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Rise in Cyberlaws Across Southeast Asia Spell Bad News for Human Rights & Democracy

This article is part of a series on the state of civil society organisations (CSOs), which is the focus of International Civil Society Week (ICSW), sponsored by CIVICUS, and currently taking place in Belgrade, April 8-12.
Josef Benedict is a civic space researcher with global civil society alliance, CIVICUS.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, Apr 9 2019 (IPS) - Around the globe, cyberspace has become the new battleground in the fight for the heart and soul of democracy. And Southeast Asia is fast becoming one of the global hotspots where the screws are being tightened on freedom of expression online.

Governments across the region have been passing legislation ostensibly aimed at regulating online space, often in the name of national security or to preserve public morality. But the laws mask a more insidious intention: the stifling of dissent and the silencing of views that deviate from the state-ordained line.

The trend of online restrictions is a continuation of the long-running campaign of free speech and media freedom restrictions that many states have been exercising offline. The effect of the legislation is to create a climate of intimidation and self-censorship in a space – social media – that has proven an effective tool in awareness-raising and mobilisation around rights.

It comes as no surprise that such tools of repression are on the rise in authoritarian-leaning countries such as Vietnam and Thailand – the former a one-party state, the latter ruled for the last five years by a military junta – in a bid to try and influence and control the popular narrative.

In Thailand, for example, a controversial cyberlaw was passed in February allowing the state to access anyone’s personal or business information, and to seize and hold any computers or electronic devices suspected of being used to commit cybercrimes.

No provision has been made for citizens to appeal such seizures. The purported justification is to prevent government websites and databases from being hacked, but the reality is that this law infringes on people’s right to privacy.

What makes it even worse is that this cyberlaw has not come out of nowhere – it builds on the existing Computer Crimes Act in Thailand, a draconian piece of legislation under which hundreds of activists have been prosecuted since the 2014 military coup for exercising their right to free speech online.

It is one thing to outlaw hate speech, expressed online or offline, that could potentially incite violence or discord. It is quite another when all elements of daily life and business are being policed and censored by an omnipotent Big Brother-like system, serving to chill free expression through a climate of fear.

But in Southeast Asia, such repressive laws are proliferating. Last year, Vietnamese legislators approved a cybersecurity law that tightens control of the internet.

Having come into effect in January amid widespread protests that saw demonstrators being beaten and arrested last year, it gives the government sweeping powers to censor social media posts and the authority to force global technology companies operating in the country to hand over users’ data, which they have to store locally.

Many of these laws are vaguely worded, are overbroad in their scope and are widely open to interpretation – and abuse.

Vietnam’s new law, by way of example, stipulates that it is a crime to post material online that “offends the nation, the national flag, the national emblem, the national anthem, great people, leaders, notable people and national heroes”.

Elsewhere, in states such as Malaysia and Indonesia with multiparty democratic systems of government, the iron fist regulating online activity is often more subtle but no less alarming.

In both countries, laws governing the digital space seem intent on silencing criticism and dissent. In Malaysia, lawyer and activist Fadiah Nadwa Fikri was investigated under the the Communications and Multimedia Act for an article she wrote online that some perceived as being disrespectful to the country’s monarchy.

In Indonesia, activist and human rights defender Robertus Robet was detained for violating the Law on Electronic Information and Transactions after a video of him criticising the military was posted on social media platforms.

Further complicating matters in the region is when a government institutes laws that forbid what it construes as blasphemy or religious defamation. This turns the state into the self-styled arbiter of public morality and raises the spectre of modern-day witch hunts.

It’s becoming increasingly common for people who are peacefully exercising their freedom of speech on social media platforms across the region to be arrested, prosecuted and punished for criticising religion or “state ideology” – or even, in some cases, for promoting minority or LGBTIQ+ rights.

Amid the physical assaults, intimidation and threats of punitive action for not toeing the official line, there is a faint glimmer of hope: citizens and civil society in the region are railing against the curtailing of their online freedoms, and have made some significant gains.

The Thai Netizen Network managed to force some important amendments to the new cyberlaw before it was passed, in Indonesia a Constitutional Court legal challenge also led to progressive revisions to the restrictive legislation, and in Malaysia, civil society is lobbying the new government for similar amendments.

While Southeast Asia is certainly not alone when it comes to statutory moves to silence critics and quash online dissent in the name of national stability and security – similar censorship is being mulled or rolled out in China, Russia, in some European and African countries, and even the United States – the training and installing of actual “cyberpolice” in places such as Vietnam cannot be allowed to go unchallenged.

Media and citizens are being effectively gagged from having legitimate conversations through this social policing, potentially leading to increasing self-censorship, a stunting of vigorous intellectual debate and weakening of state accountability.

In the region and beyond, the crisis is of serious concern to human rights defenders and organisations, who see the grave implications for democracies. The issue is a key focus for more than 800 civil society leaders and activists seeking sustainable solutions at International Civil Society Week (ICSW), the largest global civil society gathering currently underway in Belgrade, Serbia.

It’s encouraging that David Kaye, the United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, has spoken out strongly against such cyberlaws and called on states to repeal any legislation that criminalises or unduly restricts expression online.

But it is also incumbent on all of us as civil society to deepen our national and international advocacy efforts in this area.

Civil society activists and rights defenders cannot afford to ease up on the pressure, as the quality of democracy is taking a serious hit due, ironically, to the sustained squeezing of the very space that holds such rich potential to deepen democracy – the digital realm.

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