Ressa’s Nobel Highlights Declining Media, Internet Freedom in SE Asia

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
2021-10-19
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Ressa’s Nobel Highlights Declining Media, Internet Freedom in SE Asia A screen showing the Malaysiakini website is pictured at its headquarters in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, Feb. 19, 2021.
Reuters

The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Philippine journalist Maria Ressa was a wake-up call for the declining space of media and internet freedom in Southeast Asia.

The media and the internet have been systematically under attack by the authoritarian-leaning government of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. Still, they are the freest in Southeast Asia.

And it is only worse around the region, because with the COVID-19 pandemic came new opportunities to restrict freedom of expression.

Two recent watchdog reports make clear just how bad the situation is getting.

Amnesty International just released a report that looked at how governments have used the COVID-19 pandemic to engage in censorship (often in the guise of preventing fake news) and enact new laws and regulations, in order to quell dissent or public criticism of the government’s handling of the health crisis.

Last month, Freedom House issued their 2021 Freedom on the Net report, which showed that both democracies and autocracies in Southeast Aria are implementing new laws and policies to control the internet, quash dissent, and monitor their citizens.

Misuse of laws and new laws

The Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand, and Malaysia all passed laws or regulations during the pandemic to control the flow of information and to punish people for sharing information, whether fake or not, that the government felt was deleterious to their public health response. 

Thailand stepped up the use of its Computer Crimes Act and an Anti-Fake News Center (launched in November 2019) to police online content. The government has also used the 2005 Emergency Decree to arrest people who criticize the government’s handling of the pandemic.

A July 2021 decree, that a court later overturned, was used to censor social media and prosecute individuals who the government deems are “instigat[ing] fear” or are “intend[ing] to distort information to mislead the understanding of the [pandemic] emergency situation to the extent of affecting the security of state or public order or good morals of the people.” Indonesia not only put regulations in place after the pandemic hit, but established a cyber police force in February 2021 to enforce it.

Malaysia passed a “fake news” law in March 2021, which stayed in force until Aug. 1 when the state of emergency ended; though there is ample concern the government will try to reinforce it ahead of elections in 2023.

In May 2021, the Cambodian government effectively banned independent reporting from COVID hotspots, and ominously warned journalists to not “provoke turmoil in society” with their reporting.

In all of these countries, governments have used the new laws and regulations to silence public criticism of the government response to the pandemic. 

Diminishing internet freedoms

The crackdowns go well beyond news about the pandemic – there’s been an overall attack on internet freedoms.

Freedom House ranks no country in Southeast Asia as “free.” Myanmar and Vietnam are ranked “not free.” Laos and Brunei are not part of the survey, but the internet is clearly not free in the authoritarian one party state and the sultanate. Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand are rated as “partly free."

But what was most troubling was that countries were controlling the internet in nine distinct ways. 

Of the eight surveyed countries, every one of them, including democracies like Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, had arrested bloggers or social media commentators.

All the countries, except for Singapore, employed trolls or other pro-government media commentators to harass opponents or to shape the discussion in a positive way for the government.

The Philippines was the only country that did not block specific political, social or religious content. Increasingly, countries like Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand have used “fake news” laws to shut down dissenting voices.

Only Singapore and Malaysia did not report the deaths of social commentators or bloggers, whether in or out of custody.

Cambodia, Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar and Vietnam had all launched sophisticated technical attacks against government critics, human rights organizations or other civil society organizations.

Indonesia, the Philippines, and Myanmar all saw the passage of new laws that increase the government’s surveillance powers and or stripped away user anonymity.

Indonesia and Myanmar both shut down the internet or disrupted service to block communications or prevent information getting out of certain regions. In the case of Indonesia, this was confined to Papua, though for extended periods of time. In Myanmar, the internet blocks have shifted based on anti-regime insurrections and government crackdowns.

Indonesia and Myanmar both blocked specific social media platforms or communications applications.

Both Indonesia – ostensibly the most democratic state in Southeast Asia – and Myanmar, currently the most repressive regional regime, used all nine categories to control the internet.

The Philippines and Vietnam, again, ostensibly a democratic state and an authoritarian one party regime, respectively, used six of the nine ways to limit internet freedom. Singapore used only two of the nine, the least in the region.

Thailand has not just blocked content and used army personnel to run fake social media accounts to push government lines, it has actively used the Computer Crimes Act to silence the growing anti-government dissent and demonstrations.

Corporate enforcement

A key concern is how states are increasingly compelling corporations to enforce new laws governing social media and online content.

The governments of both Indonesia and Myanmar passed laws that governed how companies manage online content and manage data, while Vietnam’s government passed laws or the latter.

In Indonesia, a corporation has between four and 24 hours to remove to remove “‘prohibited’ content, broadly conceptualized as speech that violates any domestic law, creates community anxiety, or disturbs public order. Authorities have already applied existing laws to censor LGBT+ content, criticism of Islam, and commentary about an independence movement in the provinces of Papua and West Papua.” There are legal, regulatory and financial damages for corporations who fail to comply with the new Ministerial Regulation No. 5.

Indonesia famously was able to compel Telegram, the app of choice amongst pro-Islamic State militants, to set up local servers and to establish a corporate office in the country, so that it had legal skin in the game should it try to avoid subpoenas. Amnesty documented how Indonesia went after Telegram during the pandemic to remove content.

Other countries have tried to emulate Jakarta’s move on corporate accountability and data localization.

The Vietnamese government issued a draft decree, released in February 2021, as part of the implementation of its draconian Cybersecurity Law, which demands increasing data localization on Vietnamese servers. Information that the government is demanding includes “users’ names, birth dates, nationality, identity cards, credit card numbers, biometric files, and health records,” all of which are available to authorities who have a swath of vaguely worded national security laws.

Vietnam already has one of the most repressive media environments in the world, and 2021 has already seen the arrest of 30 bloggers, social media posters, and independent journalists. The Freedom on the Net 2021 report warns that “Full compliance with Vietnamese law by social media companies would put activists, journalists, and human rights defenders at risk, given the one-party regime’s harsh suppression of perceived political dissent.”

Backsliding

The region continues to face considerable democratic backsliding and repression, even in its more democratic states. The pandemic gave states a new opportunity to quash dissent, restrict the free flow of information, and shield themselves from legitimate criticism.

The pandemic has created inordinate economic pain, exacerbated already wide disparities in wealth, and exposed government malfeasance.

People are demanding more, at a time when governments are shielding themselves with new laws and coercive powers.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct at Georgetown University. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or BenarNews.

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