedom in the Philippines has been dominated by a series of threats. Therefore, despite being in the midst of a health crisis such as COVID, the Fillipino people are constantly fighting to tackle this issue. 

Furthermore, Thailand is also a country in Asia that lacks freedom of speech and expression. In spite of how freedom of speech was guaranteed by the 1997 constitution, this became limited due to several laws, including lèse majesté laws and defamation laws. Regarding the Press in Thailand, after the government suspended critical outlets such as Voice TV and shut down independent reporters, journalists from neighboring states have been captured and abducted. According to Watana Maungsook, an opposition politician in Bangkok, “The constitution provides for freedom of speech, but so far Thais don’t actually have it…. If you use the freedom, they charge you. It isn’t easy, but it is the price you have to pay.” In the present day, there have been many Thai citizens and activists that are seeking for the return of democracy, after losing freedom of speech and expression rights.

Cambodia opposition begins 3 days of protests

Moreover, another Asian country facing restrictions on freedom of speech is Cambodia. For more than three decades, Cambodia’s political system has been taken over by Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Ever since, internet and media freedom has become under threat in Cambodia. Spaces for reliable and diverse information has been eroded by website blocks and online news outlets with critical reporting of content has been revoked, although the Cambodian people are fighting to combat these limitations. The government has been using the COVID-19 health crisis as an excuse to carry on with arresting and charging members of the opposing Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) for their posts on social media platforms, as well as the people within the public for their speech online, contributing to fear and forced self-censorship. 

Lastly, China is a country encountering high restrictions regarding freedom of speech. Notwithstanding how the Chinese constitution declares that the citizens can enjoy freedom of speech and freedom of the press, they are often undermined by particular regulations and laws. These regulations and laws, including the Cyber Security Law, are concerned with cyberspace, the press, and the media includes matters associated with national security, terrorism, ethnic hatred, violence, and obscenity. Journalists from foreign media organizations are required to be approved by and registered with the Chinese foreign affairs authority. The Freedom House’s 2019 Freedom in the World report indicates that China has become “home to one of the world’s most restrictive media environments and its most sophisticated system of censorship, particularly online.” This report also suggests that the government’s ability to monitor online and offline communications has escalated dramatically in recent years.

Human Rights Watch: Free Speech in Asia Took a Beating in 2020
(Credit: REUTERS)

In the final analysis, the majority of the countries specifically located within Asia have recently been living under the lack of freedom of speech and expression, as well as restrictions on the Press of each country. Freedom of speech is a crucial aspect and human right within a country, as it does not only allow all individuals to seek or express information that is important to them, but also share it with others around them through online and offline measures, without any reprisals or censorships. Like George Washington once said, “If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”




Tiana Thwin

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