Freedom of the Press
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The absolute monarchy of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, as well as emergency laws that have been in place for nearly half a century, continue to restrict journalists and limit the diversity of media content in Brunei. Journalists face up to three years of imprisonment if found guilty of reporting “false and malicious” news. Passage of the 2005 Sedition Act worsened the state of press freedom in Brunei by expanding the list of punishable offenses to include criticism of the sultan, the royal family, and the national Malay Islamic Monarchy ideology, which promotes Islam as the state religion and the idea that monarchical rule is the only acceptable form of governance. Under the amended law, persons found in violation of these offenses, or any publishers, editors, or proprietors of a newspaper publishing items with seditious intent, face fines of up to BN$5,000 (US$4,000). There is no legislation establishing the right to access official information.
Under current press legislation, newspapers are required to apply for annual publishing permits, and foreign journalists must obtain government approval prior to working in the country. The government retains the authority to arbitrarily shut down any media outlet and bar distribution of foreign publications, with no possibility of appeal by the affected outlet. An Internet Code of Practice, included in a 2001 press law, makes individuals as well as content and service providers liable for publishing anything that is “against the public interest or national harmony or which offends against good taste or decency.” It also requires all sites that carry content or discuss issues of a religious or political nature to register with the Broadcasting Authority. Failure to register is punishable by up to three years of imprisonment and a fine of up to US$200,000.
While no incidents of attacks on or harassment of journalists have been reported in recent years, authorities have previously warned the media to exercise caution when reporting on the sultanate. Consequently, media are generally not able to convey a diversity of viewpoints and opinions, and criticism of the government is exceedingly rare.
The private press, including the country’s main English-language daily, the Borneo Bulletin, is mostly owned or controlled by the sultan’s family and practices self-censorship on political and religious issues to avoid confrontation with the government. In 2006, after receiving permission from the sultan, an independent media company run by a group of prominent businessmen launched a second English-language daily, the Brunei Times. The paper’s global focus is intended to help foster international investment, thus promoting government priorities. It also offers a wider range of international, finance, and opinion pieces, as well as online polls on government policies. A smaller Malay-language newspaper and several Chinese-language newspapers are also published in Brunei. Foreign newspapers are available but require government approval before distribution. The only local broadcast outlets, including the country’s one television station, are operated by the government-controlled Radio Television Brunei, and programming typically focuses on religion and government activities. Residents are able to receive Malaysian broadcasts, and international news is also available via satellite services.
In 2012, roughly 60 percent of the population accessed the internet. The primary internet service provider is state owned, giving the government a considerable amount of control over content. In 2006, the government called on internet cafés to install firewalls to prevent users from viewing immoral content. According to the U.S. State Department, the government continues to monitor the private e-mail and internet chat-room exchanges of citizens who are suspected of subversive behavior. It is believed that fear of government retribution has reduced the number of chat-room visitors.