Freedom of speech and a free press are crucial tenets of democratic society. They help hold our leaders accountable, and are fundamental human rights. Yet, somehow, it is when our need for reliable information and accountable leadership is at its greatest, that it becomes practice for a state to muzzle its citizens.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been one such example. Since the emergence of the virus in Wuhan, Chinese authorities have been accused of manipulating official statistics and using police to stifle information from doctors and journalists. Concerningly, it is the not the only country fielding such accusations.
The global health crisis has brought another issue for us to seriously consider: is the emergency regulation of information by the state in our best interests; or is it being used as a political tool to further authoritarian influence and stifle government criticism?
“You’re fake news”
Enabled by a meteoric rise in popularity of social media, widespread misinformation has been a quintessential 21st century problem. President Donald Trump popularised a term for it: Fake news.
Fake news is defined as “fabricated information in a news media format”. Disinformation is deliberately misleading information distributed with the intent to propagate an agenda. While the two terms are often used interchangeably, disinformation is not restricted to news articles, and encompasses a variety of media, including images, video and text.
In the wake of COVID-19, there has been an understandable global panic, and fake news and disinformation have brought forth incredulous conspiracy theories to fan the flames.
In the UK, theories that 5G towers are linked to the spread of the coronavirus sparked arson and vandalism. In Australia, similar theories combined with anti-mask sentiments have led to dangerous protests in Melbourne. The United States has also been dealing with these issues, and conspiracy theories like ‘COVID doesn’t exist’ have been harming social distancing efforts.
In India, COVID sparked a fierce wave of anti-China WhatsApp propaganda, adding tensions to an already fragile relationship between the two countries. The United States has seen similar developments, with anti-China sentiment rising 21 per cent in 2020 according to Politico.
Moreover, unfounded claims about the efficacy of vaccines by the anti-vaxxer movement could delay the achievement of herd immunity once a vaccine is deployed.
Fake news legislation across South East Asia has aimed to combat these outcomes. The Singaporean government reported that it debunked 40 fake news articles and provided clarifications related to coronavirus between late January and early May. India, Vietnam, and Thailand also reported success in arresting disinformation perpetrators.
It is likely that tougher laws and fines will provide much-needed discouragement for instigators. The involvement of social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, in these efforts provide some hope that freedom of speech may yet be preserved.
However, there is evidence to suggest that the erosion has already begun.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Fake news clampdown a double-edged sword?
There has been a marked increase in the number of journalists jailed in recent years. The International Press Institute (IPI) has found that during the COVID-19 pandemic there have been 102 arrests/charges pressed against journalists in the Asia-Pacific.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, (CPJ) found that only 65 journalists had been imprisoned in the same region in 2017.
As the sources are different and data collection for 2020 is incomplete, it is difficult to perfectly compare those two figures. However, it indicates a concerning trend emerging in the Indo-Pacific region.
The Philippine government has allegedly abused pandemic-related measures to punish its critics and muzzle free press. The Human Rights Watch has directed similar accusations at Thai authorities and the Cambodian government. Myanmar, Malaysia, India and Singapore are among countries that have passed emergency laws during the pandemic providing the government with unprecedented power to determine what constitutes legitimate news.
There is considerable scope for expansion of authoritarian power, and data suggests that it is already happening.
Sunlight is the best disinfectant.
While harsh penalties can provide a short-term solution to disinformation, a long-term solution must involve raising awareness and educating citizens about the importance of thinking critically in a digital world.
While ASEAN ministers took a big step in 2018, issuing a declaration for a Framework to reduce fake news and improve digital literacy, emergency powers must also be scrutinised. Establishing independent media watchdogs and fostering strong judicial systems are non-negotiables.
If sunlight is the best disinfectant, it is transparency and accountability that will help us fight the disinformation pandemic. One can only hope in the years to come, neither face-mask nor muzzle will be a common feature in our lives.