Written by Maurisa Zinira
Although the right to expression is guaranteed in the universal declaration of human rights, its practical fulfillment is not always ideal. In the digital era where information disclosure encourages diversity of expression, the fulfillment of the right to freedom of speech is often hampered by regulatory mechanisms made by the state. In four ASEAN countries (Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam), as noted by Soombatpoonsiri and An Luong, for example, this right is restricted by the state’s politicization of “fake news”. Often without clear definition of what constitutes “fake news”, these countries make use of the allegation to silence the opposition and limit citizens’ digital activities considered detrimental to political stability.
The 9th Reading in Social Sciences (RISOS) raised the issue of repression in digital media in a discussion entitled “Represi Digital dengan Dalih Melawan Hoaks: Pengalaman Empat Negara ASEAN”. The forum which was held on September 30, 2022, discussed the article of Janjira Sombatpoonsiri and Dien Nguyen An Luong entitled “Justifying Digital Repression Via “Fighting Fake News”: A Study of Four Southeast Asian Autocracies”, by inviting three discussants including Diah Kusumaningrum—a lecturer at the Faculty of Social Sciences. and Political Science, UGM, Damar Juniarto—executive Director of SAFEnet (Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network), and Shita Laksmi—executive director of Tifa Foundation.
Digital Repression in Four ASEAN Countries
Digital repression is a real challenge to democracy. In today’s digital era, when citizens should have free space to express their opinions, concerns over allegations of violating digital laws continue to haunt citizens who are critical of the government. Although regulation on the use of digital media by the government is permitted, even in some cases is necessary, such a regulation is widely used as a control/surveillance mechanism in the interests of the authorities. Even though Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly guarantees that every citizen has an equal right to speech, which reads “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression: this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas. through any media and regardless of frontiers”, digital repression is getting more rampant in use to silence opposition.
In their research of four ASEAN countries consisting of Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, Soombatpoonsiri and An Luong found several forms of digital repression used by the autocratic states. Through mechanisms of politicization and weaponization, the four countries made the agenda against “fake news” a strategy to delegitimize criticism and spread terror. The politicization of fake news is carried out by defining it as “false information” seasoned with the horror of the consequences but without an adequate explanation of what is considered true and false. The governments in these four countries use fake news as a weapon to tighten their position by 1) subjectively identifying information that is not in line with their agenda as untrue, and 2) criminalizing internet users accused of spreading fake news.
At the micro level, the politicization and weaponization of fake news manifests itself in four repressive mechanisms which include 1) legal persecution of users and platforms, 2) content restriction, 3) surveillance, and 4) internet shutdowns. In the first model, fake news are often used in trials to criminalize Internet users under the pretext of fake news. This trend was found in the four autocracies that target citizens, journalists, activists, and even politicians on charges of spreading misinformation because it contradicts the narrative of the government. This model of repression has increased in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic when criticisms of various government policies including the incompetence of handling COVID are considered hoaxes and/or fake news. The information conveyed by users is considered a danger to the public, providing legitimacy for the government to take legal action on allegations of disinformation.
Second, content blocks and takedowns apply in Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. These models of persecutions are carried out by requesting content removal from ISPs or telecommunication companies and social media platforms. According to Soombatpoonsiri and An Luong, these strategies have long been toolkits for internet control by Southeast Asian autocracies, even though the pretext of tackling fake news is something new for intensifying content restriction.
Third, digital surveillance takes place in Thailand and Vietnam. Systematic surveillance of online activities is carried out to control internet mobilization, especially those promoted by targeted Internet users. Thailand and Vietnam, which are aggressively fighting fake news, are compiling a complete digital infrastructure with strict supervision of social networks and the collection of user data. They even force ISPs, platforms, and computer software providers to store it.
Fourth, internet shutdowns, either partially or completely, occurred in Myanmar. Shutdowns can occur in part through the slowdown of mobile service in some areas and/or in some hours, and restrictions on certain platforms. But it can also happen completely by shutting down nation-wide networks, such as during the Myanmar coup in 2021. The junta imposed the internet shutdown for 30 days with the rhetoric of curbing fake news. They also expanded a night internet blackout for almost 50 days, suspended wireless broadband service for 18 days and blocked access to mobile internet 98 times in areas where mass mobilization took place.
In these four countries, Soombatpoonsiri and An Luong concluded that digital repression is employed in different ways depending on the cyber infrastructure they have and the digital market they develop. Thailand and Vietnam, which are developing the digital economy, for example, choose to suppress tech companies to take down content, rather than the whole shutdown of the Internet, as was the case with Myanmar. Such a case also happened in Indonesia. Although not severe repression as demonstrated by Soombatpoonsiri and An Luong, Indonesia exhibits potential digital persecution in recent years.
Digital Repression in the Indonesian Context
Regarding the local context, Indonesia’s cyber management shows the potential risks of persecution. Damar Juniarto—the director of SAFEnet (Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network) asserted that a digital panopticon appeared to be instrumentalized by the Indonesian government through politicizing and weaponizing electronic law including those regarding fake news. The Indonesian government repeatedly used its authority to shut down various sites, platforms and social media accounts accused of spreading hoaxes and spreading disinformation. Under such pretext, the state feels justified to act based on the electronic information and transaction law. Persecution according to Juniarto expands to labelling dissenting opinions as fake, criminalizing criticism, cutting off Internet access, surveillance by the police, instilling false evidence through hacking, and pressuring platforms for account deletion. Like in the other ASEAN countries observed by Soombatpoonsiri and An Luong, these kinds of digital repression are targeting mostly activists, journalists, and politicians.
Shita Laksmi—the executive director of TIFA foundation— confirmed the role of politics in internet management. There are layers of taskforces which the government has recently begun to intervene especially in the domain of the electronic system operators. Juniarto affirmed by mentioning that during certain political periods, there was a form of internet slowdown both spatially and temporally to limit citizens’ digital activities. Although it did not expand to nationwide internet shutdown, the kind of instrumentalizing cyber system for state politics demonstrates a digital repression that citizens are not always aware of.
Though Juniarto did not deny the need to regulate internet use towards democratic cyber governance, he emphasized that freedom of speech is a part of human right guaranteed by the constitution. The National Commission for Human Rights even constituted an instrument to guarantee freedom of speech through Standard Norms and Regulations No. 5 concerning Human Rights to Freedom of Opinion and Expression. Therefore, to minimize the state’s political intervention in cyber systems, Juniarto proposed that digital management be administered by involving multiple stakeholders through co-regulation-based systems due to multiple layers of taskforces that cannot and should not be monopolized by the government.
Indeed, the research findings conducted by Soombatpoonsiri and An Luong are an alarming call to watch out for the danger of politicization and weaponization of cyber instruments by the ruling regime. Although Indonesia is not an autocratic country, the potential for digital repression intensifies, especially considering the tendency of the government to exploit the operation of electronic systems. Therefore, the pattern of cooperation with various parties needs to be enhanced to ensure the quality of transparent management and to fulfill citizens’ constitutional rights of data security. Along with that, Diah Kusumaningrum reminded participants of the need to advance the research conducted by Soombatpoonsiri and An Luong by looking at the development of digital life in terms of spatial and/or temporal variations, arguments for state capacity, orientation of contentiousness vs. horror of effect orientation, sanitizing dissent, and comparison of experiences from various countries. In doing so, the development and improvement of the digital world can be established from various aspects towards a democratic and inclusive cyber governance.
Recorded discussion here