Baseline studies

Online Content Regulations in the Asia-Pacific: Limiting Civil Society’s Capacity to Hold Governments Accountable

Online Content Regulations in the Asia-Pacific: Limiting Civil Society’s Capacity to Hold Governments Accountable reviews laws enacted by governments in the Asia-Pacific region to regulate the online information sphere. These laws have been used to penalise content creators for incitement, defamation, or spreading fake news. At the same time, government authorities routinely order internet service providers and technology companies to block or remove online content considered sensitive or illegal. Some governments also impose internet shutdowns, particularly during politically sensitive periods, to control the flow of information. Trolling has emerged as a mainstream non-legal strategy to harass and intimidate civil society actors. As a result, INGOs, CSOs, and independent media outlets have limited the scope of their communications and activities. They have also refrained from public visibility and practised self-censorship to shield themselves from legal prosecution or non-legal harassment, thus exercising self-inhibiting behaviours to safeguard themselves from government regulations and to remain operational in a given jurisdiction. Overall, the net impact of these laws is the diminished ability of civil society to hold governments publicly accountable. This is the changed landscape that the report notes. The report concludes with a set of policy recommendations for international organisations, governments, internet service providers and technology companies, and civil society actors. The goal is to safeguard civil society’s ability to hold government accountable in the era of digital advancements.

Digital Security and Human Rights Defenders Landscape: Recommendations for NHRIs in the Asia-Pacific

Digital Security and Human Rights Defenders Landscape: Recommendations for NHRIs in the Asia-Pacific examines the challenges encountered by human rights defenders (HRDs) in the Asia-Pacific region within the context of the digital era, offering a comprehensive evaluation of the efficacy of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) in safeguarding HRDs. In doing so, this report delves into the landscape of digital security threats arising from legal constraints, disruptions in internet accessibility, digital surveillance practices, and the proliferation of government-supported “cybertroops”. The examination of the initiatives implemented by NHRIs sheds light on their current institutional constraints. Recognising the critical support framework outlined in the Marrakech Declaration, the report recommends several measures for NHRIs to increase the capacity to monitor and report on rights violations, increase the impact of advocacy and capacity-building activities, and enhance the networking of NHRIs. These measures encompass developing a clear action plan for digital rights protection, actively engaging with diverse stakeholders such as parliaments and tech companies, strengthening the capacity of NHRI personnel, and promoting increased collaboration among NHRIs at both regional and international levels. By implementing these strategic actions, NHRIs are poised to more effectively champion the crucial role played by HRDs, thereby contributing to a more robust defense of human rights in the evolving digital landscape.

Digital Security and Human Rights Defenders in the Asia-Pacific

Digital Security and Human Rights Defenders in the Asia-Pacific assesses the adoption of digital security tools and measures by changemakers in the region to address online threats that they currently face amid increasing state surveillance. The report highlights the various ways in which changemakers in the region have adopted to the threats: they are evaluating the security of their online infrastructure, increasing ownership of these infrastructures, and adopting secure software and work flows. Nonetheless, changemakers face varying obstacles in adopting online security measures, including complexity of the tools, limited adoption of these measures in the wider sector, cultural/language barriers and technical, financial and human resource constraints. The report concludes with a set of recommendations for changemakers, INGOs, donors, and technology companies to address key challenges that limit the effective implementation of digital security tools and protocols. It points to the need of a multi-stakeholder approach to address digital threats faced by changemakers.

The Bureaucratisation of Religion in Southeast Asia

The Bureaucratisation of Religion in Southeast Asia assess the role of regulatory and administrative framework related to religious manifestation in Southeast Asian countries to evaluate the impact they have on Freedom of Religion or Belief in the region. This report highlights five major features of bureaucratisation of religion in Southeast Asia, using the case examples of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand: 1) the creation of national religious frameworks and administrative structures to oversee religious affairs; 2) existence of quasi-governmental religious organisations to conduct religious outreach; 3) administrative frameworks for religious practices in order to shape the manifestation of religious beliefs; 4) the establish of moral policing institutions and bodies of religious legal rulings; and 5) a system of dual legal jurisdiction to project the influence of the state to the judiciary. Together, these systems have impacted FoRB by creating restrictions on houses of worship and barriers to conversion and proselytisation. Bureaucratisation of religion also served to suppress expression and criticism, discriminate against gender and sexual minorities; and facilitate ethno-religious dominance.

Strategic Development for SEAFORB Network: Needs Assessment Report

Strategic Development for SEAFORB Network: Needs Assessment Report analyses the environment of Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) advocacy in Southeast Asia to outline the concerns and needs of FoRB advocates in the region. The report underscores the importance of a consolidated network at the regional level to coordinate strategies for addressing FoRB violations in Southeast Asia. It emphasises three core principles for strengthening the SEAFORB Network: 1) to serve as a FoRB-focused platform integrating human rights, 2) to be civil society-led and regionally aligned, and 3) to engage diverse stakeholders. The findings from the report informs the drafting of a strategic plan for the SEAFORB Network for the years 2024-2026..

Political Hate Sites in Singapore: Flourishing without Repercussions

Political Hate Sites in Singapore: Flourishing without Repercussions explains how hate sites and internet brigades seek to maliciously negate the criticism of public officials and policy in Singapore. Targets of hate sites include activists, bloggers, civil society organisations, independent media outlets and journalists, human rights lawyers, and opposition political parties and politicians. Singapore, a one-party dominated state, has regularly updated and passed new legislation that criminalises criticism of its public officials and policies, leaving only a narrow margin for expressing dissenting views within the established legal boundaries. As a result, the government can repress opposition voices through the tight policing of political expression both offline and online. This includes blocking, removing, and delegitimising critical online content, as well as prosecuting content creators and distributors. This leads to the manipulation of the public narrative and fosters widespread self-censorship. Despite these measures, there is an underbelly of critical voices that continue to occupy the extremely limited space allowed by the law. In the last few years, these voices have experienced an increase in targeted attacks and hate speech by pro-government hate sites and internet brigades. Yet, public officials and technology companies remain silent about these hate sites and the coordinated inauthentic behaviour of internet brigades. Meanwhile, current laws and content moderation policies to protect them remain inadequate and insufficient. Hence, this report recommends the international community, UN bodies, Singapore parliament, political parties, tech companies, and civil society organisations to 1) monitor, document, and call out cases of online hate speech in Singapore; 2) use UN mechanisms to engage with the Singaporean government to address political hate speech and commit itself to international standards of freedom of expression; 3) advocate for the amendment of laws restricting freedom of expression; 4) develop new technology solutions to improve the detection of online hate speech; and 5) work cooperatively to consider everyone’s views in the development of new strategies to address online hate speech. This small cluster of critical voices is a manifestation of a larger, suppressed and silent resistance to the ruling regime in Singapore. Improved internet freedoms and safety to voice criticisms will provide the necessary valve to express democratic aspirations within Singapore society without risking any unnecessary and abrupt political upheavals.

Burmanisation and Buddhisation: Accelerating the Decline of Religious Rights in Myanmar

Burmanisation and Buddhisation: Accelerating the Decline of Religious Rights in Myanmar exposes the rapid decline of religious rights among minority communities following the 2021 military coup. Burmanisation and Buddhisation, two policies that have shaped Myanmar’s identity landscape since the colonial era, are now justified as a response to ensure national security and address the threat of terrorism. Under this response, minority ethno-religious communities are being targeted as subversive forces to be dealt with. This results in four key impacts. One, ethno-religious communities are targeted with violence and military attacks to silence their calls for autonomy. Two, religious sites predominantly belonging to minority religions and communities are subject to damage, destruction, and occupation by the military and pro-military groups. Three, members of minority groups are arbitrarily detained based on religious affiliation, often subjected to practices that contravene their religious beliefs. Four, the report exposes the persecution of the Muslim Rohingya, who face ethnic cleansing, detention camp internment, and forced displacement. The report concludes with a set of recommendations to the international community, international non-governmental organisations and civil society organisations urging them to monitor, record, and report on religious-based rights violations while also exploring diplomatic channels to halt all forms of violence. 

State-Sponsored Online Disinformation: Impact On Electoral Integrity In Thailand

State-Sponsored Online Disinformation: Impact On Electoral Integrity In Thailand examines government-backed disinformation campaigns, known as information operations, and assesses their impact on the integrity of elections. The report identifies the actions of key domestic and international state actors that contribute to the false information campaigns. Based on the evidence of the existence of information operations in Thailand and the absence of effective legal and non-legal measures to address them, the 2023 Thai General Election is expected to experience its share of state-sponsored disinformation over social media platforms. The report identifies four types of information operations in Thailand that stand to impact electoral integrity: 1) using of state resources to create and disseminate pro-establishment content which promotes a positive image of the government, army and monarchy; 2) weaponising disinformation to harass politicians and activists from marginalised groups such as women, LGBT+ and ethno-religious minorities which obstructs their meaningful electoral participation; 3) distorting information related to the electoral process and discrediting selected political parties and their policies thereby depriving voters of alternative information for their decision-making; and 4) stirring hatred and exacerbate existing ideological divisions within society leading to extreme political polarisation. Given these issues, Asia Centre recommends relevant stakeholders take the following key actions: restrain from undertaking information operations, identify state agencies and report the type and targets of information operations, focus on providing voters with reliable and verified electoral information, and take measures to ensure electoral integrity through free and fair elections. These and other measures will help cast a light on state-sanctioned information operations with a view to addressing their impact on election integrity and political participation.

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 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.

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

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.