Press freedom is virtually non-existent in the sultanate of Brunei Darussalam, a small, wealthy state located in the north of the island of Borneo.
Self-censorship is the rule for journalists working for state-owned Radio Television Brunei and for the leading daily newspapers, which are directly owned by the sultan’s family.
All power is held by the sultan, and the oppressive legislation, made even harsher by the adoption of a very strict version of Sharia, is enough to deter any comments in the media that could be interpreted as critical of the sultanate. Hassanal Bolkiah, who has been sultan since 1967, rules with an iron fist.
Publishing any content that undermines the “prominence of the national philosophy” is punishable by three years in prison under the sedition law. Journalists face five years in prison for a post or article deemed to be “malicious”. Finally, the new penal code, adopted in 2019, provides for nothing less than the death penalty for any statement or publication deemed to be blasphemous or to have advocated apostasy.
The media, which are owned by the state, have no major funding difficulties insofar as they benefit directly from the oil and gas reserves that make the country rich. The counterpart of this system is, of course, the complete absence of editorial independence.
In 2013, Brunei Darussalam became the only state in Southeast Asia to apply Sharia law throughout its territory. The law, which applies only to Muslims, provides for flogging for alcohol consumption or abortion, and stoning for adultery. Journalists know that it would be very dangerous for them to question these practices and they do not address them. These practices are excluded from the public debate.
The authorities can shut down media outlets that cross forbidden lines without giving any reason, and they can imprison journalists for “false or malicious” reporting. Bloggers who want to post content of an independent nature risk being prosecuted for defamation, even if they subsequently delete their article or video.