Hate speech against youths by government officials, military and the police in the media and over social media is on the rise as students lead protests calling for a change in government and demanding political reforms in Belarus, Thailand and Hong Kong. In Thailand, the two state of emergency decrees, the first, used since March 2020 for the management of the Covid-19 pandemic, the most recent to maintain public order in the Bangkok Metropolitan Area, both shield the Thai government from criticism.
In Southeast Asia, government hate speech has spiked on the back of public discontent over measures to deal with Covid-19. This was one of the key observations noted at Asia Centre's 5th International Conference on Hate Speech in Asia: Challenges and Solutions, during Oct 7-9, held at the Law Faculty, Thammasat University and supported by the Thai Media Fund along with 16 other academic and international partners.
There is no universally accepted definition of hate speech, though some common elements are noteworthy. It comprises any kind of communication in speech, writing or behaviour, that seeks to attack or denigrate or use discriminatory language towards a person or a group on the basis of who they are, that is, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, descent, gender or other identity factors.
In Southeast Asia, states are often the purveyors of such discriminatory and prejudicial language against their own communities. They have been suffering from a crisis of legitimacy made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, with rising governmental hate speech, it is increasingly becoming untenable that governments are the sole arbitrators of hate speech.
In Malaysia, hate speech has spiked on the back of government. Covid-19 comments directed at Rohingya refugees, undocumented migrant workers and the media continue as the country grapples with looming economic recession and political conflict. Reliance on the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) as the arbitrator of truth continues to create division between civil society and government officials.
Given that hate speech itself is open to interpretation, the debate in Malaysia is whether it is beneficial to have a single governmental agency interpret the definition.
Hate speech also runs rampant throughout governmental agencies, where a lack of auditors or watchdogs are a contributing factor. Myanmar governments' disinformation targeting the Rohingya and other minority communities, is a case in point. Hence, in April, Myanmar's president signed Anti-Hate Speech Orders requiring state officials to monitor and report online hate speech to the central government.
Without pressure from external stakeholders to hold the government accountable for its transgressions in spreading hate speech and division, a situation where a blank cheque is written by the government for the government would arise.
Similarly, in the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs and terrorism was committed to once again during his speech at the UN General Assembly on Sept 22.
The Duterte government has benefited from fast tracking the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, whilst civil society has seen the extent to which derogatory terms like 'terrorist' can be used to prosecute outspoken citizens.
Singaporean ambassadors routinely admonish the republic's own young citizen activists or scholars, especially when critical views are expressed through international media outlets.
On July 16, Peter Tan Hai Chuan, Singaporean ambassador to Japan responded to Nikkei Asia Review contributor Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh's assessment of the city-state's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mr Tan replied, accusing Singaporean Mr Vadeketh of partial and misleading opinions and advised Nikkei Asia Review from "being used by certain individuals" and not to deviate from its high professional standards.
Utilising the social media, in Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen and his administration have normalised hate speech against members of the opposition, journalists and activists, labelling them as "dogs" and "traitors".
His incitement urging the army to destroy them has forced leading figures of the opposition to go into exile lest they will face politically motivated charges and imprisonment.
The implications of this politically motivated hate speech have benefited the Hun Sen's regime with the court on Sept 23 sentencing former opposition party members to between five and seven years imprisonment for treason.
Combating the viral spread of government created hate speech, hence requires a multi-stakeholder approach. This is to avoid governments being the sole determinants of what is hate speech and what is not.
This is a key recommendation of Asia Centre's report "Hate Speech in Southeast Asia: New Forms, Old Rules" which was published on July 12 and presented at the Centre's 5th International Conference.
A number of measures can constitute a multi-stakeholder anti-hate speech architecture. First, encouraging the development of multi-party parliaments. In this way, law making and implementation will have an in-built check and balance to mitigate government led hate speech.
Second, independent institutions such as national human rights institutions have an important role to play in monitoring hate speech. Complaints against governmental hate speech can be raised and investigated, which can serve as an additional check and balance on governments.
Third, regional networks of civil society organisations, independent media and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) can play a vital part in calling out government hate speech.
These include publishing reports, undertaking investigative journalism and setting up of independent fact-checking entities.
Fourth, global human rights monitoring bodies must demand that states respect their obligation to not only report on their actions but also that they must adhere to their international commitments.
In this regard, remaining non-signatories of the ICERD (Brunei, Malaysia, Myanmar) must adopt this convention which can help with rooting out systemic and institutionalised discrimination in all government policies and practices.
Hate speech is a scourge upon all in Southeast Asia. However, governments are not innocent of hate speech. Hence, a multi-stakeholder approach needs to be established that can act as a neutral arbiter of what constitutes government hate speech.
James Gomez and Robin Ramcharan are directors of Asia Centre which recently convened the 5th International Conference on Hate Speech in Asia: Challenges and Solutions and published the report "Hate Speech in Southeast Asia: New Form, Old Rules."