Containing spread of unfavourable and false information
Ambassador Muhammad Zamir
In the recent past, we have seen several civil society activists in Bangladesh being critical about their alleged inability to use cyberspace and the social media to share information. They have also been pointing out that the existing Digital Security Act has been a negative measure in terms of democratic rights. The Editor’s Council has also expressed its worry over cases filed against journalists within this format.
On one side we have had claims that intervention in the spread of a news item is not only the controlling of a person’s right to information but also taking away a citizen’s right of freedom of information. It has been reiterated that such a process affects transparency and accountability. On the other hand, we have many pointing out that spreading false news and disinformation with its own denotations can affect the paradigm of stability and security.
This persuaded me to try and find out what is happening elsewhere- particularly in how our neighboring region of Southeast Asia is tackling this problem.
For some time we have noticed efforts by relevant authorities to contain dissemination of news in this region- that, according to them, are not examples of responsible journalism, The focus has been on items in the social media, electronic media and print media aimed at supposedly creating wrong connotations of news.
Former Singapore politician Dr. James Gomez, now Chair of the Asia Centre has revealed how some authoritarian governments in his region have undertaken measures to tackle the governance issue along with the question of accountability. It has been noted that some governments have been exploiting “fake news” as a political tool against their critics. This is being specially undertaken against those who are critical of government institutions.
Governments, for example in Singapore and the Philippines, are dismissing as fake news many critical opinions, research findings, and news content that are not in line with the government stance. However, this growing trend is now being interpreted as systematic attempts to curb freedom of expression and undermine the men, women, and organizations behind these dissenting opinions.
Apparently, since 2017, governments in Vietnam, Thailand, and elsewhere in the region have been introducing new legislation or revising existing laws to use against dissidents. These laws are held up by the authorities as necessary for fostering responsible communications and to protect social harmony. Critics have however been pointing out that some regimes have been using some of the Sections in these “vaguely” drafted laws to shield themselves from criticism by activists, particularly during election periods.
In this context, it has been recalled that Vietnam authorities in January 2019 took into custody Nguyen Van Vein using Article 109 of the 2015 Criminal Code for his alleged attempt to “overthrow the people’s administration.” Nguyen is known for being an environmental activist. It is understood that many members of his organization are apparently now in prison for human rights and pro-democracy activism. It is understood that Article 117 of the 2015 Criminal Code and the 2019 Cyber-security Law also provide a basis for authorities to press charges and punish those accused of spreading online “propaganda against the State.” Gomez has observed that over the past year some persons in Vietnam have also been charged under Article 117 for their comments on Facebook. Subsequently, the Vietnamese government pointed out to Facebook that the company had violated the country’s cyber-security law.
James Gomez has also drawn attention to alleged steps in Singapore to control civil society space. In this regard he has noted that ‘New Naratif’, an online news outlet has been facing difficulty within the matrix of regulatory space. Apparently, in April 2018, editors Kirsten Han and PJ Thum of this online news outlet decided to register their independent portal as a company, Observatory Southeast Asia (OSA), to gain a legal status. However, the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA) refused the application on the grounds that the proposed company’s objective was political in nature and that its funding was linked with George Soros’s Open Society Foundation.
The Philippines, in its own way, have also been carrying out its administrative response to alleged fake news circulated by the United Nations. It arose after Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, a Filipina UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people, made criticism of President Duterte’s highly controversial “war on drugs.”
I will desist from referring to what is happening in Myanmar where the present authoritarian regime garbed in the cover of false democracy have been resorting to arson, rape, kidnapping and murder to restrain freedom of information. We have seen what has happened to the Rohingyas.
There have been reports that such harsh approaches by the administration in several Southeastern Asian countries have drawn attention not only of civil society actors elsewhere in the world but also international civil rights institutions. International journalists have also recorded their feelings about the need for racial equality. Many have also strongly registered their views in cyberspace. However, any durable solution has not been possible because of the misuse of cyberspace for disinformation warfare.
People in general tend to believe things that confirm their prejudices no matter how bizarre they are. This is where the problem begins. In the era of social media, which breaks the traditional notion of gatekeeping in the flow of information, one has to be much more cautious in relying on content found online. People need to be their own gatekeepers. They should control their predispositions and take time to verify a claim or information from random online sources before passing it on.
Nevertheless, one needs to understand that the flow of information should be free. There has to be transparency for achieving accountability. However, this process needs to be free of politicization and responsible. Misuse of this dynamics through “gujob” will otherwise leave stains on clean sheets. This applies to activists as well as those charged with upholding good governance. We must all remember that we are all living in a world without frontiers.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance. He can be reached at [email protected]