Covid crisis stifles political criticism in SE Asia
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Covid crisis stifles political criticism in SE Asia

Covid-19 has spurred the use of fake news laws to censor political criticism in Southeast Asia. 

Although there is genuine concern over the spike in fake news related to the origin of the virus, its spread, its management, advisories and cures, the emerging censorship pattern against political criticism in the region warrants concern.

Fake news and misinformation around Covid-19 is part of the "infodemic" that governments, the media and ordinary people all over the world are grappling with. In Southeast Asia, the attempts to correct fake news, cut false information and block access to it is often not detached from the governments' efforts to block criticism of its handling of the pandemic.

Even though the impact of "fake news" is not clearly established, governments are quick to arrest, detain and punish its critics as purveyors of fake news.

In Southeast Asia, Singapore and Vietnam are the countries that have passed specific fake news laws.

Singapore passed the Protection from Online Falsehood and Manipulation Act (POFMA) in 2019 and has been actively using it before and during the pandemic as part of its communication toolbox. Reeling from the negative publicity arising from the global exposure of large inafections among  its migrant workers in cramped dormitories, the government has been using POFMA to correct "falsehoods" put out by Singaporeans and foreign entities both locally and abroad.

Vietnam issued a new decree in April 2020 that introduced fines for the dissemination of fake news, a category not covered previously under an existing law from 2013. Hundreds of fines have been handed out while celebrities have been forced to issue public apologies. A woman in Ha Tinh province was fined in March for posting on FB, incorrectly, that coronavirus had come to her province. Vietnam uses the recent decree in combination with an additional tool -- the Cybersecurity Law -- that criminalises the dissemination of "false information".

Covid-19 emergency laws have given other governments such as Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines new tools that enable restrictions on political criticism as governments define alleged fake news on the pandemic. These tools have been used to attack critics who call out their handling of it.

In Cambodia, the state of emergency law contains sweeping provisions allowing the government to carry out unlimited surveillance of telecommunications and to control the press and social media. Article 5 stipulates specifically restrictive measures that can be taken by the government. These include prohibition of or restrictions on information monitoring. At least 30 people have been arrested, including 12 linked to the dissolved Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), on charges of spreading "fake news" and other offences since the outbreak of the pandemic.

In the Philippines, the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act,  provides President Rodrigo Duterte special powers to punish fake news disseminators with jail time and up to a 1-million peso (632,000 baht) fine.

Section 6 (6) proscribes that "individuals or groups creating, perpetuating, or spreading false information regarding the Covid-19 crisis on social media and other platforms, are clearly geared to promoting chaos, panic, anarchy, fear, or confusion".

The Philippines also recently adopted an emergency law giving it more powers to combat the pandemic, including arresting people who share false information about the disease. In early April 2020, some 32 people were charged with allegedly spreading fake news about Covid-19 either orally or through social media.

In Thailand, the emergency decree empowers authorities to order journalists and media groups to "correct" reports deemed incorrect, and allows for authorities to pursue charges against journalists under the Computer Crime Act, which carries a five-year prison sentence for violations. Danai Usama was charged in March with violating the act because he allegedly posted on Facebook "false information", which shed light on the lack of screening procedures for Covid-19.

Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar use a range of existing laws -- criminal defamation laws, the penal code and telecommunications law -- to suppress so-called fake news.

In Indonesia, the Criminal Code (Articles 14, 15) has been used to charge people with criminal defamation. Equally problematic is Article 207, which punishes insults against the president and other top officials in relation to Covid-19. In Malaysia investigations have been carried out under Section 233 of the Communication and Multimedia Act (CMA) for "improper use of network facilities" and Section 505 (b) of the Penal Code.

In Myanmar, the government has taken advantage of Covid-19 by blocking websites of minority groups, under Section 77 of the Telecommunications Act.

While no specific laws have been marshaled to censor freedom of expression in the name of Covid-19, the absolute monarchy in Brunei and one-party state in Laos achieve this through widespread self-censorship. In both countries reported observations point to journalists routinely self-censoring and steering clear of any subjects that could be deemed controversial by the authorities. However, self-censorship is a malaise that goes beyond the media -- it affects academia, civil society, lawyers and the general population.

In Southeast Asia, fake news is being used as a tool to suppress political criticism that calls out the mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic. Even though only a couple of countries have dedicated fake news laws, emergency laws and the deployment of existing laws are establishing a self-censorship of political criticism.

Civil society organisations, international institutions and the mainstream media must try to ensure this emerging "new normal" does not take root. A fake news law spurring a self-censorial culture is one of several impacts Covid-19 is having on democracy and human rights. Without any push-back, there is a danger that self-censorship of political criticism will become normal in a post-Covid-19 Southeast Asia.

James Gomez and Robin Ramcharan are Directors of Asia Centre -- a human rights think-tank that seeks to create social impact in the region. The Centre is presently investigating COVID-19's impact on democracy and human rights in Southeast Asia.

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