Fake News Legislation Criminalizes Activists


ON September 30, 2021 in Cambodia, journalist Youn Chhiv was sentenced to one year in prison and fined 2 million riel ($ 500) for inciting violence, after reporting on the eviction of villagers and destruction of their property on state land. complaints. No judicial investigation was carried out before the trial, the authorities considering that it was a case of flagrante delicto.

“Fake news laws” have been put in place in countries in East and Southeast Asia to deal with the uncontrollable spread of disinformation in the digital age. While these laws are genuinely designed and formulated to combat the threat of fake news, they have been politicized and used against government criticism and dissenting voices. The Covid-19 emergency decrees and provisional laws have reinforced this trend to stifle criticism of the crisis management of those in power.

Key targets

Six key targets accused of disseminating “fake news” are identified: journalists, civil society activists, opposition leaders, student activists, artists and technology companies. Loosely worded provisions easily turn legitimate comments and criticism based on specific evidence into libel and scares.

Any questioning of government policies can be pursued, having a chilling effect on freedom of expression. To remedy such excessive criminalization, independent agencies should be tasked with identifying “fake news”, in collaboration with fact-checking groups. In addition, alternative penalties should be preferred to criminal penalties and guided by the principle of proportionality.

Journalists everywhere pay the price for repression when their reports are unpleasant to those in power. Just doing their job – and doing it well – can expose them to criminal laws. The resulting self-censorship of the media and independent journalists leaves the field open to state-sponsored media and doctored information.

“Fake news” laws are commonly used to combat political opponents. In Singapore, the infamous Protection Against Falsehood and Online Manipulation (Pofma) Act 2019 was used in its first months of existence against four opposition figures ahead of the 2020 general election. By ordering them to post corrections on their online publication, the ruling party is ensuring that their views cannot be publicly challenged.

Authoritarian rulers are also notorious for eavesdropping on conversations and meetings of their political opponents. On September 9, the unconstitutionally dissolved CNRP saw Prime Minister Hun Sen infiltrate the virtual room and threaten the exiled leaders never to return to Cambodia if they “continued to work against national interests” . While the right to privacy is protected by the Constitution and several international human rights treaties ratified by Cambodia, the executive branch does not hesitate to manipulate the provisions relating to false information in order to infringe the law. the privacy of activists and political opponents, and then indict them with charges. like insulting the king.

Ordinary citizens are also facing criminal charges on “fake news” charges: in February 2020, a security guard based in West Kowloon (Hong Kong) was the first person to be arrested under the Section 20 of the Summary Offenses Ordinance for sharing an audio clip online that raised concern among colleagues on sick leave – and called on the public to avoid the area, amid the ongoing pandemic .

Fake news criminals are often the same people who are prosecuted under defamation and lese majesty laws. On July 22, 2021, 12 Thai pro-democracy student activists were charged with royal defamation and sedition. The charges refer to rallies organized by students in October 2020 to demand reforms to the country’s political system.

The final target group for “fake news” legislation is technology companies. These are not targeted to create disinformation but to allow their spread. In Vietnam, the 2018 cybersecurity bill requires tech companies to have an office in the country so they can force them to remove content that the government considers “fake news.” Heavy fines cause tech companies to be overzealous and remove all “risky” content. By targeting online platforms, governments have acquired a powerful tool of censorship.

In contrast, on September 29, 2021, South Korea’s ruling party agreed to withdraw its “fake news” bill amid public outcry that it would restrict press freedom and instill censorship. Instead, the ruling party and its opposition will work together to amend and adapt existing laws and avoid excessive criminalization.

Global backlash

A global backlash against “fake news” legislation is emerging from the observed manipulation and abuse of well-founded provisions by governments to target opponents and silence critics. Vague formulations and politicized application are on the radar of human rights organizations.

Again in Cambodia, the ruling CPP faces fresh criticism for its use of defamation and incitement provisions to quell political opposition from activists, political leaders or human rights defenders. In early 2021, nearly 150 opposition figures and supporters were tried, many in absentia, many on charges of “incitement to commit a crime”.

Most fake news laws don’t provide a very clear definition of what will be prosecuted, making it possible to punish mere opinions. Another problem lies in identifying and investigating fake news. As long as it remains in the hands of the government or a highly politicized administrative body, the application will remain biased.

The biased use of fake news laws results in total impunity for leaders and government officials, even though they are known to spread disinformation, while the groups described above are scrutinized and can be condemned for whatever reason. unpleasant statement. There is a blatant injustice.

To remedy this situation, a review of existing laws is necessary, in order to change the language and adapt it to international standards. The application of the law should then be entrusted to an independent institution. Such precautions would make it possible to fight disinformation more effectively while protecting fundamental human rights such as freedom of expression and opinion. In Cambodia in particular, it is the very participation in the political life of the Kingdom that is at stake.

Sam Rainsy is the acting chairman of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and former chairman of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats (CALD).

About Michael S. Montanez

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