Stop using ‘fake news’ laws in battle against coronavirus disinformation, MPs say

Regional lawmakers have today called on authorities in Southeast Asia to stop using broadly worded anti-fake news laws to prosecute those accused of spreading disinformation about the coronavirus health emergency, and instead invest in public messaging campaigns to ensure their citizens are reliably informed about the issue. 

In recent weeks, misleading information - so-called “fake news” - has been heavily shared across the region online regarding novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), which was first reported in Wuhan, China, in December. There have been more than 1,000 confirmed deaths from the virus - the majority in China - and infections have been reported in dozens of countries, including many in Southeast Asia.

“While it is important for authorities to prevent the spread of disinformation, and ensure accurate information about the coronavirus, across the region we are seeing a worrying trend of ambiguously-worded laws being used to prosecute citizens,” said Teddy Baguilat, a former Philippines parliamentarian, and Board Member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR). “Laws that rely on vague prohibitions, such as punishing so-called ‘fake news’, excessively restrict the right to freedom of expression and should be abolished.” 

In Thailand, authorities have used an “Anti-Fake News Centre” to identify and charge two people under the Computer Crime Act for sharing false information about the virus, and the pair each face a potential five-year jail term. A Malaysian journalist could also be given a similar sentence, after she was accused of causing “public mischief” under the country’s Penal Code for a series of social media posts on the issue. Despite calls for the reporter’s release from civil society groups, Malaysian officials have hardened their stance, and said they will speed up cases if more people are found guilty of breaking the law. 

Meanwhile, in Indonesia two people have been arrested and face a potential five-year jail term for allegedly spreading disinformation, and Vietnam has issued a decree that allows for heavy fines for those found guilty of sharing fake news. 

“It’s absurd, and wholly disproportionate, that people are facing a potential five-year jail term just for sharing false information online,” said Teddy Baguilat. “And think about the chilling impact such measures have on freedom of expression. Keep this up, and people will be too scared to share their opinion about anything.” 

Chinese officials have been accused of censoring criticism of the government’s handling of the coronavirus, including by shutting down social media accounts used by citizens to share information, which experts say could have contributed to the illness spreading as quickly as it has, and contributed to the spread of disinformation.