Media and Politics in Southeast Asia


June 23, 2018

Media and Politics in Southeast Asia–A Matter of Trust

by Ross Tapsell, Australian National University

https://www.asiasentinel.com/society/media-politics-southeast-asia/

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Southeast Asians have dwindling confidence in traditional journalism. As a result, social media platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp have become the main source of information for voters. A combination of wider access to the internet and declining trust in longstanding news sources is changing the dynamics of democracy across the region.

 

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election as President in the US and the result of the UK’s Brexit vote to leave the European Union, the term “post-truth” entered the public lexicon. It is now used to explain elections and other political events in which the outcomes are determined by emotions rather than policy details, and in which those emotions are increasingly shaped by social media discourse.

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Recent elections in Southeast Asia, where the use of social media like Facebook and WhatsApp is prevalent, have been emotionally charged campaigns. These have led to the 2016 election of populist Rodrigo Duterte as President of the Philippines, the election loss and subsequent jailing of an ethnic Chinese Christian governor of Jakarta in 2017 and regime change in Malaysia in 2018.

Despite its widespread use, I do not believe that “post-truth” adequately describes these elections, as it implies that there was a time when the world engaged in “truthful” election campaigning. Rather, we should define the current political climate as the “post-trust” era. We need to consider more deeply how trust in the mainstream media is being replaced by trust in social media, and the impact this has on election outcomes.

Social Media Makes Malaysian History 

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 Since the arrival of the internet in Malaysia in the mid-1990s, a shackled and partisan mainstream media has been challenged by alternative online platforms. The country’s oldest newspaper still in print, the New Straits Times, has seen its daily circulation drop from 140,000 in 2006 to 50,000 in 2016. Indeed, it is a global trend that as internet penetration rises, newspaper circulation drops, although the newspaper’s pro-government nature has assisted in its rapid decline.

In part due to changes in media usage and online discourse, the majority of urban votes, concentrated in areas where internet use is prevalent, have gone to the opposition in recent elections. In 2013, Malaysia’s former ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional, won 133 seats out of 222 in the lower house of parliament to claim victory, but only five of those were urban seats, while 20 were semi-rural seats. The rest were rural seats in areas where internet penetration was lower.

We should define the current political climate as the “post-trust” era.

To unseat the Barisan for the first time in Malaysian history, the opposition needed swing voters in majority ethnic Malay semi-rural and rural areas. The one way it could regularly reach these voters was via the internet. Prior to the 2013 election, only 58 percent of internet users in Malaysia were ethnic Malay. Two years later, that number had grown to 67 percent, and it continues to rise.

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In a country where close to 90 percent of smartphone users access Facebook, the social media platform was the place to see photos of Mahathir Mohamad, now the Prime Minister, at rallies and watch his speeches live. Facebook also provided Malaysians with a glut of information about the role of former Prime Minister Najib Razak in 1MDB, a state investment fund from which more than US$4.5 billion was allegedly diverted. Thus, I believe that without Facebook, there would have been no significant perception of alleged government corruption, and thus no regime change, in Malaysia.

In Malaysia and Indonesia, the rise of the messaging platform WhatsApp, owned by Facebook, has been vital. WhatsApp is more than just a messaging service: it’s work email, family discussions, citizen journalism, and internet chat room all rolled into one, forming communal information societies. Given its popularity, WhatsApp has become a crucial component of political campaigning in these countries. One newspaper even described the 2018 Malaysian election as “the WhatsApp election.”

Battle of Trust

Facebook and WhatsApp triumphantly loosened the grip of government-controlled mainstream media on semi-authoritarian Malaysia. But at the same time, they may be contributing to declining trust in professional journalism in democratic countries like the Philippines and Indonesia.

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Malaysia’s Beauty Queen–Social Media made her infamous because her greed and devilish ways. She was one of the factors that led to Najib’s defeat in the May 9 GE-14. Rosmah Mansor became a butt of jokes on Facebook and WhatsApp, and an embarrassment to UMNO Malays for making Najib Razak to be perceived as a hen-pecked and weak leader.

In a 2017 survey on levels of trust in major institutions in Indonesia, the lowest ranked were political parties (45 percent), parliament (55 percent), courts (65 percent), and the media (67 percent). Even the notoriously corrupt Indonesian police (70 percent) ranked higher than the press. Much like in Malaysia, flagrantly partisan political coverage in the mainstream media eroded the public’s trust in it.

As mainstream media loses credibility, Facebook content and WhatsApp propaganda are becoming more successful in shaping political discourse. A 2017 survey found that Filipinos who had internet access trusted social media more than the mainstream media, with 87 percent of respondents saying that they trusted information on social media. Facebook influencers played such a big role in the Philippines election that in October 2017, the Philippine Senate Committee on Public Information and Mass Media held a hearing to probe the challenges posed by misinformation, especially on social media.

While social media is harming democracy in Southeast Asia in some respects, it is paradoxically facilitating the growth of democracy in others. Recent elections in the region have seen high voter turnouts, such as 78 percent for the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election compared with 66.7 percent for the 2012 election; and 81 percent for the 2016 Philippine presidential election, compared with 74 percent for the 2010 election. In providing more chances for citizens to engage with election issues and political personalities, social media fosters political participation.

This, however, does not change the fact that the common thread linking election victories in the region is WhatsApp- and Facebook-based “black campaigns” of negativity and smear tactics. Politicians are involved in these black campaigns as both victims and perpetrators. Every politician must strive to reduce the impact of negative online campaigning, as well as mount such campaigns themselves against their opponents.

This is not unique to Southeast Asia: scholars and observers have identified the use of disinformation and fake news in elections as a global trend. But the ubiquity of social media in Southeast Asia makes it an epicenter of the crosscurrents of internet communications and politics.

In the face of a new public sphere driven by social media communities, politicians need to consider the implications of the impending death of newspapers and the potential end of television and radio news, as well as the decline of professional journalism. Newspapers were once central to a broader imagined community of shared national and international experience. In contrast, today’s social media communities are smaller—our experience of the collective is more insular, haphazard, and schematic. The digital era is changing the avenues of trust from which we receive information. We should look to countries in Southeast Asia to examine how post-trust societies may take shape.

Ross Tapsell is a senior lecturer, Department of Gender, Media and Culture. Director, ANU Malaysia Institute. He wrote this for AsiaGlobal Online, a digital journal published by the Asia Global Institute (AGI) at The University of Hong Kong with which Asia Sentinel has a publishing agreement.

Shake Off Feudalism: This is 21st Century Malaysia


June 7, 2018

Shake Off Feudalism: This is 21st Century Malaysia

by S. Thayaparan@www.malaysiakini.com

COMMENT | “The people expect them to be the embodiment of all things good and holy. But the question is: Are they?”

– A Kadir Jasin, “Constitution: The King and the Pauper

I never thought I would say this, but former Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin questioning UMNO information chief Annuar Musa if the latter was still living in the Hang Tuah era, was pretty interesting blowback for Annuar’s urging of the state security apparatus to investigate Bersatu Supreme Council member A Kadir Jasin for his article allegedly “questioning” the royal institution.

Furthermore Maidin’s caution of not threatening the rakyat with “reckless feudalism” is also a reminder that perhaps, we are living in a new dawn of Malaysians politics, something which I am skeptical of. This idea that political hegemons “threaten” the rakyat with “feudalism”, reckless or otherwise, has always been the preferred weapon of the “bangsa and agama” (race and religion) crowd.

Here is an example of this narrative whereby the rakyat have been threatened with “feudalism”.

When Anwar Ibrahim goes on his royal tour, apparently to convince the royalty that all is kosher with “Malay rights” and “Islam”, this is part of the narrative that Malay rights and Islam are under attack.

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Anwar Ibrahim–  A Reformist or a Fawning Royalist? Maybe a Political Chameleon. He should be grateful to Malaysians for his Pardon.

When Anwar Ibrahim and any Malay politician for that matter have to reassure the Malay community that for hithe appointment of Tommy Thomas will not adversely affect Malay rights and Islam, this feeds into the narrative that those ideas/institutions are under attack. The counter-narrative is, have they ever been under attack?

What did Kadir actually say in his pieces about the royalty? In his blog post, “Constitution: The King and the Pauper”, he:

  1. Questioned the journalistic integrity of the New Straits Times;
  2. Questioned if the Royalty was really insecure as some have claimed;
  3. Wondered why Anwar Ibrahim had to go on his royal tour; and
  4. Reminded the ordinary rakyat of how much is allegedly spent on the Agong and the difference of expectation between a pauper and a king.

To wit – “But unlike the pauper who evokes God’s name to earn sympathy of the passers-by, the Agong evokes God’s name in his oath of office.”

That’s powerful stuff coming from Kadir, and the reality is that this is what the average rakyat is wondering.

When kids carry out a car wash to contribute to the Hope Fund or whatever it’s called, people think it demonstrates how Malaysian we are.

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When the salaries of politicians are cut and the trimmings used to contribute to the Hope Fund, people think it demonstrates how politicians are playing their part in saving this country.

However, when the expenses of the royalty are brought into question, people wonder, why is it so much when we are told that we are on an austerity drive.

We have a Finance Minister who apparently has sleepless nights because of his fear of the financial time bombs that he would discover in the red files.

The rakyat also notices how the royalty, during the lead-up to the elections and post-elections, by word or deed have made extremely political overtures.

Of course, when you bring up the expenses of the royalty, you better cite sources which are credible, which is where Kadir’s piece suffers.

However, what should be done is that the Finance Ministry should immediately issue a response and tell the rakyat exactly how much is spent on the royal institutions.

After all, this is supposed to be a ministry which values truth above all else. Truth, we are told, is needed for this country to move forward.

So when Kadir makes a statement about royal expenses, his claim does not have to be challenged by the royalty but should either be verified and challenged by the Finance Ministry. End of controversy. However, Kadir’s piece is more than just about royal expenses.

Kadir’s conclusion is this – “In conclusion, our CONSTITUTIONAL monarch (emphasis in original) has nothing to fear if they understand their special position and stick to their duties as spelt out by the constitution – and the rakyat wonder, does the royal institution understand their special position and stick to their duties as spelt out in the constitution?”

When UMNO was in charge, there was never an issue when UMNO set policy. Even when former Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak introduced the National Security Council Act – by the way Harapan folks, is this act going to be ditched? – the “issues” with the objections of the royalty were simply brushed aside.

Nobody in UMNO seemed to care that the royal institutions were sidelined because the sitting UMNO Prime Minister wanted more power than the Agong. Even Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad said as much on the campaign trail.

Did anyone from UMNO or PAS object when the constitutional provisions that guaranteed certain rights to the royalty were supplanted by this most odious of “acts” from UMNO? Were the rakyat threatened by reckless feudalism from the UMNO state?

Did the royalty make noise that the powers they were guaranteed under the constitution – the very same powers, that Kadir argues, makes them immune from insecurity – were under attack from the Najib regime?

Did the Malays need to be reassured that the Malay institution was not under attack?

This idea that the royal institution has not changed through constitutional means is a myth, much like the mythical/mystical era – depending on the source – of the Hang Tuah era.

The current Harapan grand poohbah in his time went against the “reckless feudalism” and instituted changes that were embraced by some of the very same UMNO potentates who are now scrambling for power in the political party – UMNO – which has staked the “bangsa and agama” ground as its sole province.

Look even in the Sinar Metro article, all Kadir did was raise three points – in my opinion – which are vital to the economic and social stability of this country. Reproduced here in the original Malay:

  1. “Mereka dibayar gaji oleh rakyat jelata dan segala keperluan rasmi mereka ditanggung oleh kerajaan. Dalam keadaan di mana hidup rakyat susah dan kewangan negara sempit, kerajaan tidak boleh sekali-kali membazirkan wang untuk sesiapa pun. Biarlah saya kata macam ini: Istana-istana yang ada itu sudah mewah.
  2. Dalam usaha kerajaan baharu mempertahankan hak rakyat jelata dan melindungi institusi negara daripada sebarang bentuk pencabulan maka adalah penting diambil tahu pembabitan raja atau istana dalam kegiatan-kegiatan tidak rasmi seperti perniagaan dan social.
  3. Kalau perlu kita kaji semula perlembagaan dan kontrak sosial bagi mengambil kira suasana dan realiti yang ada pada hari ini bagi mengharmonikan perjanjian antara raja dan rakyat jelata.”

My interpretation of Kadir’s words is as follows (you may of course disagree): In times of austerity, because the rakyat are in a crunch, the government of the day should scrutinise its expenses and the royal institutions should also play their part. That the royal institutions should not be involved in unofficial business and social enterprises, because it weakens the integrity of these institutions and encourages practices which are detrimental to a functional state. And as Malaysians we should understand that reforms of institutions – all institutions – are needed to save this country.

If anything, what Kadir is advocating is “responsible feudalism”, which I suppose is what a constitutional monarchy is all about.of


S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy

 

The Californization of America


June 4, 2018

SOQUEL, Calif. — Across the country, Democrats are winning primaries by promoting policies like universal health insurance and guaranteed income — ideas once laughed off as things that work only on the “Left Coast.”

At the same time, national politicians from both sides are finally putting front and center issues that California has been grappling with for years: immigration, clean energy, police reform, suburban sprawl. And the state is home to a crop of politicians to watch, from Kevin McCarthy on the right to Gavin Newsom and Kamala Harris on the left, part of a wave that is likely to dominate American politics for the next generation.

California, which holds its primaries on Tuesday, has long set the national agenda on the economy, culture and technology. So maybe it was just a matter of time before it got back to driving the political agenda, as it did when Ronald Reagan launched his political career in the 1960s. But other things are happening as well. The state is a hub for immigrants, a testing site for solutions to environmental crises and a front line in America’s competition with China. On all sorts of big issues that matter now and will in the future, California is already in the game.

In a way, California even gave us Donald Trump. So much of his “training” to be president came while he was an entertainment celebrity, on a show that, for a stretch of its existence, was produced in Los Angeles. And of course the means of his ascent — the smartphone, social media — came out of Silicon Valley. That’s a lot to have on a state’s conscience.

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Governor Jerry Brown of California

California is a deep-blue state — only 26 percent of its residents approve of Mr. Trump, and Democrats dominate the Legislature, statewide offices and most large city governments. But the state’s leaders are also aware that setting the political agenda for the country means making a stark break with naked partisanship. Getting that right will determine whether California, in its newly dominant role, perpetuates the political divide or moves America past it.

For decades, California, even as it grew in size and wealth, was seen as an outlier, unintimidating, superficial and flaky. We were no threat. We were surfer dudes and California girls who got high and turned on, tuned in and dropped out. We spawned Apple and Google, but we also spawned hippies and Hollywood. For a time, our governor was nicknamed Moonbeam.

As recently as the 2000s, with California at the center of the subprime-mortgage crisis, it was fair to wonder whether we had a future; a popular parlor game was to imagine how the state might be divided up into more manageable statelets.That was the old California.

The new California, back from years of financial trouble, has the fifth-largest economy in the world, ahead of Britain and France. Since 2010, California has accounted for an incredible one-fifth of America’s economic growth. Silicon Valley is the default center of the world, home to three of the 10 largest companies in the world by market capitalization.

California’s raw economic power is old news. What’s different, just in the past few years, is the combination of its money, population and politics. In the Trump era, the state is reinventing itself as the moral and cultural center of a new America.

Jerry Brown — Governor Moonbeam — is back, and during his second stint in office has been a pragmatic, results-focused technocrat who will leave behind a multibillion-dollar budget surplus when his term ends in January. But he has also been a smart and dogged opponent of the Trump agenda, from his high-profile visits to climate-change negotiations in Europe to substantive talks in Beijing with President Xi Jinping.

California is hardly monolithic. The region around Bakersfield provides the power base for Mr. McCarthy, the House majority leader and an indefatigable defender of President Trump, who calls him “my Kevin.” Other sizable pockets of Trump supporters live along the inland spine of the state, especially in the north near the Oregon border.

Still, there’s no doubt California runs blue — so blue, people say, that its anti-Trump stance is inevitable. But that’s not right; in fact, California defies Mr. Trump — and is turning even more Democratic — not for partisan reasons but because his rhetoric and actions are at odds with contemporary American values on issue after issue, as people here see it, and because he seems intent on ignoring the nation’s present and future in favor of pushing back the clock.

California doesn’t just oppose Mr. Trump; it offers a better alternative to the America he promises. While Mr. Trump makes hollow promises to states ravaged by the decline of the coal industry, California has been a leader in creating new jobs through renewable energy.

While Mr. Trump plays the racism card, California pulls in immigrants from all over the world. For California, immigration is not an issue to be exploited to inflame hate and assuage the economic insecurities of those who feel displaced by the 21st-century economy, it’s what keeps the state economy churning.

For us, immigration is not a “Latino” issue. The state’s white population arrived so recently that all of us retain a sense of our immigrant status. My great-great-grandfather Gerhard Kettmann left Germany in 1849 and made his way to California during the Gold Rush. That’s why everyone is able to unite, even in our diversity.

And the draw of California is more powerful than ever. People come not only from countries around the globe to work in Silicon Valley — more than seven in 10 of those employed in tech jobs in San Jose were born outside the United States, according to census data analyzed by The Seattle Times — they come from all over the country.

It seems as if every other idealistic young person who worked in the Obama White House or on the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign later moved to California. All these new arrivals create major problems, from housing shortages to insane Los Angeles-style traffic in Silicon Valley. They also create a critical mass of innovation.

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Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom

 

Many Californians see the next decade as a pivot point, when decisions about the environment and the economy will shape America’s future for generations to come. “It’s ‘Mad Max’ or ‘Star Trek,’” said Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor and leading candidate to succeed Governor Brown. It’s no mystery which movie he thinks Mr. Trump is directing.

Nationally, Mr. Newsom is known mostly as a cultural pioneer, having allowed same-sex marriage as the mayor of San Francisco in 2004 — among the first big-city mayors to do so. But he sees himself in more pragmatic terms, more like a latter-day Robert Kennedy, a believer in the idea that government can do more for the people if it’s smarter about trying new ideas and updating old assumptions.

Mr. Newsom doesn’t mind making bold claims, and he and his main Democratic challenger, the former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, are both vowing to build 500,000 homes in California every year for seven years. He also wants to provide single-payer health care to everyone in the state and commit the state to 100 percent renewable energy for its electricity needs. Sure, these are campaign promises — but in California, they suddenly seem like practical, feasible ideas.

California for years was divided between its main population centers. Northern California, birthplace of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement in 1964 and the Summer of Love in San Francisco later that decade, was often at odds with large sections of Southern California, particularly Orange County, a bastion of suburban Republicans.

That divide is eroding. Orange County even went for Hillary Clinton in 2016. California remains diverse culturally, but politically, it is increasingly unified. That can be a potent engine for social and economic progress; it can also be an excuse for insularity and political grandstanding.

The key, many of the state’s politicians say, is to promote the former without falling into the trap of the latter — no easy task at a time when many Californians see their state as the base of the anti-Trump resistance.

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Vivek Viswanathan running for state treasurer of California

Take Vivek Viswanathan. Raised on Long Island by parents who immigrated from India, he did policy work for the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign and Governor Brown and is now running for state treasurer.

It would be easy for him to run far to the left, mixing anti-Trump rhetoric with unrealistic policy promises. Instead, he wants America to see a different California — a state that mixes pragmatism and progressivism.

“I’m one of those people that think the threats that we face from Washington are very real, and not just to the resources we need, but the values that make us who we are,” he said. “California is really a model for what the country can be if we make the right choices.”

The first test of a unified California’s newfound political heft could come this fall. Democrats need to pick up 24 seats in the House of Representatives to win control of it, and they have their eye on seven California districts carried by Mrs. Clinton in 2016 that have Republican incumbents, including four that are wholly or in part in Orange County.

Further north, in the Central Valley, a deputy district attorney for Fresno County named Andrew Janz is running a surprisingly competitive race against Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Mr. Nunes has used his position to defend the president, while providing little congressional oversight — something that doesn’t sit well with even moderate California Republicans.

“The momentum is definitely on our side,” Mr. Janz told me. “My opponent is more concerned about blaming Democrats than getting the job done. The people here honestly want Nunes to focus less on creating these fake controversies and more on doing the work that’s required to move us along into the 21st century here in the Central Valley.”

Again and again, this is the message coming from the state’s rising politicians — anger with the president and his allies not out of an ideological commitment, but because the president seems more interested in personal gain than national progress.

The more visionary among California’s leaders, including Mr. Newsom, recognize that their state has the highest poverty rate in the country, by some measures, and that addressing the problem — through affordable housing, job programs and early education — has to be a priority. To the extent these are national problems, too, other states may soon be looking to Sacramento, not Washington, for leadership.

It’s also a given that one or more Californians could figure prominently in the 2020 presidential race, including Ms. Harris, a first-term senator who has gained a reputation for her withering examinations of the president’s cabinet nominees. Mr. Newsom, particularly if he wins the governor’s race this year by a convincing margin, could also make the jump to the national stage, following Ronald Reagan and Jerry Brown.

Image result for Tom Steyer.

Billionaire Tom Steyer is the “Impeachment Guy” who has spent millions of dollars on television ads in which he speaks to the camera directly and makes a case for the urgent need to impeach President Trump.

To see how different the stereotype of California is from the reality, consider another of the state’s rising political figures, the billionaire Tom Steyer.

To most people in Washington or New York, Mr. Steyer is the “Impeachment Guy” who has spent millions of dollars on television ads in which he speaks to the camera directly and makes a case for the urgent need to impeach President Trump. Impeachment is a widely popular idea among Democrats, but political realists say it’s unlikely to happen absent a Democratic surge in the midterm elections — in other words, that’s California for you.

But at home, Mr. Steyer is anything but a dreamer. His organization NextGen America focuses on developing solutions to climate change and economic inequality, issues that resonate here, especially among the young. The goal is to show the way not through talk, not through TV ads, but through action.

“I think California has this great advantage, which is we have a functioning democracy,” Mr. Steyer said in a recent interview. “With all our problems — and we have a lot of them, the biggest one being economic inequality — we have a spirit in business and in politics that says, sure, there are big problems, but we can address them. That spirit is a great advantage and it’s not true in Washington, D.C., right now.”

Steyer’s bet — and that of millions of others in my state — is that soon, California will pick up the slack.

Steve Kettmann, a columnist for The Santa Cruz Sentinel, is a co-director of the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods.

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A version of this article appears in print on , on Page SR1 of the New York edition with the headline: The Californization Of American Politics. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper

Malaysia: This is what happens when UMNO loses the Battle of Ideas–Clamp down the Internet


March 7, 2018

Malaysia: This is what happens when UMNO loses the Battle of Ideas–Clamp down the Internet

https://www.themalaysianinsight.com/s/41329/

 

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COMMENT: Does this UMNO Politician know the difference between right and wrong? If he does, he will not be a Najib Razak/M01’s horndog and Rosmah Mansor’s Nail Polisher. This observation applies to people like Paul Low and MCA, MIC and Gerakan Leaders. When the UMNO-BN government contemplates such an action, we know that it is desperate to curtail freedom of speech. It takes strength of character and moral courage as embodied in the person of an Anwar Ibrahim to stand up for your beliefs and speak the truth. –Din Merican

 

Govt may clamp down on internet, Malaysians warned
Najib Razak’s Horndog Salleh Said Keruak says the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission may be asked to monitor social media for people posting irresponsibly. – The Malaysian Insight file pic, March 6, 2018.

 

THE government will step in and restore order to the internet if bloggers and social media users fail to act responsibly, said Communications and Multimedia Minister Salleh Said Keruak.

“Don’t allow it to come to the stage where action needs to be taken against abusers of the internet and social media,” warned Salleh on his blog today.

He said the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission may be asked to monitor social media.

“After all, if you’re educated enough to use social media, then you should be educated enough to differentiate between right and wrong,” Salleh said.

He noted that bloggers and social media users had of late been acting recklessly in what they posted on the internet.

“This has probably intensified due to the upcoming general election where temperatures and sentiments are running high. We must not allow tempers to jeopardise the peace, harmony, and stability of Malaysia,” he said.

Salleh said that notwithstanding the laws controlling the abuse of social media such as the publishing of fake news, seditious and libellous postings, and so on, bloggers and social media users should be sensible and responsible enough to practice self-censorship.

“Why wait until the government needs to act or clamp down on the abuse of the internet? Malaysians know what’s socially acceptable and what’s offensive,” he said. – Bernama, March 6, 2018.

ASEAN: Politics, Censorship, Polarisation and Cyberspace


November 6, 2017

ASEAN: Politics, Censorship, Polarisation and Cyberspace

by Aim Sinpeng

ww.newmandala.org/southeast-asian-cyberspace-politics-censorship-polarisation/

On 12 April 2017, Thailand’s Ministry of Digital Economy and Society issued what the Bangkok Post called “a strange government directive”. It prohibited anyone from following, communicating with, or disseminating information online from three outspoken critics of the government—or risk up to 15 years in prison. The statement seemingly appeared out of nowhere, and without any explanation. Does the act of “following” include reading these authors’ posts, or actually clicking the “follow” button on their profile? This was never clarified by the government.

The ambiguity of the Thai cyber laws prompted a local online newspaper, Prachatai, to publish information warning readers about how to avoid being charged with Thailand’s draconian Article 112, which prohibits defamation against the royal family. But the journalist responsible for the article was in turn interrogated by the Thai authorities for a possible computer crime herself. This deadly dose of opaque cyber regulations and an authoritarian political regime has made Thailand’s cyberspace one of the most restricted in Asia.

This combination, however, is growing more and more representative of the regional norm. In Southeast Asia, the liberating effects of the internet coexist in increasing tension with state anxiety about information control. Southeast Asian cyberspace is thus becoming more expansive, yet more restricted. On the one hand, the number of people who have come online for the first time has exploded: Myanmar, for example, went from 1% internet penetration in 2012 to 26% in 2017 thanks to an abundance of cheap mobile phones. Internet users across the region are increasingly spending time online to work, study, connect with friends, and participate in civic and political life.

On the other hand, Southeast Asian governments are growing wary of the potential for the internet to threaten political stability. Cyberspace in Southeast Asia has evolved into a space for contestation over power and control between the state and its societal opponents, with the former exerting greater and more sophisticated control over the latter. As electoral contestation increases in some countries, feuding elites have sought to win the hearts and minds of the ever more engaged and wired citizenry through old tactics of divide and conquer, exploiting deep-seated ethnic, religious and racial cleavages. Social networking sites like Facebook have made it all too easy to spread hate speech and misinformation—further entrenching divisions in society, and inviting yet more state-led censorship.

More internet, more censorship

Viewed globally, the Southeast Asian experience is not an aberration. Freedom House’s Net Freedom Report, which ranks the degree of cyber openness around the world, has recorded the sixth consecutive year of global decline in internet freedom. More than two thirds of the world’s population live in countries where criticism of governments gets censored.

The present reality stands in stark contrast to early optimism about the positive, liberating role the internet could play in bringing about political change in authoritarian regimes—a sentiment which flourished following the “Arab Spring”. The utopian idea that social media could spell the end of despots has now been muted by users’ frustration with increasing crackdowns on the internet and the chilling effect brought on by continued persecution of politically active social media users. Indeed, in 2016 a total of 24 countries restricted access to popular social media platforms and messaging apps—an increase of 60% compared to the previous year. 27% of internet users live in countries whose authorities have made arrests based on social media posts.

So where does Southeast Asia fit in this global picture? Despite varying degrees of internet penetration—ranging from 19% in Cambodia to 82% in Singapore—national internet environments in Southeast Asia share three key similarities.

First, there is an overall consecutive decline in internet freedom, which measures the degree to which access is unrestricted. The Philippines stands as the only country in the region that receives a score of “free” according to Freedom House (Figure 1). The rest of Southeast Asian internet users enjoy partial to little freedom in surfing the net.

Figure 1: Net Freedom Scores, 2016

Image result for Freedom House, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/freedom-net-2016

Freedom House, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/freedom-net-2016

 

In all the “partly free” and “not free” states, ordinary internet users have been arrested for their online activities and user rights have been repeatedly violated. Measures to censor critical opinions about authorities can include blocking of websites, content removal, and in some cases arrests and persecution—the latter of which has been taking place more recently, as authorities across the region pay closer attention to social media and chat app content.

Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Ngoch Nhu or “Mother Mushroom” was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2017 for “conducting propaganda against the state”, after she wrote on issues relating to policy brutality, land rights, and freedom of speech. A Thai man has been sentenced to 35 years in prison for Facebook posts the authorities deemed critical of the royal family. This follows the 2016 arrest of eight internet users who ran a satirical Facebook page mocking Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha. In Singapore, whose leaders prefer slapping lawsuits upon critics over arresting them, blogger Roy Ngerng was sued for defaming Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in posts on his blog. Even a democratic government in Indonesia has sought to censor same-sex emojis from messaging apps and has banned several gay dating apps.

Second, many Southeast Asian states have in recent years sought to institutionalise online information controls through new laws and regulations, typically citing concerns for national security. Myanmar’s 2013 Telecommunications Law openly permits criminalisation of internet activism or communication that are considered “dishonest” and “untruthful” by the regime. Cambodia has had several drafts of the cybercrime law, with each one eliciting grave concerns from rights groups. Article 35 from the 2012 draft, for instance, would criminalise civil society organisations deemed to endanger the security, morality and values of the nation. A 2017 amendment to Thailand’s Computer-Related Crime Act worsened an already repressive internet law by giving authorities wide-ranging powers to arrest anyone who might be spreading information that would be against the (vaguely-defined) national interest. Indonesia’s newly amended Electronic Information Transactions Law (UU ITE) was criticised by internet rights groups for creating chilling effects online and curbing of freedom of expression. Indeed, the majority of cyber laws in the region are written in vague terms on purpose: they give power to authorities to interpret what is critical to the nation’s security and public safety.

Third, the varying degree of filtering on issues of social, political, and national security importance gives some indication of the country’s priorities on internet control. Censorship is most severe when it comes to criticism against the state (Figure 2). While the growth of internet usage across Southeast Asia caused concern about information control among all of the region’s governments, reasons for such concern vary. Indonesia and Thailand focus their internet censorship efforts on social issues—particularly online pornography—whereas Malaysia, Vietnam, Myanmar (and to some extent Thailand too) have gone to some lengths to crack down on cyber dissidents deemed a threat to regime stability.

Figure 2: Key internet censorship issues, 2016

Image result for Net Freedom Scores, 2016

Source: Adapted from the 2016 Net Freedom report, Freedom House

Highly developed Singapore, with its hegemonic party rule, has one of the world’s highest internet penetration rates. Instead of practicing cyber surveillance and filtering, its leaders prefer to rely on non-technological means to curb online commentary perceived to be a threat to social values and religious and ethnic harmony. These “second generation” control mechanisms—such as lawsuits, steep fines, and criminal prosecution—act to deter “inappropriate” online behaviour.

Divide the people, conquer the discourse

But political elites, even if they could, would not want to control the flow of all information. They need the web to be sufficiently open to allow a perceived sense of online freedom of expression, and the proliferation of engaged online discussion. This provides ruling and competing elites alike with opportunities to divide electorates and mobilise their support base against their adversaries. The Oxford Internet Institute’s research on computation propaganda has highlighted how state-sponsored “cyber troops” and trolls are commonplace around the world as means of manipulating public opinion, particularly in support of ruling elites.

The Philippines—the only country whose internet environment is regarded as free—has witnessed a high density of “cyber troops” since populist maverick Rodrigo Duterte came to power. Duterte’s online army is reportedly paid to flood Facebook with pro-Duterte propaganda, sometimes masking as grassroots activists. Cambodia’s Hun Sen, who has a huge social media following, found himself denying buying influence on Facebook after reports that only 20% of his 3 million likes originated from Cambodia (the rest largely being from India and the Philippines). That a septuagenarian former Khmer Rouge leader, who has been in power since the 1980s, felt the need to pay for Facebook likes is telling of the extent political leaders go to in order to construct digital legitimacy, even if it means spreading online propaganda.

But the most prominent example of the potential power of the above-mentioned “divide and conquer” strategy was the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election. After ex-governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama or “Ahok” made controversial comments about the Quran, anti-Ahok rallies, mobilising over 500,000 protesters at their peak, were led by a coalition of Islamic groups. These religious groups were long unhappy with Ahok in power but did not surge in popularity until Ahok’s blasphemy case came to the fore (Figure 3).

Figure 3: FPI Facebook fan change (October 2016 to August 2017)

Image result for FPI Facebook fan change (October 2016 to August 2017)Source: author analysis

 

The hard line Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) more than tripled their support base on Facebook following Ahok’s comments, and figured prominently in the months-long campaign against him. Witnessing the rise of the FPI and other Islamist groups gaining prominence as anti-Ahok movement garnered force, Ahok’s opponent Anies Baswedan, long seen as a secular Islamic politician, shifted gear to appeal to those sympathetic to the FPI campaign. The online sphere became deeply polarised: a network analysis of those who commented on Ahok’s and Anies’ Facebook posts in the month of December in 2016 (Figure 4) shows that only 16 people cross-commented on both pages out of a total of 9,000 comments.

Figure 4: Network Visualisation of Commenters on Ahok’s (Blue) and Anies Baswedan’s (Red) Facebook Page

Image result for Source: author analysis. Data are drawn from the period from December 1 to 31, 2016

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This post appears as part of the Regional Learning Hub, a New Mandala series on the challenges facing civil society in Southeast Asia supported by the TIFA Foundation.