Call it whiplash. After a year of counterintuitive elections shaped by rampant misinformation, governments have seized on the specter of “fake news” to squelch press freedoms in Southeast Asia, a region already infamous for ubiquitous censorship.
In Phnom Penh, a Cambodian minister cited U.S. President Donald Trump’s precedent to suggest that “foreign [news] agents” promote national interest or get out. A spokesperson of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte denounced the New York Times as “fake news.” A recent story in The Intercept about the Indonesian military was immediately deemed a “hoax.”
This year, World Press Freedom Day was held in Southeast Asia’s biggest city, Jakarta. The annual UNESCO event seeks to evaluate press freedoms around the world and pay tribute to journalists who have died in their line of work. In a report, Human Rights Watch praised the expansion of the Indonesian press after the Suharto dictatorship, but denounced the uptick in violence against journalists.
The term “fake news” exploded in popularity last November after the 2016 U.S. election, when commentators pointed to fabricated, inflammatory clickbait distributed through social media as both cause and evidence of the country’s polarization.
But like most useful cultural concepts, the term quickly evolved into an all-purpose punching bag, especially for those in power. The Russian Kremlin, Britain’s Arsenal football (soccer) team, and Donald Trump have all denounced reports by dubbing them “fake news” in recent months.
In Southeast Asia, the term is even more weaponizable because its democracies are relatively young and their presses still not firmly established. Even Indonesia, the largest Southeast Asian democracy, still has strong institutional memory of authoritarian censorship, according to former journalist and current Human Rights Watch researcher Andreas Harsono.
“There is an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship in many newsrooms due to abuses and threats by security forces and local authorities that go unpunished and that, most of the time, are not even rigorously investigated,” Harsono told VOA.
Indonesia’s balancing act
Indonesian Vice President Yusuf Kalla spoke at the UNESCO event, but notably declined to comment on the media situation in the provinces of Papua and West Papua (commonly denoted jointly as “Papua”).
The region has been a hotspot of human rights violations for decades, according to groups like Human Rights Watch, but journalists still cannot freely report from there.
Indonesia’s Press Council chairman told reporters the Papua situation was not discussed because it is a domestic, rather than international, concern.
“This is an international forum. What we are discussing are the relations between Indonesian and international issues,” he said.
Media freedom in Papua was discussed, however, in the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Periodic Review of Indonesia’s human rights record earlier this week.
Indonesia is ranked 124th out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom index.
The tricky part of Indonesia’s relationship with “fake news” is that it has, in fact, played a significant role in recent politics. False reports and conspiracy theories about the Chinese-Christian former Jakarta governor Ahok, and Chinese-Christians in general, inflamed the electorate in recent months, and likely contributed to his recent loss against a Muslim candidate who took advantage of sectarian tensions.
Many false reports circulate through WhatsApp, which is hugely popular in Indonesia and incredibly difficult to fact-check since it’s a self-contained messaging app.
“Most of the people here cannot differentiate news and social media,” said Arfi Bambani, Secretary-General of Indonesia’s Alliance for Independent Journalists.”They think that whatever is published on social media is news.”
Still, say experts, fake news should not be used as an all-purpose pretext for censorship.
“The National Police should investigate individuals who spread hate speech and hoaxes in Indonesia,” said Harsono, “not demand the media to commit self-censorship.”
By the same token that governments use fake news as a weapon, they could also use their mandate to debunk it. There are some nascent attempts to debunk fake news within ASEAN. Two countries run state-sponsored “fact-check” websites: Malaysia’s sebenarnya.my (which means “actually”) and Singapore’s Factually.
Neither country is a exactly a pillar of free press, and Malaysia is already striking an ominous tone by promising to jail those who circulate fake news on WhatsApp.
Indonesia, with a large and fairly stable democracy, is in a better place to address press freedom than many of its regional peers. In January, the government announced plans for its own agency to counter fake news.
“I’d guess that the public officials who complain about fake news’ just don’t know what to do themselves, and so they ask the media to do something about it,” said Bambani. But the only way journalists can counter fake news is to, well, publish real news, he said. And censorship, ironically, stymies that.