Cablegate: Media Outlets Practice Self-Censorship in Brunei
PP RUEHCHI RUEHCN RUEHDT RUEHHM
DE RUEHBD #0195/01 1790801
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 270801Z JUN 08
FM AMEMBASSY BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 4284
INFO RUEHZS/ASSOCIATION OF SOUTHEAST ASIAN NATIONS
UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN 000195
DEPARTMENT FOR EAP/MTS, EAP/PD and DRL
E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PHUM KPAO KISL BX
SUBJECT: MEDIA OUTLETS PRACTICE SELF-CENSORSHIP IN BRUNEI
REF: BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN 172
1. (SBU) Charge and ECA Assistant recently met with the Home Editor
of the Brunei Times who described how self censorship operates in
practice within the framework of the Sedition Act which gives the
Government of Brunei authority to monitor media content. The Brunei
Times, a 2 year old independent daily is compelled to practice
self-censorship when it comes to domestically sensitive topics like
government policies, religion and royalty. END SUMMARY.
SEDITION ACT = RESTRICTIONS
2. (SBU) Media outlets like the Brunei Times tend to practice self
censorship in response to one particular law - the 2005 Sedition
Act. The Sedition Act restricts press freedom in the country by
classifying offense as "directly or indirectly lower or adversely
affect the rights, status position, discretion, powers, privileges,
sovereignty, or prerogatives of the sultan, his spouse, successors,
or other members of the royal family." The act also makes it an
offense to "directly or indirectly lower or adversely affect the
standing or prominence of the national philosophy, the Malay Islamic
Monarchy concept." Usually referred to by its Malay language
acronym, this MIB philosophy is the defining ideology of the country
and government administration. It supports Islam as the state
religion and monarchical rule as the sole governing system, and
upholds the rights and privileges of the Brunei Malay race.
3. (U) The Sedition act also permits the prosecution of any
publisher, proprietor, or editor of a newspaper that publishes
matter having a seditious intention. Publication of the newspaper
may be suspended for up to one year, and the publisher, printer, or
editor can be prohibited from publishing, writing for, or editing
any other newspaper. Printing equipment used in printing the
newspaper can also be seized. Persons convicted under the act face
fines of up to $3,200 (B$5,000) and jail terms of up to three years.
4. (U) The law requires local newspapers to obtain operating
licenses and prior government approval of foreign editorial staff,
journalists, and printers. The law also gives the government the
right to bar distribution of foreign publications and requires
distributors of foreign publications to obtain a government permit.
The law allows the government to close a newspaper without giving
prior notice or showing cause. Journalists deemed to have published
or written "false and malicious" reports may be subjected to fines
or prison sentences.
ROLE OF CENSORSHIP BOARD
5. (SBU) The Government of Brunei has an inter-ministerial agency
called the Censorship Board consisting of officials from Ministry of
Home Affairs, Ministry of Religious Affairs and Prime Minister's
Office (including the Internal Security Department). The Censorship
Board's main purpose is to screen and determine suitability of
public performances (such as concerts, movies and cultural shows).
This board does not, however, review or control local print
publications. Foreign publications dealing with any religious
content, particularly materials posing a challenge to Shafi'i Islam
and the MIB concept may be banned. Religious authorities also
review general publications to ensure compliance with social norms.
For example, post has seen copies of women's fashion magazines with
cleavage or legs concealed with black ink.
6. (SBU) For domestically produced publications, depending on the
subject matter, public relations officers or equivalent at the
appropriate ministry act as the monitor for compliance with the
Sedition Act (e.g., matters related to royalty are handled by the
Prime Minister's Office). According to our media contacts, public
relations officers pay the most attention to and usually complain
when the full titles of the Sultan, royalty or state dignitaries are
not or incorrectly used. As it is considered safer to avoid trying
to analyse the Sultan's titah (royal speech/command), the local
press usually quote the speech directly. Only the Brunei Times has
taken the extra step of summarizing and highlighting key messages.
JOURNALISTS FACE TOUGH TIMES
7. (SBU) In the case of the privately owned/
independent Brunei Times, story selection is managed by the Chief
Editors. The Board of Directors (made up of prominent local
BANDAR SER 00000195 002 OF 002
businessman) only intervenes on the publication of domestically
sensitive topics such as national security, royalty and religion.
8. (SBU) Ms. Shareen Han, nominated for the FY09 IVLP- E.R. Murrow
Program for Journalists, told us that the Times strives to deliver a
"balanced and constructive criticism" in relation to GOB policies
and activities. A pioneer at investigative journalism, one of Ms.
Han's notable articles focused on the problem of rampant
intellectual property piracy in Brunei, a core policy challenge for
our bilateral relationship. Shareen began her investigation with
internet research because GOB authorities would not comment or give
her information on this topic. Upon gathering material/information
for the article, Shareen consulted GOB authorities for confirmation
or comment but except for the Police Enforcement Unit, no one was
willing to comment, even off the record.
9. (SBU) Government officers' reluctance to comment can reach absurd
levels. In one case, Han told us that the Time's journalists were
told by a mid-level government official not to publish a speech he
had just delivered at a public forum. When journalists are
challenged about the content of their stories, it is usually only
after publication and often by the very same public relations
officers who declined requests for on-the-record or background
information on the subject to contribute to the story.
COMMENT: PRESS FREEDOM A LONG WAY OFF
10. (SBU) In a close knit, highly protocol-oriented society like
BrunQ offering diverse viewpoints and criticism of the government
can quickly cut close to family and friends of journalists. Local
customs and beliefs teach individuals to show deference to
authorities, which for the Press often means that asking challenging
questions is considered impolite and intrusive.
11. (SBU) Post will continue to identify young journalists like Ms.
Han for professional training to help her and her colleagues develop
the skills they need to push for greater openness and more
constructive criticism in the Brunei media. Until Sultan Haji
Hassanal Bolkiah sends a clear and unambiguous signal to his
subjects that Brunei needs to open the public space for wider
debate, some of the best societal debate will be confined to the
blogosphere. Post's top five blogs sites to watch are:
Debating Brunei (http://debatingbrunei.blogspot.com)
Brunei Resources (http://bruneiresources.blogspot.com)
Anak Brunei (http://anakbrunei.com)