‘Fake news’ spurs a crack­down in Asia

Tai­wan, Thai­land, Cam­bo­dia, Viet­nam and oth­ers are pass­ing stricter speech laws.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Ralph Jen­nings Jen­nings is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent.

TAIPEI, Tai­wan — Su Chii-cherng, head of the Tai­wan govern­ment of­fice in Osaka, com­mit­ted sui­cide in Septem­ber af­ter he was crit­i­cized in main­stream news re­ports for not hav­ing made ar­range­ments to res­cue Tai­wanese tourists tem­po­rar­ily stranded at a typhoon-flooded Ja­panese air­port.

As it turned out, the for­eign min­istry in Taipei said, the 61-year-old diplo­mat was not al­lowed to send in ve­hi­cles, which meant the crit­i­cism, based on an uniden­ti­fied trav­eler’s tip, was not jus­ti­fied. High­level Tai­wanese of­fi­cials are now cit­ing the in­ci­dent as they seek to strengthen penal­ties for the spread of what they deem false re­ports on nat­u­ral dis­as­ters and food safety.

Tai­wan is one of at least seven coun­tries across east­ern Asia that have re­cently en­acted or are con­sid­er­ing laws to limit or gain ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion about in­ter­net re­ports that of­fi­cials claim are false, spec­u­la­tive, ex­ag­ger­ated, or truth­ful yet hurt­ful. As does Pres­i­dent Trump, they of­ten lump such re­ports un­der a vague, and of­ten mis­lead­ing, heading: fake news.

For na­tions with oneparty rule, reg­u­la­tions squelch­ing false or sen­si­tive sto­ries em­a­nat­ing from so­cial me­dia would re­sult in an ex­pan­sion of long-stand­ing con­trols over the tra­di­tional mass me­dia.

Such ef­forts have been on the rise over about the last two years due in part to the dif­fi­culty of iden­ti­fy­ing the au­thors of en­crypted mes­sages sent on so­cial me­dia, said Cedric Al­viani, East Asia bureau direc­tor with the French-based me­dia rights group Re­porters With­out Bor­ders.

In these na­tions, the rise of smart­phones has led to significant in­creases in so­cial me­dia and over­all in­ter­net use. Smart­phone ship­ments to six emerg­ing South­east Asian coun­tries tracked by mar­ket re­search firm IDC to­taled 100 mil­lion in 2017, up from 22.5 mil­lion in 2012.

Govern­ment of­fi­cials in South­east Asia are fo­cus­ing on so­cial me­dia com­men­tary that causes “rep­u­ta­tion harm” to them­selves and their in­sti­tu­tions, said James Gomez, board chair with the non­profit hu­man rights group Asia Cen­ter in Bangkok.

“Un­like in the U.S., where Trump is at­tack­ing to do rep­u­ta­tion dam­age to the fact-based tra­di­tional me­dia,” he said, “in Asia, govern­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tives are fo­cused on dis­cred­it­ing crit­ics.”

In Thai­land, au­thor­i­ties, cit­ing “fake news,” have been strength­en­ing their 12-yearold Com­puter Crimes Act to stop anti-govern­ment crit­i­cism, re­gard­less of whether the state­ments are true. The law, ini­tially aimed at stop­ping slights to the monar­chy, has ex­panded to dis­cour­age crit­i­cism of the mil­i­tary govern­ment that took power in 2014, said Thiti­nan Pong­sud­hi­rak, a po­lit­i­cal science pro­fes­sor at Chu­la­longkorn Univer­sity in Thai­land.

In Cam­bo­dia, a reg­u­la­tion is­sued in June au­tho­rized an in­ter-min­is­te­rial work­ing group to con­trol “all dis­sem­i­na­tion of in­for­ma­tion” that threat­ened security, the econ­omy or for­eign re­la­tions.

A Viet­namese law that took ef­fect Jan. 1 re­quired for­eign and do­mes­tic in­ter­net ser­vices to hand over user data so au­thor­i­ties could in­ves­ti­gate the spread of any re­port and the iden­tity of its author.

The Cy­ber Security Law calls for providers in­clud­ing Face­book and Google to sup­ply user in­for­ma­tion and delete con­tent at the govern­ment’s re­quest. In­di­vid­ual senders of what is deemed false in­for­ma­tion can al­ready be sen­tenced to prison un­der ex­ist­ing law for at­tempt­ing to un­der­mine state security.

Au­thor­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ments in Viet­nam and China have more mus­cle to fight what they brand “fake news,” be­cause they al­ready own or cen­sor the ma­jor news out­lets, Gomez said.

China’s 2017 Pro­vi­sions for the Ad­min­is­tra­tion of In­ter­net News In­for­ma­tion Ser­vices re­quire that on­line news providers re­print in­for­ma­tion from gov­ern­men­tap­proved or­ga­ni­za­tions with­out chang­ing the con­tent.

Viet­namese of­fi­cials worry that so­cial me­dia, which is not proac­tively cen­sored as it is in China, will spread re­ports that dam­age their rep­u­ta­tions, said Trung Nguyen, in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions dean at Ho Chi Minh City Univer­sity of So­cial Sciences and Hu­man­i­ties.

The Thai pro­vi­sion helps the mil­i­tary govern­ment pros­e­cute those they say are threat­en­ing na­tional security, Pong­sud­hi­rak said.

Vi­o­la­tors face up to 15 years in prison, he said, and “the dra­co­nian law has led to ris­ing self-cen­sor­ship.”

Cam­bo­dian of­fi­cials be­lieve false re­ports un­der­mine the govern­ment, cause so­cial unrest and pose a “gen­uine threat to na­tional security,” said Carl Thayer, emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of New South Wales in Aus­tralia. The govern­ment, run by the party of for­mer Kh­mer Rouge com­man­der Hun Sen since 1985, has long re­pressed ra­dio and print, Thayer said, so now it wants to hob­ble so­cial me­dia used by po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents.

Some Asian gov­ern­ments have found that li­bel codes and other ex­ist­ing laws do not cover acts they deem ac­tion­able. The Tai­wanese tipster was charged un­der the coun­try’s So­cial Or­der Main­te­nance Act. But a judge threw out the case for lack of ev­i­dence that the de­fen­dant had caused a “so­cial dis­tur­bance.”

In Viet­nam, of­fi­cials will prob­a­bly en­force their new law spar­ingly to avoid mak­ing cit­i­zens an­gry, Nguyen pre­dicted.

Malaysian of­fi­cials, mean­while, re­pealed leg­is­la­tion en­acted in Au­gust af­ter find­ing that a 1998 law al­ready cov­ered much of its con­tent.

In Sin­ga­pore, a city-state with a strong rul­ing party known for be­ing tough on crime, leg­is­la­tors are con­sid­er­ing reg­u­la­tions to strengthen me­dia con­trols that are al­ready in place. Jour­nal­ists can now be jailed for li­bel, threats to na­tional security or “ill will” against re­li­gious or racial groups, Re­porters With­out Bor­ders said.

Even as gov­ern­ments rush to strengthen their laws, some con­tinue to spin their own false re­ports in news out­lets they con­trol in or­der to dis­credit crit­ics, said Gomez of the Asia Cen­ter in Bangkok.

“Crit­ics are find­ing them­selves on the back foot,” he said, “be­com­ing vic­tims of gov­ern­men­tal fake news that is then am­pli­fied by the com­pli­ant tra­di­tional me­dia, and be­ing vil­i­fied on­line by govern­ment-aligned trolls and anony­mous so­cial me­dia ac­counts.”

‘In Asia, govern­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tives are fo­cused on dis­cred­it­ing crit­ics.’ — James Gomez, Asia Cen­ter hu­man rights group

Manan Vat­syayana AFP/Getty Images

HANOI is among a num­ber of Asian gov­ern­ments crack­ing down on so-called fake news on so­cial me­dia.

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