In their April 7th edition, De Standaard, a Flemish daily newspaper in Belgium,  publishes an article titled In Azië heet perscensuur ‘strijd tegen fake news’ (meaning In Asia, press censorship is disguised as ‘the battle against fake news) which includes a special interview with ALiGN director Merlyna Lim. The article itself is in Dutch (a pdf version of the news article is available here). Below is an English summary.

Largely based on her interview with Professor Merlyna Lim, the reporter Giselle Nath discusses how Asia is at the forefront of enacting laws and regulations against fake news. In India, the minister of information Smriti Irani proposed a new law for the media which will put journalists accused of fake news to immediately lose their press accreditation. In the Indian case, there is no legal definition of fake news, opening the door for intimidation and censorship practices of journalists in the country.

Similarly, other countries in Asia have started crusades against press and internet freedom since the beginning of 2018, disguising them as a battle against fake news. Trump buzzword, according to Lim, “has made journalists and reporters’ lives throughout the region difficult”. In the Philippines, president Duterte has taken a legal action against the online news site Rappler, calling it a fake news channel for a critical reportage of his drug war — Rappler reporters are now being barred from all Duterte’s meetings.

Myanmar recently revived its old censorship law to arrest two reporters from Reuters and now calls all reporting on ethnic cleansing on the Rohingya ‘fake’. Thailand (under a military junta) and Singapore are also putting more restrictions on free speech.

The most striking example is Malaysia which introduces a law that penalizes individuals who spread fake news with six years in prison and an enormous fine. This law, unsurprisingly, comes forth during the preparation of the upcoming general election where the ruling party under the Prime Minister Najib Razak has to face the growing opposition. In the meantime, the Prime Minister is caught in the biggest corruption scandal ever in Malaysia which made news worldwide, except in his own country. Merlyna Lim calls the Malaysian new law on fake news an uncouth attempt to keep people silent.

“There is a wave of democratic reform movements in Asia [in the last two decades] which became more prominent in the last seven to ten years”, says Lim. Along with this wave, Lim says, “There’s been a growing use of social media, which provides spaces for the young, urban middle class users, to use it, mainly for social purposes, but also to be political and to collectively imagine the possibility of alternative future, that is different that the authoritarianism. (Some of) They want reform.” However, reform is not easy. “The problem is that many Asian countries have an authoritarian past. Free press without propaganda, factual evidence, institutions that are accountable to the people: it is all so new to them.”

Lim also argues that, additionally, there’s a global undercurrent of politics that makes the reform processes even more problematic. “Politics itself has become marketing-driven. It’s commercialized more and more. Politicians sell their brands, not ideas nor policies. The underlying problem is not fake news, but fake democracy.”