Author: Dr. James Gomez is regional director of Asia Centre – a not-for-profit social enterprise that undertakes evidence-based research on human rights issues. This article is based on its 2021 baseline studies series on internet freedoms: Internet Freedoms in Cambodia: A Gateway To Control; Timor-Leste: Internet Freedoms Under Threat; and Myanmar: Dismantling Dissent Crackdowns on Internet Freedoms.
Throughout 2020 and in early 2021, most countries in Southeast Asia have seen a steady deterioration of the state of press freedoms. This came after journalists—whose work had primarily shifted to online platforms where most of information consumption took place—were increasingly persecuted based on the critical content they uploaded or shared over social media platforms. This trend of censoring and persecuting authors of online content was reflected in the Freedom on the Net index, where most Southeast Asian countries scored equally poorly with regards to internet freedom. Actions taken during the pandemic by governments and political regimes to silence criticism and control the official narrative through restrictive laws have by extension led to further shrinking of academic, civic, internet and media space in the region.
Social media as source of news
Given that digital transformation, content creation, and information consumption are largely taking place through social media applications and accessed through mobile devices, any deterioration on internet freedoms has an impact on press freedom. According to Hootsuite’s Global Digital Report, 69% of the total population in Southeast Asia are using the internet and social media (Kemp, 2021). Data from Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report provides a snapshot of what sources people in the region use to access news. In Indonesia, people reported social media as the main source of news (64%) and smartphones as the main device to access those (85%). This pattern was repeated in other Southeast Asian countries: Malaysia (88% and 85% respectively), Philippines (72% and 78%), Singapore (83% and 80%), and Thailand (78% and 81%) (Newman, Fletcher, Schulz, Andi, Robertson, & Nielsen, 2021).
However, this increase in internet and social media penetration and greater use of online platforms for news consumption does not translate into either greater internet or press freedom. According to the 2021 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, all Southeast Asian countries, except Timor Leste, ranked below the top 100 on press freedoms (Reporters Without Borders, 2021). The World Press Freedom Index also confirmed that, apart from Indonesia, Thailand, and Timor Leste, every country in the region has seen their press freedom ranking either decline or remain stagnant. One party-states such as Laos, Vietnam, and Singapore ranked among the lowest in the world due to their authoritarian heavy-handed approach to censorship, persecution of journalists and independent media organisations, and monopoly over mainstream local media. The use of vaguely-worded fake news laws and politically motivated government crackdowns of critics who called out the mismanagement of COVID-19 pandemic scored Southeast Asian countries into the lower end of the World Press Freedom Index (Parameswaran, 2020).
Independent media and journalists in Cambodia, Myanmar, Philippines, and Thailand, on the other hand, continue to operate in a repressive environment where they face strong repercussions from state forces that endanger their employment and sometimes even their lives. Laws and regulations are used as a tool to hinder the ability of journalists to do critical reporting that does not align with the government narratives. While critical coverage is not banned outright, there is no presumption of the right to publish in these countries (Hayton, 2021). To make matters worse, COVID-19 pandemic provided an opportunity for the government and office holders to settle their scores with journalists and independent media outlets (Strangio, 2021).
(Ab)use of law
Even before the public health crisis, a number of existing laws have been used to silence political opponents and government critics, including journalists. In Southeast Asia, there are at least three types of legislation used to criminalise journalists: 1) penal code and national security-related laws, 2) technology laws, and 3) anti-fake news and COVID-19 temporary laws.
First, provisions under the Penal Codes of Cambodia, Malaysia, and Vietnam allow for criminalisation of what authorities deemed to be false information or information that may disrupt public order or national security. In Cambodia, in September 2021 Youn Chhiv, a journalist and owner of Koh Kong Hot News was sentenced to one year of imprisonment and fined $500 over his coverage on government land dispute, a story that local authorities dismissed as misinformation and charged him with Article 495 (incitement to commit felony) under the Penal Code (IFJ, 2021). In July 2020, following the coverage on Cambodian government’s treatment of migrant workers during the COVID-19 lockdown in May, up to six Al Jazeera staff were questioned under the Sedition Act; two foreign correspondents were later declined a visa renewal (CPJ, 2020). In January, three prominent journalists and members of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam (IJAVN) were handed jail sentences of between eleven and fifteen years for spreading anti-state propaganda, an offense under Article 117 of the Penal Code (Al Jazeera, 2021).
Second, technology-related laws—originally designed to regulate the use of electronic devices—were also employed to curtail the work of journalists. In August 2020, Indonesian journalist Diananta Putra Sumedi was sentenced to three-and-a-half-month imprisonment under Article 28.2 (information causing enmity) of the Electronic Information and Transactions Law. Sumedi reported a story of the country’s palm oil firm PT Jhonlin Group allegedly appropriating the land belonging to indigenous people in Borneo. This led to the firm filing of a criminal complaint against him in January 2020. In Myanmar, following the military coup on 1 February 2021, Section 77 of the Telecommunications Law was invoked by the junta to impose internet shutdown and curfew to prevent information coming in and out of the country, making news coverage nearly impossible. In March 2021, five independent news outlets were forced to close down. In Thailand, in May 2021 a journalist of Thai PBS was charged under the Computer Crime Act over her report on the alleged case of a patient in Udon Thani, who suffered an allergy from COVID-19 vaccination (The Standard, 2021).
Last but not least, since the beginning of the pandemic, some countries have activated anti-fake news law, or legislated emergency decree or temporary law with provisions to criminalise the act of spreading false information. In April 2020, two reporters in Cavite, Philippines were arrested under the charge of spreading fake news, thereby violating the Section 6(6) of the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act. The Bayanihan Act was enacted in March to declare a national public health emergency across the country. If convicted, the two journalists face the risk of a two-month-long jail sentence and a fine of US$19,000 (Centre for Media and Freedom and Responsibility, 2020). During the general election in 2020, PJ Tham, a co-founder of online news outlet New Narratif was issued with a correction order after he posted his video on the outlet’s YouTube channel, in which he used POFMA as an example of how laws are “created and abused in Singapore,” asserting that the Act has rendered all criticisms of government illegal (Lee, 2020).
Decline of internet freedoms
Following the shift of news consumption from traditional platforms to cyberspace, more journalists and media professionals are being persecuted for uploading or sharing their commentary or news reports on social media platforms—particularly Facebook and YouTube—or websites. As the internet and social media platforms had been largely unregulated, Southeast Asian Governments have reinforced the efforts to police online space. This started from a new legislation to persecute critical online content and later expanded to include control over telecommunication infrastructure and illegal measures such as online content manipulation and disinformation. All these have led to a decline of internet freedoms and by extension press freedoms in the region. According to the 2021 Freedom on the Net Report compiled by the Freedom House, none of Southeast Asia countries have qualified as ‘free’ with regards to internet freedom. The state of internet freedoms in Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines and Singapore was prescribed as ‘partly free,’ while Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam were accorded ‘not free’ status. International indices such as Freedom on the Net and World Press Freedom Index demonstrate a clear interdependency between the state of internet and press freedoms, pointing out to an increasingly blurred distinction between them.
Although seven countries in the region—apart from Malaysia, Myanmar, and Singapore—have signed and ratified the ICCPR, a close examination reveals that most of them are clearly late in their reporting obligations to the treaty body. As a result, this has made the treaty merely a bureaucratic requirement and not a genuinely respected human rights’ obligation. In that regard, the Universal Periodic Review, which evokes greater participation from civil society and member states, is a more effective mechanism. All Southeast Asia countries have completed three UPR cycles; yet, when their lack of compliance or non-alignment of national laws to the international standards are called out, a common argument is that their national laws are already aligned with international human rights treaties. When it is pointed out that journalists are being disproportionately persecuted for their critical reporting, a standard government response is that these individuals have leveraged their professions to commit a crime or disrupt public order and national security. Hence, despite the international law obligations, the rights of journalists continue to be breached.
Actions for safeguarding the fundamental freedoms
To safeguard both internet freedoms and press freedoms, a subset of rights constituting the freedom of expression, key conditions need to be met. First, governments must actively reinforce guarantees on fundamental freedoms in international law by aligning their Constitutions and repealing domestic laws that impinge on internet and press freedoms. Second, technology companies must prioritise quality journalism over sensational reporting by adjusting their algorithm and community standards, discouraging the use of their platforms to amplify hate and disinformation. Third, journalist associations must put in place a robust self-regulation with clear ethical standards in order to promote professional and fact-based journalism, which in turn can help ensure public trust in the media.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taught the world how valuable timely access to accurate information could be. It is both cost-saving and life-saving. To date, journalists, despite resource constraints, have endeavoured to deliver this public good. If we keep the internet free, it will help us ensure that media are free and independent, too.
Kemp, Simon (2021) ‘Digital 2021: Global Overview Report’, Hootsuite, at: https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2021-global-overview-report
Nic Newman with Richard Fletcher, Anne Schulz, Simge Andı, Craig T. Robertson, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen (2021) ‘Digital News Report 2021’, Reuters Institute, at: https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/2021-06/Digital_News_Report_2021_FINAL.pdf
Parameswaran, Prashanth (2020) ‘Confronting Southeast Asia’s Troubled Media Landscape’, The Diplomat, at: https://thediplomat.com/2020/06/confronting-southeast-asias-troubled-media-landscape/
Hayton, Bill (2021) ‘Freedom of expression under threat in Southeast Asia’, Chatham House, at: https://www.chathamhouse.org/2021/06/freedom-expression-under-threat-southeast-asia
Strangio, Sebastian (2021) ‘Pandemic Year Saw Sharp Decline in Southeast Asian Press Freedoms’, The Diplomat, at: https://thediplomat.com/2021/04/pandemic-year-saw-sharp-decline-in-southeast-asian-press-freedoms/
The International Federation of Journalists (2021) ‘Cambodia: Journalist jailed for one year over disinformation charge’, IFJ, at: https://www.ifj.org/media-centre/news/detail/category/press-releases/article/cambodia-journalist-jailed-for-one-year-over-disinformation-charge.html
Committee to Protect Journalists (2020) ‘Malaysia refuses to renew 2 Al-Jazeera reporters’ visas amid investigation’, CPJ, at: https://cpj.org/2020/08/malaysia-refuses-to-renew-2-al-jazeera-reporters-visas-amid-investigation/
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The Standard (2021) ‘ดีอีเอสสั่งฟ้องโซเชียลและนักข่าวเผยแพร่ข่าวเท็จ สาวอุดรธานีแพ้วัคซีนป้องกันโควิด-19’, The Standard, at: https://thestandard.co/mdes-suing-social-and-news-reporter-on-fake-news-about-coronavirus-vaccine/
Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (2020) ‘2 journalists, 17 others face charges for alleged coronavirus fake news, CMFR, at: https://cmfr-phil.org/press-freedom-protection/2-journalists-17-others-face-charges-for-alleged-coronavirus-fake-news/
Lee, Joshua (2020) ‘S’pore historian PJ Thum & New Naratif issued with POFMA orders over ‘false & misleading’ video on POFMA’, Mothership, at: https://mothership.sg/2020/05/pj-thum-pofma/