“You’re fake news”: censorship in Southeast Asia

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Government leaders throughout Southeast Asia are lobbying their parliaments to introduce new regulations on social media as part of a tightening of political communication in the region.


– Southeast Asian “fake news” laws seek to regulate online social media
– Laws could target free speech and decrease freedom of information
– Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders are sounding alarm bells


Stemming from a spate of incidents involving the improper sharing of users’ personal information, Southeast Asian leaders have taken steps to regulate online social media platforms such as Facebook. A lack of transparency, unethical business practices, and the unwitting distribution of damaging misinformation campaigns have seen a rising current of distrust of social media platforms throughout the region.

Foremost among these scandals has been the improper use of Facebook users’ data by British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. Three Southeast Asian nations – the Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam – rank among the top countries with citizens affected. In light of these events, there is a consensus emerging on the capacity of such platforms to pose an increasingly disruptive and malign influence in society.

Yet new laws that have been proposed to address this issue have the potential to limit free speech and bolster authoritarian regimes. In recent months as deliberations over the laws have unfolded, many critics have raised alarm over the vague wording of key provisions in proposed legislation that could be exploited to criminalise free speech deemed undesirable or subversive. In concert with evidence of collaboration between political figures and the progenitors of fake news, harassment of critics, and a backlash against liberal institutions, many fear an emboldened step towards authoritarian society in Southeast Asia.


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While Southeast Asia is no stranger to autocratic rule, the increasing sophistication and entrenchment of technology in daily life is having significant implications for the political space. As the centres of authority have adapted to the new digital battleground, social movements are beginning to falter in the face of pervasive pro-government forces in online forums like Facebook. In the Philippines, for instance, journalists and progressive influencers detail the practice of what has been dubbed “patriotic trolling”. As reported in the Guardian, online “pro-government actors bolster the coercive effects of existing social media campaigns, manipulate public biases, and leverage online abuse for offline intimidation.”

This activity has been on full display in the wake of President Rodrigo Duterte’s election victory in late May 2016. Since detailing the prevalence of social media propaganda in the Philippines in October 2016, Maria Ressa, founder of Filipino news network Rappler, received an average of about 90 hate messages per hour. The network has similarly faced continuous online attacks and criticism including from Duterte himself who referred to them as a “fake news outlet”. Around the same time, the Philippines Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) revoked Rappler’s incorporation papers, forcing the organisation to disband in what they described as “pure and simple harassment”.


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With similar circumstances occurring in various degrees throughout Southeast Asia, the introduction of “fake news” laws has critics concerned that they will give governments the capacity to create new jurisdictions of outright censorship of contrarian views. The vague prescriptions of censorship of “anything that is not substantive, and dangerous to the economy and the security of the nation” in the Malaysian circumstance, may facilitate the blanket suppression of investigative journalists and critical figures in popular society. Given that the criminality of content in Malaysia is decided by an often-compliant court system, the likelihood of biased determinations to shelter government interests there is high.

In his feature for The Diplomat, Nithin Coca observed that much of this transformation is likely inspired by the success of the Chinese Communist Party’s Internet surveillance and censorship system. From the perspective of aspiring Southeast Asian autocrats such as Cambodia’s Hun Sen, despite being ranked the world’s worst abuser of Internet freedom, China’s stringent domestic security environment would likely be viewed as preferable to their own often tumultuous politics. In addition to China’s expanding influence as regional hegemon, major donor, and source of financial capital to Southeast Asia, it is probable that there will be greater efforts to replicate this internet ‘with Chinese characteristics’ model.

The push to implement such stringent censorship systems is most prominently motivated by a desire to mitigate interference in a series of upcoming elections due to be held in Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, and Indonesia over the next 24 months. Many are already confident of the outcome of some of these contests, particularly in Cambodia’s now opposition-free race. There is much less certainty, however, over the extent to which online protests and activist groups will face persecution.

For one, blasphemy laws that brought down ethnically Chinese Christian former governor Basuki ‘Ahok’ Purnama, in Jakarta’s 2017 gubernatorial election may be used to prosecute Indonesia’s critical voices online. For the less scrupulous, the suppression of both public discussion and criticism of scandals and corruption may come in concert with the proliferation of pro-government propaganda and gerrymandering as in the case of Malaysia and the Philippines.

Further afield, reports by the Washington Post indicate that this kind of selective censorship fuelled ethnic and religious tensions in the lead up to the outbreak of violence against Rohingya minorities in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. The tacit acquiescence to the violence by both government and military officials shocked the global community; however, given the country’s bloody history, in conjunction with the enabling capabilities of new technologies, it ought not to have come as much of a surprise. Should future Southeast Asian leaders seek to manipulate public biases to this extent again, what is fast becoming an oppressive climate will in turn comprise an extremely dark chapter for the region’s minorities.


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