The right to freedom of expression in South-East Asia

3 May 2011

People across the South-East Asia region continue to be imprisoned for peacefully expressing opinions and ideas on the state institutions that govern over them. This violates human rights commitments made by these states at the international level. States’ increasing engagement with regional and international human rights bodies offers the opportunity to highlight such violations which are common to the region and to develop ideas on how to address them at the national level.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has made important strides over recent years in transforming itself into an organisation which is concerned with improving the human rights situation in the region, in addition to its traditional focus on economic development and national security. This progress is illustrated by the two ASEAN bodies that are now up and running with mandates to promote and protect human rights.

States in South-East Asia are also increasingly engaged with the UN’s human rights bodies. For instance, all states will now have their human rights record reviewed by the Human Rights Council (of which Thailand currently holds the presidency) through a process called the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).

However, while these developments are encouraging, we should not lose sight of the fact that states need to take action at the national level to actually improve the human rights situation on the ground. Indeed, it is the primary role of regional and international human rights bodies to support states in this task.

A litmus test for the current state of human rights in any region is the extent to which the people can exercise freedom of expression. The freedom of people to express their opinions is fundamental to and inseparable from the existence of a healthy democracy that respects human rights. By allowing people to express their views on the institutions and people that exercise power over their lives, they are able to play a role in shaping these institutions and the decisions that affect them. Not only is the creation of an environment where people are free to express their views and opinions an end in itself, it is also a means of developing state institutions that place the interests of human beings at their centre.

As in other regions, there are actions that are common to the South-East Asia region that governments can collectively consider to improve the human rights situation on the ground. Regarding freedom of expression, one such common action is a review of national criminal codes. States should not be imprisoning their own people for the peaceful expression of views and opinions on state institutions. Yet this is what is happening in South-East Asia. For instance, in Thailand last March, website administrator Thanthawut Taweewarodomkul was sentenced to 13 years in prison for expressing views that were critical of state institutions. And last month in Viet Nam, human rights defender Cu Huy Ha Vu was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for “conducting propaganda against the state” by calling for an end to one-party rule and the establishment of a multiparty system. The imprisonment of people for the expression of views and opinions on the state occurs across the region. In Myanmar, there are estimated to be over 2,100 political prisoners, including 14 journalists. And in Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia and Singapore, national penal codes, including strict criminal defamation and security laws, have resulted in the imprisonment of people for criticising state officials and institutions.

The right to freedom of expression is not absolute and carries with it special duties and responsibilities. Therefore, certain restrictions on the right are permitted which may relate either to the interests of other persons or to those of the community as a whole. For instance, restrictions may be provided in law regarding the defamation of people or the incitement of hatred within our societies. However, when states impose restrictions on the exercise of freedom of expression, these restrictions should not put in jeopardy the right itself. Locking people up for peacefully expressing their views and opinions on matters of public concern does put in jeopardy the right to freedom of expression. Not only do such actions violate the human rights of the individual concerned, but they also exert a chilling effect on freedom of expression within society at large. States across the South-East Asia region therefore need to instigate reform of national laws which penalise free expression. The extent to which international and regional human rights bodies play a role in helping states achieve such reforms is itself a litmus test for their effectiveness and relevance.

Homayoun Alizadeh
Regional Representative
OHCHR Regional Office for South-East Asia