A 14-year-old in Kampot, Cambodia, was detained and forced by police to publicly apologize after expressing fear about the coronavirus in a Facebook message. A Siem Reap man was arrested after posting social media videos criticizing Cambodia’s lackluster coronavirus testing. Altogether, dozens of Cambodians have been arrested in recent weeks after being accused of spreading fake news about COVID-19, released only after signing apology documents. Among those still in jail are four members of the banned opposition party. Lumping together criticism with misinformation, Prime Minister Hun Sen has branded those “who spread fake news” as “terrorists.”‘
The Cambodian cases are part of a broader trend of Southeast Asian governments using the pandemic as an excuse to crack down on free speech. As the coronavirus continues to spread across the region, governments have adopted new measures, including emergency decrees, to slow the rate of infections. These efforts—while crucial to protect public health—have been accompanied by sweeping free speech restrictions under the pretext of combating the spread of false information and maintaining public order.
Many of these new regulations have been used to arrest, detain, or question hundreds of people for criticizing government handling of the crisis, or merely for sharing coronavirus-related information. Authorities have also resorted to strict measures against the press to censor and stifle independent media, confirming fears that authoritarian governments are exploiting the pandemic to advance their political interests.
In my home country, Cambodia, 12 supporters or members of my former party, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, have been arrested since the outbreak began, under spurious charges including inciting military personnel to disobedience and provocation to commit offenses. The party was dissolved under politically motivated charges in 2017, and many of its former members, including myself, are now in exile.
This worrying trend looks set to continue. Last month, Cambodia’s National Assembly passed the state of emergency law, which grants the government broad powers to “monitor, observe, and gather information from all telecommunication mediums” and control the “distribution of information that could scare the public, [cause] unrest, or that can negatively impact national security.”
Given Hun Sen’s history of rights violations and use of any means necessary to retain power, this new law is likely to become yet another tool in his playbook to silence dissent.
Neighboring countries under strongman rule, including Thailand and the Philippines, have employed similar emergency powers to restrict information related to the virus. Just two days after the emergency law was passed in the Philippines, police filed criminal complaints against a mayor and two journalists for allegedly sharing false information that a patient with the virus had died at a hospital in Cavite City, close to Manila.
Governments are increasingly targeting reporters and news providers as part of efforts to curb so-called fake news, or they are using laws that grant authorities vague powers under the guise of national security. In Malaysia, the South China Morning Post journalist Tashny Sukumaran was questioned by the police for her reporting on the raids and arrests of hundreds of migrant workers and refugees as part of government efforts to tackle the pandemic. She is being investigated for provoking a breach of peace and misusing network facilities. In Myanmar, the Ministry of Communications and Transport blocked more than 200 websites, which they claimed spread fake news, under a provision that allows the government to suspend the use of telecommunication services for the “benefit of the people.” Such laws are problematic, as they confer extensive powers to states to determine what is true or false, as well as the type of information that can be published and accessed by the public.
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Wider efforts in the region to tackle misinformation about the virus also saw Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha warn that the government could suspend or edit news that is “untrue,” and Malaysian authorities have instructed the police and the Communications and Multimedia Commission to take “stern action” against online media that supposedly misreport the news.
There is no doubt that misinformation surrounding the coronavirus can be dangerous—leading, for instance, to false treatments or the scapegoating of vulnerable populations. But governments in Southeast Asia are resorting to disproportionate methods to fight misinformation by censoring both legitimate information and valid criticisms that are vital to the promotion of transparency and accountability.
Journalists in the region are already operating in hostile environments, and governments’ heavy-handed approach will make reporting more difficult and exacerbate the decline of free speech and independent media.
Beyond reporters, anyone who dares to speak on social media about COVID-19 is increasingly at risk of arrest—as the Cambodian cases demonstrate. In Thailand, a street artist was arrested and charged with causing damage to Bangkok’s main airport after posting on Facebook about the absence of coronavirus screenings there. Meanwhile, an Indonesian man who criticized President Joko Widodo on social media for his response to the virus was slapped with charges relating to defamation and inciting racial hatred.
Reportedly, more than 600 Facebook users in Vietnam have been hauled in by the police for questioning, while hundreds more in Malaysia are being investigated for disseminating supposed fake news. A Malaysian lawmaker, Fuziah Salleh, has also been charged for allegedly causing “fear or alarm to the public” for a video posted on her Facebook page that appeared to show crowded scenes at a border crossing—which the police said was an old video. While governments have the responsibility to counter misinformation, they should never resort to criminal prosecution or heavy censorship. This could stifle open communication and heavily restrict the right to freedom of expression, important to curbing the spread of the coronavirus. Instead, authorities should adopt less intrusive methods, such as supporting digital literacy and proactively disclosing information relating to COVID-19.
Now more than ever, citizens must remain vigilant and continue to urge their governments to uphold human rights during this pandemic. Even where parliaments are in recess, or where there is no longer an opposition, lawmakers past and present can use their influence to call out rights violations and support civil society and the media—which also play crucial roles in the fight against COVID-19.
While freedom of expression is not absolute and restrictions are warranted during crises, our leaders should be reminded that measures taken must remain necessary and proportionate to containing the virus. They should also not quash dissent or serve other aims. Although the spread of misinformation can undermine health efforts, ensuring an enabling environment for freedom of expression—including an independent media—will safeguard the free flow of information that is vital in tackling the pandemic, and which can effectively address misinformation.
Any curtailment of rights that can be implemented for an indefinite period must be closely monitored to prevent the deepening of human rights violations beyond COVID-19.
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