Building healthy information ecosystems is one of three pressing rule of law issues the World Justice Project (WJP) is working to advance in the Asia Pacific region. This theme together with judicial independence and access to justice for minorities were the focus of the December 8-9 Asia Pacific Justice Forum convened by WJP and co-hosted by Kemitraan and the Australia Indonesia Partnership for Justice 2.
By Abigail Boyce, Program Assistant, Engagement, World Justice Project
The rise of disinformation campaigns parallels a global rise of authoritarianism and has created a unique challenge to the rule of law: How can governments combat disinformation while protecting and respecting freedom of expression?
Freedom of expression is eroding worldwide, according to the WJP Rule of Law Index. Last year alone, this fundamental freedom declined in 63% of countries studied. Looking back further to 2015, the Index shows freedom of expression has declined in a whopping 81% of countries.
These global trends are mirrored regionally in the Asia Pacific, where many governments have passed laws with the stated purpose of combating disinformation. Unfortunately, these laws also serve to limit free speech and repress criticism.
At the WJP Asia Pacific Justice Forum held in Jakarta, Indonesia, in December, experts convened to discuss “Smart Regulations for a Healthy Information Ecosystem,” with the goal of identifying good practices for addressing the rise of disinformation without inhibiting freedom of expression.
John Nery, a leading journalist for Rappler in the Philippines and WJP board member, opened the discussion on healthy information ecosystems with two guiding questions. How can we understand the scope and scale of the disinformation problem, which is now reaching crisis proportions? And how can we meet these challenges by building healthy information ecosystems?
Three standout responses
Presentations on three exemplary responses to these challenges soon provided some answers. In South Korea in 2019, the National Assembly was on the verge of passing an amendment to allow civil damages for fake news, threatening an undue burden on journalists. Yet, the effort was derailed thanks to several factors, explained Dr. Ethan Hee-Seok Shin, legal analyst for the country’s Transitional Justice Working Group. Timely intervention by the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, public response to the bill, and widespread media opposition–which led to concerns of damage to South Korea’s international reputation–all helped halt the bill’s passage.
In Thailand, stemming disinformation faces three critical challenges, according to Kulachada Chaipipat, advisor for the Thai fact-checking platform Co-Fact, said these include the government’s asserted monopoly on truth, versus the right to know; state propaganda operations to boost popularity and undermine critics; and excessive use of security-related electronic information and defamation laws to stifle critics. However, Chaipipat explained, Co-Fact’s work shows these challenges can be mitigated through dynamic, nonpartisan approaches that prioritize trust building and enlist a broad base of fact-checking parties who are committed to promoting digital literacy.
In Pakistan, a six-year-old effort to address online harassment has delivered resources to more than 14,000 people–mainly women and girls. Hyra Basit of the Digital Rights Foundation of Pakistan explained how the group’s helpline provides legal and psychosocial support, and refers cases to relevant government agencies; legal and health services; and social media companies. Digital Rights Foundation also trains lawyers and federal agents on how to take on these cases with a gender perspective. Basit emphasized the importance of promoting education, closing the digital divide by improving digital literacy, training law enforcement, and reporting victims’ perspectives to combat online violence and harassment.
Policy challenges ahead
As exposure to disinformation creates public distrust and confusion and undermines democracy, hostile information campaigns could become the top security concern for governments across Asia Pacific. Such is the view of Shashi Jayakumar, who leads the Centre of Excellence for National Security in Singapore, where the government has already passed two laws with the intent of filtering out disinformation.
Jayakumar was joined in a panel discussion by Janjira Sombatpoonsiri of Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University, who cautioned that governments can overreach with such laws. Drawing on her research on the weaponization of fake news laws in South and Southeast Asia, Sombatpoonsiri used the example of Cambodia where the definition of disinformation is vague in laws seeking to combat it. As a result, they effectively limit the ability to criticize the government, she said. To address governmental manipulation of online spaces, she recommended the development of an international normative framework for tech companies to use to combat the spread of disinformation, thus removing governmental involvement.
Indonesia was also the focus of discussion, with Jim Nolan, legal counsel for the International Federation of Journalists in Australia, sharing examples of how the country’s fake news laws have been used to restrict media freedom. With one recently passed law restricting criticism of the government, Nolan called on civil society and media to band together to combat these laws.
Rule of law challenges in the digital space
Rounding out the panel, co-founder Aribowo Sasmoto of the Indonesian “hoax-buster” organization MAFINDO named three main challenges to countering disinformation while upholding the rule of law. Digital space and social media are borderless, he said, regulation lags behind innovation, and regulating digital space can be an attempt to restrict freedom of speech. Because regulations on digital space can go too far and cause real harm to individuals and society, Samsito argued that regional and international solidarity are essential to ensuring the rights of journalists, activists, and citizens are protected.
Learn more about the Asia Pacific Justice Forum and watch the full session on healthy information ecosystems below: