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Internet poses political challenge to Asian governments

Posted by inet - 2006-01-05

Asian governments attempting to control the free flow of information face a struggle as their citizens increasingly turn to the Internet for alternative views.

As Internet penetration rates surge across Asia, governments, including those in China and Vietnam, are finding it harder to deal with political challenges arising from the availability of information through the Web, the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC) said.

"Governments that attempt to control the free flow of information are fighting an uphill battle," the Hong Kong-based PERC said in its latest Asian Intelligence report on Wednesday.

"They might be able to control what is written in their country's printed media and broadcast over radio and television systems, but the Internet linked with telephone advances poses new challenges.

"It is putting the tools to send and receive information quickly and cheaply into the hands of millions of people who previously had access only to official channels of news."

It warned that the more governments censor traditional media channels "the more that people are being driven to the Web to get their news information".

Countries where newspapers and the broadcast media are tightly controlled by the government are likely to be impacted more by the use of the Internet as a forum for dissent than nations that have a free press, it said.

PERC cited a report by industry watchdog Freedom House which named China, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam as countries where the press is "not free".

Of the four, the most vulnerable to the political impact of the Internet are China, Vietnam and Malaysia where the governments have taken a stronger stance to censor the Web, it said.

"Precisely because they are so vulnerable, the governments in China and Vietnam will go to the greatest lengths to control the information flows over the Internet and cell phone systems in their countries," PERC said.

China, for example, scans messages and bulletin boards for words like "democracy" and imposes stiff penalties on dissenters, it said.

"Still, as tough as these policing measures are, sensitive issues are still being discussed over the Internet. People in China have access to dissenting views and anti-government propaganda in ways they never had before."

Singapore, where the traditional media is pro-government, has taken a more tolerant approach to criticisms through the Internet.

But things may change as the political opposition increasingly uses the Web in the run-up to general elections widely expected this year, PERC said.

"It will therefore be interesting to watch just how far opposition parties and individual critics of the government push the envelope in their use of the Internet in the months ahead," it said.

"Sooner or later it is very likely that the government will try to draw the line and that could turn into a political issue in the next elections."

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is finding it hard to deal with dissenting voices on the Internet despite attempts to muzzle the traditional media.

"The Thai government faces the most serious immediate challenge posed by the Internet of any country covered by this report," PERC said.

Thaksin's crackdown on the traditional media "has caused a backlash and has stimulated the growth of alternative Internet-based delivery mechanisms for news" and views critical to the government.

However, PERC said the debate over controlling information flows would not focus only on authoritarian regimes such as Vietnam and China, but also on the United States, where leaked classified information revealed     President George W. Bush has authorised a secret government wiretap programme.

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