The authoritarianism of some pandemic responses in the Indo-Pacific has received considerable international criticism. However, many responses to the veritable infodemic afflicting the region have often been no less authoritarian and deserve no less condemnation.
The term ‘infodemic’ refers to seismic increases in information about a given topic in a short space of time. Further, the information can be subcategorized to include both misinformation (unknowingly false and benevolently spread) and disinformation (knowingly false and maliciously spread). Infodemics have been a growing social issue in the Indo-Pacific region for years.
The significance of the issue is illustrated by the increasing digital authoritarianism in the region. In recent years, more central governments have turned to digital technology in order to suppress, surveil and quash journalists and the digital landscape more broadly. In 2019, Singapore passed its controversial Protection From Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, which allows government ministers to prosecute individuals who share online falsehoods deemed contrary to the “public interest”. Similarly, Thailand’s 2016 Computer-Related Crime Act allows the government to determine falsehoods and order their removal from online forums.
Of course, some products of the infodemic are absurd and vacuous, such as the widely-circulated notion that 5G is the root cause of the virus, or that “cosmic-level sound waves” produced by wide-spread clapping in India slowed its spread. Other products, however, have the potential to seriously compromise public health. For example, several hundred deaths in Iran followed widely-circulated misinformation that methanol consumption would cure the virus. Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, the worsening of the infodemic during the coronavirus pandemic has intensified digital authoritarianism in the region; with governments eager to distil truth from falsehood in such unstable times.
Vietnam has introduced extortionate fines for those found guilty of sharing “false, untruthful, distorted, or slanderous information.” In addition to fines, some Facebook users such as Ma Phung Ngoc Phu have received jail sentences. Myanmar’s government has cited concerns over misinformation when blocking 221 websites guilty of perpetuating “fake news”. In India, journalists who reported on the dire circumstances faced by migrants during the pandemic have been booked by local authorities.
Though ostensibly undertaken in the name of public health, there are concerns that these initiatives are merely a pretext for the implementation or consolidation of authoritarian power. In recent years, Cambodia has received serious international criticism over the forcible dissolution of the main political opposition: the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). In March of this year, under the ad hoc Law on Governing the Country in a State of Emergency legislation, dozens of Cambodians were detained for sharing Covid-19 related misinformation, only being released after signing apology letters. It is reported that at least twelve of those detained had direct links to the CNRP. Of these affairs, the Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch asserted that “Prime Minister Hun Sen is busy tightening his grip on power and throwing political opposition figures and critics in jail while the world is distracted by Covid-19”.
Indonesia has gone down a similar path. Under a state directive issued to the Indonesian National Police in April, citizens may be prosecuted for the circulation of Covid-19 related misinformation and disinformation, the fraudulent sale of health equipment and, most concerningly, criticism of president Joko Widodo or his government. Of the final provision, Reporters Without Borders’ Daniel Bastard accused Indonesian Police of “taking advantage of the need to combat disinformation linked to the Covid-19 pandemic in order to rein in journalists who might want to publish information critical of President Joko Widodo or his government”. The journalist watchdog also expressed concerns that, in addition to penalising political dissent, the Indonesian government may covertly usher in its long-opposed and sweeping revisions to the Criminal Code under the guise of a disinterested pandemic response.
With the international community focusing its gaze upon more immediate problems stimulated by the pandemic, the conditions are ripe for power-grabs such as these. It is imperative that governments in the region are not allowed to transition towards or consolidate authoritarian power under the pretext of their pandemic responses without criticism. In a hotly contested strategic environment, with power dynamics changing constantly, a sharp and unchecked increase in the proportion of authoritarian regimes could prove a decisive and destabilizing factor in the broader battle for the Indo-Pacific.