Internet Freedoms in Malaysia: Regulating Online Discourse on Race, Religion, and Royalty
Internet Freedoms in Malaysia: Regulating Online Discourse on Race, Religion, and Royalty analyses how Malaysia’s legal provisions impact online discussions of the 3Rs (race, religion and royalty) that question the special position of the Malays, Islam and the Monarchy. The report explains that Malaysia’s restrictive legal provisions inherited from the colonial era and expanded during the six decades of successive UMNO-led BN governments are used to regulate the online discourse of the 3Rs. Following the 2022 general election, Malaysia finds itself at a political crossroads where three different narratives on the 3Rs that this report labels as traditional, progressive, and right-wing are being used by political parties and coalitions to appeal to the Malay-Muslim community for political legitimacy. As it was before the 2022 general election, the report argues that websites will continue to be blocked, online content removed, and individuals and organisations connected to the production and dissemination of content that questions the special position of the Malays, Islam and the Monarchy investigated and prosecuted. Meanwhile, online harassment and hate content will continue to be weaponised by ultranationalist groups against those who hold different views in relation to the 3Rs and are allowed to do so without legal consequences. To improve internet freedoms in the country, this report makes several key recommendations directed at the government, the national human rights institution, parliamentarians, civil society, and technology companies. The implementation of recommendations can help ensure that the 3Rs can be discussed safely without unwarranted censorship and self-censorship in Malaysia.
Youth and Disinformation in Malaysia: Strengthening Electoral Integrity
Youth and Disinformation in Malaysia: Strengthening Electoral Integrity identifies the potential risks from disinformation that youths are likely to face in the 15th General Election (GE15) to be held latest by September 2023. A review of media reports and studies that referenced the last 5 general elections, revealed 5 recurring patterns of disinformation clustering around: sexual orientation and promiscuity; corruption; electoral integrity; women politicians and foreign interference. To date, legal and non-legal measures remain largely ineffective against political disinformation. Provisions in existing laws are vague and place authority in the hands of the government who can use these laws against critics. Meanwhile, non-legal measures by government agencies, government-linked companies and politicians lack the involvement of other stakeholders. The report recommends that legislation criminalising disinformation be compatible with international standards, and not restrict freedom of expression nor silence critics. And that the development of non-legal measures, such as media and digital literacy, involve non-government stakeholders and be promoted at an early age among the youth. In turn, these recommendations can strengthen the integrity and trust in Malaysia’s electoral system.
Internet Freedoms in Thailand
Internet Freedoms in Thailand reviews and analyses legislation that impacts internet freedoms in Thailand. These include provisions in the Constitution, Penal Code, the Computer Crime Act, the Cybersecurity Act, and the Emergency Decree. As this report shows, many provisions under these laws contain vague language enabling wide interpretation, impose harsh punishment, and give far-reaching power to the authorities. Today, internet freedoms in Thailand remain under threat, a product of continuous restrictions accelerated since the 2014 coup. These laws are used to justify removing or blocking content criticising the monarchy and establishment, prosecuting internet users, and harassing activists, individuals, journalists, and human rights defenders. This has led some sectors of Thai society to practise self-censorship, while others choose to defy the regime. Recommendations on upholding internet freedom in Thailand provided in this report include: to amend or repeal provisions containing vague language and imposing harsh penalties; decriminalise defamation and place it within the civil code; and limit the application of the Emergency Decree strictly as necessary.
MIL in Post-Pandemic Southeast Asia: Approaches to Measuring Effectiveness in the Academic Literature
Dr. James Gomez and Dr. Robin Ramcharan, Directors of Asia Centre, authored an article “MIL in Post-Pandemic Southeast Asia: Approaches to Measuring Effectiveness in the Academic Literature” in Thai Media Fund Journal. The article reviews scholarship on the effectiveness of media information literacy (MIL) to distil its models and assesses its utility as a concept. Based on the review, eight questions regarding MIL are expanded upon in the article to provide a framework for policymakers, civil society programmers and researchers in their effort to design stronger MIL programmes.
Thailand Computer Crime Act: Restricting Digital Rights, Silencing Online Critics
Thailand Computer Crime Act: Restricting Digital Rights, Silencing Online Critics reviews the provisions of the 2007 Computer Crime Act (CCA) and its 2017 amendment, as well as their impact on digital rights in Thailand. Containing harsh penalties and vaguely-worded provisions subject to extensive interpretation by authorities, the CCA removes critical content from the internet, harasses and prosecutes those who speak out and puts pressure on ISPs and tech companies to carry out orders. Instead, the report recommends that the Thai government review and amend rights-infringing sections of the CCA and ensure they comply with international human rights standards. Tech companies and local CSOs must also maintain a firm stance on safeguarding freedom of expression online.
COVID-19 and Infodemic in Southeast Asia
In the academic article “COVID-19 and Infodemic in Southeast Asia” published in Thai Media Fund Journal, Dr. James Gomez and Dr. Robin Ramcharan examine COVID-19 related ‘infodemic’ from 2020 to mid-2021. They take stock of how the ‘infodemic’ has adversely disrupted access to accurate public health information in Southeast Asia by and assess existing non-legal measures that have been used in response to the infodemic. Strategies reviewed in the article include: information sharing, fact checking, responses of technology companies, quality journalism and media information literacy (MIL) – each with shortcomings of their own. The situation in the region calls for a concerted effort to develop MIL education as a long-term guarantee against infodemic; while other strategies noted in the article must also be developed to accompany MIL.
Media Freedom in Southeast Asia: Repeal Restrictive Laws, Strengthen Quality Journalism
Media Freedom in Southeast Asia: Repeal Restrictive Laws, Strengthen Quality Journalism examines the use of fake news legislation to crack down on legitimate journalistic expression. Seeking to control the flow of information in the online space, governments have enacted these laws to monitor and control the internet infrastructure over which information critical or unflattering of the government can be disseminated. The laws contain vaguely-worded provisions penalising the act of spreading disinformation or information that authorities consider harmful to national security, public order and social harmony. While the negative dimensions of online content are of concern, the increased use of these legislation erodes media freedom. Instead, the report recommends that the focus should be on promoting the responsible use of online media platforms that can empower credible actors to counterbalance online disinformation through verified information and strengthen quality journalism.
Foreign Interference Laws in Southeast Asia: Deepening the Shrinkage of Civic Space
Foreign Interference Laws in Southeast Asia: Deepening the Shrinkage of Civic Space reviews developments in laws that seek to curb the role of international actors and their support for CSOs that work on democracy and human rights issues. To set the context, the report examines the rhetoric of ‘foreign interference’, the characteristics of ‘foreign interference laws’ being introduced in both democratic and non-democratic countries and how authoritarian regimes’ use of such laws impacts the operation of both INGOs and national CSOs. Focusing on the emerging trends in Southeast Asia, the report reviews the laws’ in the region and how they impact civic space in terms of shutting down INGOs and NGOs; blocking international funding; engaging in public rebuke of foreign governments, INGOs, CSO and individuals; the shift by international actors to government partnerships; and relocating their offices to other countries and adopting remote working. To address the impact of foreign interference laws on civic space, the report provides a set of recommendations for stakeholders. It includes ending unsubstantiated and negative rhetoric of foreign interference, repealing, amending, or clarifying foreign interference laws. Additionally, UN human rights mechanisms should seek clarity from member states regarding foreign interference laws, and INGOs and CSOs should call transgressions of foreign interference laws and strive to become self-sustainable.
Harmony Laws in Southeast Asia: Majority Dominance, Minority Repression
Harmony Laws in Southeast Asia: Majority Dominance, Minority Repression analyses the legal framework and the impact on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) and racial discrimination in Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines and Singapore. Colonial era-laws are being supplemented with “harmony” and other laws to manage communal tensions. All four countries are ethnically and religiously diverse with colonial histories and make use of legal provisions to maintain societal order and internal stability while appeasing the ethno-religious majority. These legal measures often compromise FoRB and the airing of grievances of minority communities. Unfortunately, one cannot observe significant progress on the issue. In Malaysia, the divide between the Muslim majority and the rest of the country remains strong. In Myanmar, the situation is dire as communal tensions enter the political mainstream, exacerbated by the 2021 military coup. In the Philippines, there is little state mandated religious discrimination, but prejudices remain as the influence of Catholicism continues to be strong. In Singapore, the government continues to use appeals to social harmony and secularism to obscure the privileges enjoyed by the Chinese majority even as minorities find it legally restrictive to voice their grievances. This report demonstrates how government use of legislation affects FoRB and racial equality and suggests measures to improve the situation.
Internet Freedoms in Cambodia: A Gateway to Control
Internet Freedoms in Cambodia: A Gateway to Control analyses the state of internet freedoms in Cambodia, in light of recent legislation such as the 2021 National Internet Gateway Sub-Decree (NIG). Cambodia is a state-party to major international covenants and conventions, and declares it respects human rights. Yet its national laws are not aligned to international human rights standards. Instead, the government exerts tight control over all online content, and uses anti-defamation or state security provisions to stifle criticisms against it. Vaguely-worded legislation also allows intrusive monitoring of individuals, such as recording their private conversations and using it to prosecute them. As a result of these persecutions and harassment plus widespread online surveillance, Cambodians are withdrawing into self-censorship and are refraining from expressing critical political opinions online. This strong pressure on internet freedoms in Cambodia has affected democratic expression. This report highlights these issues and suggests legislative revisions to improve the situation.
The Securitisation of COVID-19 Health Protocols: Policing the Vulnerable, Infringing their Rights
The Securitisation of COVID-19 Health Protocols: Policing the Vulnerable, Infringing their Rights analyses the impact of securitised COVID-19 health protocols on the human rights of vulnerable communities in Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Sri Lanka. The report reviews the COVID-19 temporary and emergency legislations, the role of the law enforcement agencies in implementing these legal measures, and the digital surveillance and contact tracing measures used to track people’s movements. The review shows that all these actions have impacted the human rights of vulnerable and marginalised communities. The report hence highlights the importance of integrating international human rights standards into health protocols during pandemics. It presents two specific recommendations: that the de-securitisation of health responses approach should be consistent with the protection of fundamental rights; and that the rights of vulnerable communities be supported and prioritised within public health policies and practices.
“Infodemic” and SDGs: Internet Freedoms in Southeast Asia
“Infodemic” and SDGs: Internet Freedoms in Southeast Asia, evaluates the impact of the ‘infodemic’ on internet freedoms in Southeast Asia. Using the Sustainable Development Goals as an indicator, the study analyses how the pandemic has exerted a debilitating effect on the development of internet infrastructure, fundamental freedoms and access to information as articulated in SDG 9.C (Access and Affordability of Internet) and SDG 16.10 (Fundamental Freedoms and Access to Information). The report further highlights that a suite of existing legislation and emergency measures—used by governments to silence their critics, rather than repress the infodemic—have served to regress fundamental human rights. In Southeast Asia, a key point is that governments have strived to define the infodemic as purely citizen-induced, in order to provide justification to enact repressive legislation that suppresses online debate and disregards human rights, while ignoring their role in also contributing to the infodemic. The report provides recommendations that encourage strengthening adherence to the SDGs targets, helping to combat the infodemic without infringing on internet freedoms.
Timor-Leste: Internet Freedoms Under Threat
Timor-Leste: Internet Freedoms Under Threat analyses the state of internet freedoms against the background of emerging national legislation pertaining to online content and privacy of data. With the rise in internet and social media usage, the scrutiny of government figures on digital platforms has resulted in a push for legislation aimed at cracking down on criticism, and allowing for surveillance and interception of online content. The collection of personal data in a move to digitalise public administration and the economy, furthers the risk of online surveillance of critics. This report examines the potential regression in online political expression that may emerge should the proposed laws and amendments such as the Draft Criminal Defamation Law, Draft Cyber Crime Law and the announced Data Privacy and Protection law be introduced. In order to promote and protect internet freedoms in Timor-Leste, this report provides specific recommendations that can be used as a tool box for freedom advocates to amend, or remove certain provisions in current and draft legislation
Myanmar: Dismantling Dissent – Crackdowns on Internet Freedoms
Myanmar: Dismantling Dissent – Crackdowns on Internet Freedoms examines the state of internet freedoms in Myanmar. Since the military coup on 1 February 2021, any semblance of true freedom of expression online has drastically deteriorated. It is a sharp decline from the increased user growth and adoption of social media platforms for political expression. This report examines a range of national laws that have been used to impact internet freedoms, namely the Constitution, Penal Code, Electronic Transactions Law, Telecommunications Law, and Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens in the last 10 years. To ensure the people of Myanmar are able to enjoy fundamental freedoms on the internet in accordance with international law, this report presents specific recommendations that would safeguard internet freedoms, public access to information and freedom of expression.
Defending Freedom of Expression: Fake News Laws in East and Southeast Asia
Defending Freedom of Expression: Fake News Laws in East and Southeast Asia published by Asia Centre and the Council of Asia Liberals and Democrats (CALD) examines the existing and recently enacted laws and policies in the region which govern disinformation. The aim of the report is to provide a policy tool of ideas to empower legislators, political party leaders, academics, civil society activists, journalists to protect freedom of expression. This report compares the impact of legislation in countries with multiparty legislatures and independent government institutions, and countries with one dominant political force and an absence of independent national institutions. It finds that in the former countries, provisions are included to safeguard human rights and democratic practices and international conventions are adhered to and aligned with human rights principles. In contrast, in the latter countries, the authority of the state is placed at the centre of disinformation laws, and their interpretation thereof, in which the description of what constitutes fake news is often vaguely-worded. To address the human rights and democratic gaps in these countries, a set of recommendations are prescribed to governments to meet their international human rights obligations, establish independent institutions, work with technology companies and collaborate with stakeholders when implementing national legislation and policies to address fake news.
COVID-19 and Democracy in Southeast Asia: Building Resilience, Fighting Authoritarianism
Asia Centre’s second baseline study examines trends under which Southeast Asian governments have used crises as opportunities for their political advantage. This report, centred around the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), highlights the routine response from governments with the announcement of emergency decrees and laws, suspension of civil freedoms, corruption of electoral democracy, censorship, digital surveillance measures, and framing human rights activists as national security threats. Post-crises, governments then enact long term laws and policies that effectively shrink civic space. Their methods also include limiting media and journalists’ watchdog activities through fake news and defamation labels, whilst substantially contributing to the dwindling civil society funding. A set of recommendations are also prescribed for the United Nations, governments, donors, and civil society.
Hate Speech in Southeast Asia: New Forms, Old Rules
Hate speech, often disseminated online, is increasingly a problem in Southeast Asia with consequences of violence and communal strife. As a result, several countries in Southeast Asia such as Singapore, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand have introduced or are revising bills aimed at securing social, racial or religious harmony. Non-legal measures to foster social cohesion, interfaith dialogues and social harmony activities have also been used to address hate speech and promote cross-communal understandings. A majority of states in Southeast Asia have also signed the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) to signal their committment to to the elimination of racial discrimination and the promotion of understanding among all races. This report recommends a range of measures to alleviate these concerns. Among them, is a primary recommendation to officially recognise newer forms of hate speech and a set of secondary recommendations to promote understanding and diversity. All which should not result in any discrimination or infringement of rights.