KUALA LUMPUR: Brunei is getting into the news for all the wrong reasons.
Once known for its abundant oil wealth and the extravagant lives of its royal family, today the news is about severe shariah punishments, declining oil revenue, media repression, and suppression of the people’s voices.
It is also about a deep dependency on China that is compromising its policies, according to a report in the Nikkei Asian Review (NAR).
The report is written by one Ahmed Mansoor, but NAR clearly states that this is the pseudonym of a former journalist who worked in Brunei.
Brunei gained world attention in 2014 when the government implemented shariah law, including death by stoning, the severing of limbs and flogging as potential penalties for offences such as adultery, theft and sodomy.
Suddenly, it was on the receiving end of an international backlash from Western governments and human rights groups.
Unable to control the international media, it instead turned to stifling local reporting on shariah, according to the NAR report.
“Already chaste” domestic publications came under pressure to censor all criticism of the new legislation and dissenters on social media were warned they could be prosecuted.
This caused the Brunei Times, an English-language newspaper, to disable the reader comments on its website.
In addition, existing repressive media laws were made even more restrictive, “with journalists fearing accusations of blasphemy or lese-majeste. Any person perceived as a threat to the state could already be jailed indefinitely without trial under the Internal Security Act”.
Oil had accounted for 60% of the gross domestic product and more than 90% of government revenue for Brunei. However, as the oil slump took hold, government revenue fell 70% between 2013 and early 2016.
The budget deficit is set to reach US$2.65 billion for the fiscal year ending in March, equivalent to roughly 17% of GDP and proportionally higher than that of Greece at the height of the eurozone crisis, said the NAR report.
China, seeing the Brunei government struggling to maintain the business as usual position, came to the rescue.
“In exchange for US$6 billion of Chinese investment into an oil refinery and local infrastructure, along with promises to boost trade and agricultural cooperation, Brunei has remained silent on Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, refusing to criticise its biggest investor even though it has overlapping claims.
“Even critical local press reports were enough to trigger protests from the Chinese embassy, which pressured the government to tighten controls.”
Apparently, Brunei has also been eager to please Saudi Arabia, a key ally and supporter of its shariah programme.
“A seemingly innocuous report in the Brunei Times linking the fall in oil prices to the Arab kingdom’s plan to hike visa fees for the annual haj pilgrimage drew the ire of Saudi diplomats in Brunei, who filed a complaint against the newspaper with the foreign ministry.
“After extended internal discussion of how to appease the Saudis, the authorities decided on Nov 5 to revoke the Brunei Times’ publication licence.
“The purge was swift and sudden, with staff informed the same day that the last edition would be published on Nov 7 and that their employment would be terminated a week later,” the report claimed.
The official line, however, was that the paper was closing due to financial reasons. The report noted that no reputable company would close on such short notice without forewarning staff and stakeholders.
The NAR report said former staff of the Brunei Times were made to sign non disclosure agreements and instructed not to speak with foreign reporters and to censor their social media posts.
“It is hard to believe that the Saudi story was the overriding reason for the newspaper’s closure, but it certainly provided the authorities a good opportunity to rid themselves of a publication with significant influence in shaping public opinion and a reputation for not mincing words.
“In a country where media organisations operate in a culture of fear and play it safe by sticking to soft news, the closure of the Brunei Times leaves an absence of critical discussion and a dearth of alternative viewpoints.”
The NAR report concludes by saying that none of this augured well for Brunei, especially since signs point to stricter censorship.