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On the sidelines of a meeting of the Southeast-Asian economic and political grouping, ASEAN , around 200 bloggers from the region met to offer each other support in the face of government restrictions on freedom of speech.
With news and information tightly restricted by some governments in the regional bloc, social media and blogs have seen a sharp increase in popularity.
In August, one Vietnamese blogger was arrested and charged with “subversion” after having been involved in protests denouncing the authoritarian Chinese government. In May, a Thai-born US citizen was charged with insulting the monarchy after he posted material deemed “offensive” on his blog and included a link to a banned book.
One attendant of the meeting, Iman Brotoseno — who has been blogging since 2003 — said, “Blogging reflects democracy and freedom of expression because blogging can be very challenging in some other ASEAN countries”, adding that, “we hope they will be inspired by getting together here with other bloggers”.
Governments did attempt to gain traction from the meeting with Indonesia’s communication and information technology minister saying it was “expected to bring ASEAN closer to the community and to be a forum for brainstorming ideas about the implementation of the ASEAN Charter“.
Organisers of the bloggers meeting stressed, however, that they were looking to build bridges among their disparate group.
“We would like this conference to serve as a platform to provide some kind of solidarity.”
Many agreed with Keo Kounila who lamented the lack of neutral media outlets in her home-country of Cambodia.
“Some people who don’t have space in the media turn to blogs to voice their opinion,” she said. “I see blogs as something that encourages our young people to be more expressive, which is very important.”
Vietnamese blogger Anh Minh felt that in his country, most people wrote about lifestyle or technology, with very few blogging about sociopolitical issues. “There’s unspoken fears,” he said.
Explaining the reasoning behind the group, a leading member, Aris Heru Utomo, wrote in an article for the Jakarta Post:
“The ASEAN Blogger Community is not just about a community for bloggers from ASEAN member states — it is a community where people can talk informally about ASEAN issues. It is also a blogger’s forum to convey ASEAN information and promote public participation to realize the ASEAN Community by 2015 without having to wait for initiatives from the governments of ASEAN member states.”