In defence of fake news

Fake news has been called everything from the death of traditional media to the scourge of liberal democracy. Its rise and proliferation has undoubtedly changed global narratives, influenced local politics and destabilised long-lasting institutions. 

The trail of destruction that the fake news phenomenon has weaved is readily seen from the rise of Donald Trump to the massacre of ethnic minorities in Myanmar. A poll conducted in the United States found that in all age groups, over 68 per cent of people say that fake news is a major problem. 

News institutions and newspapers of record alike, such as the BBC, AFP and The Washington Post have established a fake news centre to combat the rise of disinformation. 

Yet fake news and disinformation campaigns are invariably tied to issues of freedom of expression and liberty. More important than the content of fake news is our ability to share, read and construe any and all information. 

That is why, while I applaud the efforts of people like Aidan White, founder of the Ethical Journalism Network, for advocating for harsher legislation in the European Union to fight the rise of fake news, it is not a course of action that should be mirrored in Asia. 

Unlike the European Union, for many countries across the developing world, the institutions that are supposed to safeguard civil liberties are not mature enough to handle legislation that infringes upon the right to freedom of expression and freedom of speech. 

Simply put, any attempt to legislate away fake news will be abused for other reasons as well. 

It is no secret that over the past few years, authoritarian governments across Asia have used legal loopholes to prosecute media outlets that they disagree with. 

“Given the track record of governments across Southeast Asia and the Asia Pacific, would any legislation that is designed to curtail the spread of information be used sparingly? “

In the Philippines, Maria Ressa and her Rappler website have been prosecuted by the Duterte government on a variety of charges critics say are ‘trumped up.’ Using libel laws and tax laws, the Duterte government has muzzled an organization that was among the most critical of its costly drug war. 

In Cambodia, Hun Sen’s government forced the closure of The Cambodia Daily using tax laws. The Cambodia Daily had been running uninterrupted for two decades prior and was vocal proponent of human rights. 

In Myanmar, a centuries-old law introduced under the British Empire was used to prosecute two Reuters journalists for reporting on the massacre of Rohingya. 

Given the track record of governments across Southeast Asia and the Asia Pacific, would any legislation that is designed to curtail the spread of information be used sparingly? 

The answer is a resounding no. One only has to look at the fully authoritarian countries within the region to understand what lies at the bottom of the slippery slope. Look no further than China’s Great Firewall or Vietnam’s persecution of Facebook critics to understand how quickly it can all go wrong under an authoritarian and paranoid government. 

Yet governments across Asia are pushing ahead with legislation anyway. Thailand has introduced a fake news combat centre, which human rights groups say will only serve to stifle dissent against military power. 

Singapore has introduced its own fake news legislation, which makes it easier for the government to control the flow of information. The Philippines, Cambodia and Malaysia have tabled bills. 

While fake news and disinformation is undoubtedly causing more harm than good, living with such challenges may be a necessary evil to prevent the erosion of civil liberties that many throughout Asia have fought so hard to enjoy. 

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