Status: Not Free
Legal Environment: 28 (of 30)
Political Environment: 25 (of 40)
Economic Environment: 22 (of 30)
Total Score: 75 (of 100)
(Lower scores = freer)
The absolute monarchy of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah and emergency laws – in effect for nearly half a century – continue to restrict journalists and limit the diversity of media content in Brunei. Harsh press legislation has required that newspapers apply for annual publishing permits and that non-citizens obtain government approval to work as journalists since 2001. The government has the authority to arbitrarily shut down media outlets and to bar distribution of foreign publications. Journalists can be jailed for up to three years for reporting "false and malicious" news. The May 2005 Sedition Act further restricted press freedom by expanding the list of punishable offenses to include criticism of the sultan, the royal family, or the prominence of the national philosophy, the Malay Islamic monarchy concept. Under the amended law, persons convicted of such crimes, or any publishers, editors, or proprietors of a newspaper publishing matters with seditious intention, face fines of up to B$5,000 (US$2,965).
Media are generally not able to convey a diversity of viewpoints and opinions, and criticism of the government is rare. The country's main English-language daily newspaper, the Borneo Bulletin, is controlled by the sultan's family and generally practices self-censorship to avoid angering the government, though it does publish letters to the editor that criticize government policies. The private press is mostly owned or controlled by the sultan's family, or practices self-censorship on political and religious matters. A second English-language daily, the Brunei Times, was launched in July 2006 by an independent media company run by a group of prominent businessmen, after receiving permission from the sultan. The paper's global focus is intended to help foster international investment in light of the country's depleting oil and gas reserves, thus falling in line with current government priorities, yet it covers a wider range of international, finance, and opinion pieces, as well as online polls on government policies. A smaller Malay newspaper and several Chinese newspapers are also published within Brunei. The only local broadcast outlets, including the country's one television station, are operated by the government-controlled Radio Television Brunei, but residents can also receive Malaysian broadcasts, and international news is available via satellite channels. No incidents of attacks on or harassment of the press were reported in 2007. However, in April 2007, the deputy prime minister warned the media not to "play with fire" when reporting on the sultanate, and that disrespect for government decisions to withhold certain information could be interpreted as subversion.
With roughly 47 percent of the population accessing the internet, nearly half of all Bruneians are online and access is reportedly unrestricted. Yet the primary internet service provider is state owned, and the country's internet practice code stipulates that content must not be subversive, promote illegitimate reform efforts, incite disharmony or instability, or fall out of line with "Brunei Darussalam's religious values, social and societal mores." It also requires all sites that carry content or discuss issues of a religious or political nature to register with the Broadcasting Authority and makes failure to register punishable on conviction by imprisonment for up to three years and/or a fine of up to US$200,000. In 2006, the government called on internet cafés to install firewalls to prevent users from viewing immoral content and, according to the U.S. State Department, to monitor private e-mail and internet chat-room exchanges of citizens believed to be subversive.
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