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Fake news laws, letters to Facebook, and a decline in press freedom rankings: Asia-Pacific in April

Governments have begun issuing anti-‘fake news’ regulations, groups engaged Facebook about propagating hate speech, decline of press freedom rankings of Asia-Pacific countries, and Pakistan women reclaim public spaces.

Commuter walks past anti
Commuter walks past anti "fake news" public service announcement, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 26 March 2018


New 'fake news’ legislation, actual and in the works

Several governments in the region have started deliberations on proposed anti-'fake news' laws.

Malaysia's parliament passed a law intended to combat 'fake news' amid concerns that it will be used to silence the opposition and critics ahead of the General Election which is scheduled to take place on 9 May.

Malaysia is the first Asian country to pass an anti-'fake news' law.

Critics of the law says its definition of 'fake news' is too vague and can be easily abused by authorities. Those found guilty of publishing 'fake news' content could serve a prison term of up to six years and be ordered to pay a fine of up to 500,000 Malaysian Ringgit (UDS $129,000).

Civil society groups signed a statement which warns that “the passage of the law would likely deepen the already existing restrictive environment for expression and further suppress public discourse and legitimate criticism of public officials and other powerful individuals.”

The passage of an anti-'fake news' law in Malaysia was followed by an announcement from the Cambodian government about its intent to pass similar legislation. The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) described it as 'deeply troubling' and reminded authorities about how this kind of measure can be manipulated by 'politicians with nefarious intentions' to stifle criticism.

In Singapore, a committee was created by parliament in January 2018 to address the problem of “deliberate online falsehoods”, or disinformation on the internet.

In a rare move for Singapore, the committee solicited the views of the public and held public hearings to discuss various sides of the issue.

A paper submitted by the People's Action Party Policy Forum (affiliated with the ruling party which has been in power since the 1960s) focused mainly on refuting the December 2017 report of Human Rights Watch about the decline of free speech in Singapore. It even argued that the report is based on 'deliberate online falsehoods.'

Other proposals to deal with online disinformation included the promotion of public education, media literacy, and the creation of a fact-checking council.

But civil society groups asserted that Singapore already has adequate laws to deal with 'fake news.' Independent news website The Online Citizen insisted that “the biggest threat to the stability and growth of the democratic process in Singapore is the government's control of the media and information.”

Instead of another legislation which could further restrict free speech, some groups suggested the advancement of freedom of information and greater transparency by government agencies.

Meanwhile, India's Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued a regulation that would have deprived journalists of government accreditation for publishing 'fake news' content. But the order was immediately withdrawn after media groups registered their strong opposition to the repressive measure.

"Dear Facebook..."

As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg faced a congressional hearing in the United States, several groups across Asia-Pacific penned open letters about the role of the popular social media platform in facilitating the spread of hate speech.

After Zuckerberg referred in a media interview to his company's success in addressing racist hate speech in Burma, six civil society groups signed a letter highlighting the “inherent flaws” in the ability of Facebook to respond to emergencies. The letter stated:

“This case exemplifies the very opposite of effective moderation: it reveals an over-reliance on third parties, a lack of a proper mechanism for emergency escalation, a reticence to engage local stakeholders around systemic solutions and a lack of transparency.”

Zuckerberg eventually apologized and vowed to do more to stop groups from using Facebook to promote religious violence and discrimination in Burma.

In Sri Lanka, the Centre for Policy Alternatives led 13 groups in calling on Facebook “to combat gender-based violence and hate speech propagated through its platform.”

Their letter cited recent communal clashes and the failure of Facebook to respond quickly.

“Our concern is tied to your platform's inability and unwillingness to take down explicitly genocidal material and other content inciting hate, during violence over recent months that gripped the Gintota, Ampara and Kandy regions in Sri Lanka.”

A similar concern was raised by 22 groups in Indonesia which urged Facebook to “implement stricter data protection mechanisms” to protect the rights of minorities and marginalized groups.

In Vietnam, activists are asking if Facebook is coordinating with a government known for cracking down on expression.

“When profiles of activists and citizen journalists are banned from posting or effectively suspended, we are given no explanation – other than the vague “violation of standards.” We find this lack of transparency concerning and unhelpful.”

Asia-Pacific countries fall in World Press Freedom Index

Reporters Without Borders released its 2018 World Press Freedom Index which reflected the worsening state of human rights in many Asia-Pacific countries. RSF highlighted the growing influence of China's model in controlling the press.

“The Chinese model of state-controlled news and information is being copied in other Asian countries, especially Vietnam and Cambodia. North Asia's democracies are struggling to establish themselves as alternative models. Violence against journalists is increasingly worrying in Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and the Philippines.”

Southeast Asian Press Alliance noted that the report showed 10 of 11 countries in Southeast Asia at the bottom-third of the global index. It warned that “the situation remains abysmal, with great cause for concern because of major action by governments to suppress media.”

Focus on gender: #GirlsOnBikes reclaim public spaces in Pakistan

A bicycle rally was organized for the third time in major cities of Pakistan to "promote female participation in public events, fight restrictions faced by women in public places and increase awareness about issues faced by women."

Led by the Pakistani feminist collective Girls at Dhabas, the rally "aims to challenge the existing mindset that it is inappropriate for a female or a gender non-conforming person to be out and about on her own."

"We wish to encourage each other to participate in this collective movement to assert our right to navigate public spaces on our own terms," the group added.

Defiance amid repression

Sister Patricia Fox, an Australian missionary in the Philippines for 27 years whose visa was cancelled and who was ordered by authorities to leave the country for engaging in political work:

“In a way, all of our activity is political, but it is not partisan political...I can't see the point of being a missionary and laying low. It is a part of our Christian calling to speak the truth.”

Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian poet and journalist who has been detained by the Australian government for more than four years on the remote Manus Island:

“Living in a situation like this, where every single element of the system is trying to take your identity, it is very essential to retain your identity. It is the key factor to survival, to feel that you are more than a set of numbers and that, importantly, you are human. It also reminds you that you are still alive.”

Sylvester Gawi spoke of on the challenges of being a journalist in Papua New Guinea:

“The greatest challenge facing journalism in Papua New Guinea is there is no freedom of press. It is the courage to speak and write the truth and using the right medium to express your views...Everyday, Papua New Guinean journalists face a much bigger challenge as they have to write according to what their editors can accept or they get sacked for insubordination.”

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