Authoritarian governments have weaponised online tools and platforms to control journalists and stifle freedom of expression.
As the internet sector and mobile penetration increase in Southeast Asia, restrictions on online speech and expression are also on the rise. Journalists across the region face digital threats as governments resort to authoritarian measures and tactics to stifle independent media and free speech.
UNESCO’s theme for World Press Freedom Day 2022, ‘Journalism Under Digital Siege’, highlights the ways digital technologies have allowed state and non-state actors to impose increasing levels of control over journalists.
This control is manifested through disinformation and surveillance, disruptions to the integrity of information, weak protection of sources, and threats to journalists’ safety.
Disinformation and surveillance
The weaponisation of digital technology and social media has a serious impact on political and social life, weakening attempts at democracy building. Filipino journalist Maria Ressa, a 2021 Nobel laureate, warned that authoritarian regimes and global technology companies have disrupted democratic processes such as elections and other political events by deliberately allowing the spread of disinformation and lies. NGO Digital Reach, which focuses on Southeast Asia, said in its 2021 report that emerging threats against digital rights included the use of spyware by some governments to surveil targeted individuals and organisations.
The dominant narrative is that the media are responsible for spreading misinformation and disinformation, but studies show the main purveyors of false information are politicians.
In the Philippines, 2018 research found that key players in the spread of what they termed “networked disinformation” were public relations professionals who worked with ‘buzzers’ (digital influencers) to circulate dangerous and divisive messages online in support of President Duterte.
Hollowing out public trust
One of the main challenges when technology is manipulated or abused is maintaining integrity of public information. Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks are a common strategy by state-sponsored groups or bots to disrupt news websites as well as pages owned by human rights organisations.
News outlets seen as critical of the governments of the day have faced recent DDoS attacks in the Philippines and Indonesia. Three Philippines media outlets – Rappler, ABS-CBN and VERA Files – weathered a series of DDoS attacks in December 2021. Several of these attacks prevented the sites from functioning and providing information to the public. All three outlets have been critical of the government of President Duterte.
Other governments have used network disruptions and regulated online content, particularly when the work of journalists and human rights defenders is seen as challenging state and national security, religious institutions, and other powerful institutions such as the royal family and the head of government.
The tactic results in lower public trust. According to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, trust in the news media in 2021 was between 32 percent and 50 percent in several Southeast Asian countries as a result of media controls, the use of buzzers and cyber troopers to spread disinformation, and the use of repressive laws to control the Internet.
Harsh laws for critics, weak protection for whistleblowers
Protections for whistleblowers and sources are generally weak or absent from legal frameworks across the region, making it risky for many people to speak to the media or express themselves online.
Instead, laws are used to crack down on online commentators or critics as well as online media that report on politically sensitive issues. Against the backdrop of COVID-19 management, governments have issued new regulations to stem what they consider ‘fake news’ and disinformation. These regulations have resulted in numerous arrests and convictions of online users.
Migrant communities in Malaysia came under serious scrutiny by the authorities during the pandemic, but online broadcaster Al Jazeera faced repercussions when it reported on the arrests of migrants and refugees in Kuala Lumpur. The broadcaster was investigated , and one of its interviewees, Bangladeshi national Mohammad Rayhan Kabir, was subjected to online harassment and immediately deported.
Harassment, doxxing and death threats
Threats to journalists now include online harassment such as bullying, doxxing (publicly revealing a person’s private details with malicious intent) and sending death threats over chat apps. Sometimes the apps are hijacked to spread hateful messages, as some Indonesian journalists have experienced. Following a survey of 400 women journalists in 50 countries, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), one of the largest networks of journalist associations and unions, reported that women journalists faced multiple forms of online harassment, including doxxing. Such abuse has forced many women journalists to withdraw from the public conversation, close their accounts or remain silent.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression has said that a strong human rights framework is key to informing policies and actions to counter the threats posed by the harmful effects of technology use.
As key stakeholders, governments and political actors need to be made more accountable and transparent in relation to information governance. They have a responsibility to ensure protections for the media and the public’s right to freedom of expression.
Private companies and individuals, whether they are technology platforms or professionals involved in political communication, also need to commit to higher standards of human rights compliance so their work does not cause harm to the people and their democratic rights.
At a societal level, there needs to be greater emphasis on the ethics of information use. Sharing information about others without their explicit consent cannot be tolerated and laws on data protection need to be more rigorous to prevent misuse and abuse of data.
It is also important for journalists and human rights workers to adopt digital security measures, as these can go a long way towards shielding them against some of the more obvious threats. Digital security also helps protect whistleblowers and sources.
Finally, the importance of media literacy cannot be overemphasised. Serious investment is required to continuously investigate and explain the information ecosystem as part of public awareness and empowerment. A digitally informed and literate society is a bulwark against the harms of technology abuse and misuse.
Gayathry Venkiteswaran is an Assistant Professor at the School of Media, Languages and Cultures at the University of Nottingham Malaysia. She teaches media, gender and politics.
Professor Gayathry has declared no conflict of interest in relation to this article.