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Asia Insight

Asia's war on 'fake news' raises real fears for free speech

Governments walk fine line between fighting rumors and stifling dissent

SHOTARO TANI, Nikkei staff writer | Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos

JAKARTA -- With nothing more than a WhatsApp message, Indonesia's government in early May made its position on "fake news" clear: zero tolerance.

For a few days, media reports had been circulating about a decision to issue visas to Israelis, citing the website of the "Israel Indonesia Agency." Yet no one had heard of the organization, and Indonesia does not recognize Israel. Then, with a lunchtime dispatch on the messaging app, the foreign ministry shot the story down, calling the news "wrong and misleading."  

For one seasoned journalist in Jakarta, "What was surprising was the speed at which the government dismissed the reports." Usually, it takes weeks. The prompt reaction signaled President Joko Widodo's determination to halt the rumor mill as the country enters election season, after overcoming smears in the 2014 campaign.

Indonesia, where police earlier this year exposed an alleged fake news syndicate called the Muslim Cyber Army that aimed to undermine Widodo's government, is not alone in fighting falsehoods.

Countries across Asia are declaring war on fake news.

In the Philippines, a proposed law would penalize those who spread false information. In Cambodia, a ruling party spokesperson said in May that the government is mulling an anti-fake news law of its own. And in Singapore, discussions on the matter are expected to pick up after a special parliamentary committee completed over 50 hours of public hearings in March.

Brig. Gen. Fadil Imran, center, cybercrime director for Indonesia's National Police, speaks before suspects arrested for hoaxes on social media in Jakarta in late February.   © Reuters

"Fake news can spread in a matter of hours," said Lee Hsien Loong, the city-state's prime minister. "Singapore, highly connected and wired up, is especially vulnerable."

Malaysia is ahead of them all: In April it became the first Asian country to pass anti-fake news legislation. "This law aims to protect the public from the spread of fake news, while allowing freedom of speech as provided under the constitution," said Azalina Othman, the minister overseeing laws at the time.

In some countries, though, the jury is still out on whether fake news is a legitimate concern or a pretext for stifling dissent.

"This paper will highlight some of the abuse that has taken place, through the use of technology to spread falsehoods," read a report that K. Shanmugam, Singapore's law and home minister, presented to parliament in January. What was missing, however, were domestic examples.

So far, Singapore's encounters with fake news have included a rumor that a market popular among Muslim residents was selling dog and cat meat. Another case involved a fabricated photo of new public housing collapsing. 

Over in Malaysia, the first man to be convicted under the new law, a Danish national, had posted a YouTube video accusing the police of taking 50 minutes to respond to calls about a shooting. The police claimed it took them only eight.

Few would call these examples egregious. And critics have seized on the lack of concrete justification, arguing that governments are using the issue as cover for restricting freedom of speech.

"There is no demand for new legislation against fake news in the population of these countries," said Clarissa David, communications professor at the University of the Philippines. "The demand seems to be coming from politicians who feel slighted by some story that went viral."

In an age when online information holds sway over hearts and minds, it is little wonder that governments want to control internet discourse -- for ill or for good. The urge may be particularly strong in Southeast Asia, where Thais, Filipinos, Indonesians and Malaysians spend more than eight hours per day online, on average.   

One need look no further than Myanmar, where more than 18 million residents are active social media users, to understand the internet's potential to rip a society's fabric.

Yangon, the country's largest city, was unusually quiet last Sept. 11. Parents refrained from sending their children to school, while scores of office workers took the day off. The panic stemmed from two conflicting warnings posted on Facebook earlier that month, days after a clash had prompted minority Rohingya Muslims to flee their settlement. 

"The Kalar are planning to launch a Jihad on Monday 11 Sept.," one post read, using a derogatory Burmese word for people of South Asian origin. "Warn your friends."

Another post warned that on the same day, the "Ma Ba Tha (Patriotic Association of Myanmar) and extremist nationalists will collaborate and will launch an anti-Kalar movement."

The messages seemed designed to instigate a conflict in a country where, as a GSMA report put it, "many consider Facebook the only entry point for information."

"We have been communicating with [Facebook] for the last three to four years" on the dangers of false information, said Jes Kaliebe Petersen, CEO of Yangon tech accelerator Phandeeyar. "But we haven't seen much change."

Myanmar is home to over 18 million active social media users. (Getty Images)

In a case like Myanmar's, could laws against fake news be used to good effect? "We see much vile comments, prejudices, conspiracies and hate speech circulated online," said Eric Loo, senior fellow at the University of Wollongong in Australia. "That's why governments set the rules for the internet."

But there are mounting indications that authorities are more interested in simply wiping away unfavorable information.

"These hoaxes we see, there are positive and negative ones," Djoko Setiadi said when he was sworn in as the head of Indonesia's National Cyber and Encryption Agency in January. "If the hoaxes are constructive, then go ahead [and pass them on]."

The agency, set up last year to monitor online content with other authorities, is under the president's direct control.

Malaysia's fake news law, meanwhile, gives the court sole power to "determine whether a piece of news or information is incorrect or otherwise." It was passed and enforced just days before the country's general election. This was "absolutely an attempt to instill fear" in the public, said Bridget Welsh, associate professor of political science and a Malaysia expert at John Cabot University in Italy.

Other governments are less subtle about their desire to control the media and free expression.

"This is something that takes up time, energy and resources," Maria Ressa, CEO of Philippine social news network Rappler, said of her numerous visits to the Court of Appeals, the justice department and other government agencies investigating her company. 

Rappler has been critical of President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs and the use of fake news to attack the opposition. In 2016, it probed the proliferation of phony social media accounts that were amplifying key Duterte talking points, both as candidate and president.

Rather than just deny the claims, the president and his government went after Rappler, with corporate regulators ordering the news website to shut down for allegedly breaching foreign ownership laws.

Journalists and activists rally for press freedom in Manila in January, after authorities ordered the closure of media outlet Rappler. (Getty Images)

"Press freedom in the Philippines is in a problematic situation," said professor Luis Teodoro, a trustee of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility. "What's also affecting press freedom is the continuing spread of false information and the tendency of the government to hide information, to conceal information, or to provide false information themselves."

Thailand's media organizations are no strangers to pressure. The country's lese-majeste law -- which carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in jail for those who defame, insult or threaten the monarchy -- offers a tool for silencing critics of those in power. Since the current military regime took power in a May 2014 coup, at least 94 people had been charged as of January, according to rights group iLaw. Many of the charges were against anti-coup activists.

"What's also affecting press freedom is the continuing spread of false information and the tendency of the government to hide information, to conceal information, or to provide false information themselves"

Professor Luis Teodoro, trustee of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility

Governments do not always get their way. 

On April 2, India's Ministry of Information and Broadcasting announced that journalists could be permanently stripped of their accreditation if they are found to have created or propagated false information. The ministry said it wanted to counter "increasing instances of fake news in various mediums."

Journalists and opposition party members were livid, seeing the move as an attempt to curb press freedom ahead of the 2019 general elections. "Make no mistake: this is a breathtaking assault on mainstream media," tweeted Shekhar Gupta, founder and editor-in-chief of news portal The Print.

Less than 24 hours after the notification was issued, Prime Minister Narendra Modi withdrew it.

Malaysia's new Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has signaled his government will keep a controversial fake news law that he once pledged to abolish.   © Reuters

Even in Malaysia, despite the best efforts of Najib Razak's Barisan Nasional government to muzzle the opposition, the ruling camp lost the recent election. The result, which led to the first transfer of power since independence in 1957, was widely hailed as a triumph for democracy over oppression.

Still, the allure of an instrument for controlling political discourse may prove too great for the man who ousted Najib, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. The 92-year-old had promised during the campaign that he would abolish the controversial law, but he has since said "there are limits" to freedom of the press and speech. Mahathir has said the fake news law "will be given a new definition."

Professor David at the University of the Philippines suggested much depends on what checks and balances are already in place. "In countries where civil society groups are well-developed, and where media are independent, there can be pushback" against suppression of free speech, she said.

The question is, how many countries in increasingly autocratic emerging Asia meet those criteria?

Nikkei staff writers Mayuko Tani, Mikhail Flores, Yuichi Nitta, Kiran Sharma, CK Tan and Yukako Ono contributed to this story.

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