Asia Centre, in collaboration with the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats (CALD) and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF), convened a two-day workshop on 25 September and 2 October 2021. These workshops, moderated by Mr. Celito Arlegue, Executive Director of CALD, is a follow-up to Asia Centre and CALD’s baseline study, ‘Defending Freedom of Expression: Fake News Laws in East and Southeast Asia’ published in February 2021.
On the first day, the main focus was on legal ways to address disinformation and how to mitigate the threats such legislation poses to freedom of expression. Hence, the participants considered the questions, “What legal measures can be mobilised to counter disinformation? How to address threats such laws pose to freedom of expression?”
Chair of CALD Sen. Francis ‘Kiko’ N. Pangilinan opened the first workshop session. In his welcome remarks, he recalled how for a long time disinformation has been rampant and has been threatening democracy. He called on every participant to be a good influencer for their networks: the best countermeasure to disinformation is the truth—as long as it comes out “fast, fair and fun”.
Thereafter, Dr. James Gomez, Regional Director of Asia Centre, outlined the evolution of legal measures used against disinformation. He pointed to an emerging approach known as the ‘Gateway’, which allows for a total surveillance and for shutting down the whole domestic internet system. With its very intrusive reach, it has instilled fear of surveillance and self-censorship among internet users, in particular journalists, human rights defenders and activists. To counter it, Dr. Gomez recommended the introduction of Privacy and Data Protection legislation to lessen fear of surveillance, and for the government to share information under a Right to Information Act.
Reacting to the presentation, Asst. Prof. Dr. Lasse Schuldt, Legal Expert from Faculty of Law Thammasat University, examined how fake news laws infringe on freedom of expression, and whether a distinction between facts and opinions should be made clearer. He noted that fake news legislation tends to be vaguely-worded, hence it opens up to a wide interpretation by local authorities, allowing the use of such legislation against political opponents and dissenting voices. To counter this risk, Dr. Schuldt suggested procedural safeguards.
Members from the CALD network were then invited to give their input, drawing on their country’s experience with fake news. Kiat Sittheeamorn, Member of Parliament of the Democrat Party, Thailand, and Vice President of Liberal International recommended a regional or global approach rather than domestic legislation to tackle fake news and disinformation, as the issue transcends borders.
Helmy Hidayat, Foreign Affairs Directorate of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) gave an extensive presentation of his country’s background and the various ethnic and religious communities. In Indonesia, fake news, he stated, is often disseminated as part of hate speech intended to stir up religious tensions, as well as xenophobia. During the COVID-19 crisis, hoaxes were used to question the competency of the government as well as endangered public health.
In closing the first workshop, Cong. Francis Gerald “Blue” Abaya, Secretary General of CALD, acknowledged that laws originally aimed at fighting malicious disinformation are being used to censor critical content and protect government leaders from criticisms. The tightening of the grip on freedom of expression should be addressed by an urgent revision of laws to preserve fundamental freedoms and human rights.
On the second day the focus shifted to non-legal ways to address disinformation and the helpfulness of transparent information sharing and fact-checking from the media literacy. Hence, on the second day, participants discussed: “How can non-legal measures be used to address disinformation?”
Starting the workshop, Dr. James Gomez, Regional Director, Asia Centre, highlighted key non-legal measures used to combat disinformation. These included: government transparency, fact-checking, technology companies filtering, quality journalism and media and information literacy. He said, non-legal measures should be prioritized over legal measures as the latter often result in violations of freedom of expression. Non-legal approach also allows for more involvement of stakeholders, creating a holistic learning curve for both audiences and the organisations that implement the aforementioned measures.
Nukila Evanty, Executive Director of the Women Working Group, raised the important question of mobilizing non-legal measures against disinformation in Indonesia. She said the country is particularly vulnerable to disinformation as 89% of its citizens use the internet. Over 1,600 hoaxes related to COVID-19 have been listed from January 2020 to June 2021, with prominent politicians, ministers, and influential figures sometimes unknowingly spreading disinformation themselves. Ms. Evanty highlighted how religious figures and influencers are being levered into fact-checking information by the government.
Two representatives from CALD then brought input from their country’s experience in relation to non-legal measures. Ms. Peifen Hsieh of the Democratic Progressive Party of Taiwan, presented the Taiwan Model for combatting disinformation. Efficient government reactions that relay transparent, readable, fast responses, with regular disinformation correction broadcasts were key.
Mr. Hng Chee Way of Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia, presented the Malaysian government initiatives, centered around the creation of anti-fake news websites. He said, people respond well to trusted sources for combating misinformation. In the Malaysian case, the COVID-19 pandemic experience has shown, trusted sources of information can alleviate the impact of disinformation.
Moritz Kleine-Brockhoff, Head of Regional Office, Southeast and East Asia, Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom gave the closing remarks, outlining the main lessons from the workshops:
- No fake news is good: Misinformation undermines trust systematically
- We are not powerless: There are several measures we can take
- Fake news is ideologically and politically driven
Agreeing with the closing remarks, Dr. Robin Ramcharan, Executive Director, Asia Centre concluded that misinformation is a pressing issue that needs to be dealt with. The significance of countermeasures can not be understated. On that note, he welcomed the continued collaboration with CALD and FNF on workshop and training initiatives.
Asia Centre works on issues related to freedom of expression. If you would like to collaborate with the Centre on evidence-based research, co-coveneing activities or other projects. Send an expression of interest to email@example.com