PHNOM PENH — In parallel signals that press freedom remains under duress in parts of Southeast Asia, courts in Cambodia and Myanmar recently ordered reruns of cases against prominent journalists. The decisions, announced within days of each other in late September and early October, came as other countries in the region weighed up new laws concerning freedom of speech. On Sept. 30, a court in the central Myanmar city of Mandalay ordered a re-hearing in a lawsuit against Swe Win, the editor of local news publication Myanmar Now, who was accused of defaming a prominent Buddhist monk. Then on Oct. 2 a judge in Phnom Penh ordered a reinvestigation of former Radio Free Asia journalists Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin, who are facing between seven and 15 years in jail over charges of espionage and the production of pornography. On the day of the Cambodia announcement, Sothearin told reporters outside the court that he was “very disappointed” with the prospect of reinvestigation, which local civil society groups said showed that the charges were politically-motivated in the first place. Both the Cambodian and Myanmar decisions mean a double prolongation of cases that otherwise had looked to have run aground, and Rohit Mahajan, RFA’s vice president of communications and external relations said that the Cambodian case decision was “an admission of there being no real evidence to convict.”
KUALA LUMPUR — The spread of online political rumors, false content and hoaxes has fact-checkers working overtime ahead of elections in Thailand, India, Indonesia and the Philippines. In February, a video first seen last year resurfaced on social media of Grace Poe, a Philippine politician, allegedly backing the blocking of Facebook in the country, where freedom of speech is ingrained in the constitution and the number of social media users is 76 million, much higher than the 61.8 million people who are registered to vote. But the video, which was posted by an account supporting President Rodrigo Duterte, who defeated Poe and other candidates in 2016 presidential elections, excluded some vital comments by the senator, who will defend her seat in May’s midterm elections. “Can you block a particular company like Facebook from being accessed in the Philippines? I know they do this in China,” Poe was shown saying in the video, which had omitted the preceding comments to the question she posed: “Not that we’re going to do this — I’ll be the first to disagree if they do.” The misleading video was flagged by Vera Files, a fact-checking organization that is part of an elections-focused collaboration called Tsek.ph and which includes some of the Philippines’ main newspapers, television stations and media academics.
KUALA LUMPUR — U.S. President Donald Trump is seeking to rein in China’s technological ambitions. Last week Washington took the unprecedented step of threatening to suspend intelligence-sharing with an ally — in this case Germany — should Berlin allow Huawei to supply equipment for 5G networks. At a U.S. Senate Finance Committee hearing last Tuesday, Democrat Ron Wyden cited intellectual property theft, forced tech transfers and the firewall in blasting China for using “schemes and entities to strong-arm American businesses, steal American innovations and rip off American jobs.” But despite the hostility from Washington, Huawei has over half a million followers on Twitter and 1.3 million on Facebook. “5G gaming beats the 4G experience every time with even lower latency and ultrahigh bandwidth,” Huawei wrote on its Facebook page during the Mobile World Congress in Spain in late February. A tweet posted a day earlier said: “Huawei’s playing its part too to bringing [sic] safer, faster and smarter 5G experiences.”
SINGAPORE — Candidates running in a slew of elections across Asia this year are taking to Twitter and other social media platforms to share slogans, pitch policies, rankle rivals and rouse crowds ahead of campaign rallies. For the last decade or so, elections have typically been depicted as social media-driven contests where the hashtag outranks the hustings when it comes to canvassing votes, particularly from smartphone-dependent millennials. While social media environments differ depending on the country, the importance of Twitter and Facebook might be overstated. Although some Asian candidates boast a huge social media presence, many of their followers appear to be fake or dormant, and the proportion of those who engage with posts is relatively low. Thailand, Indonesia, India are all holding general or presidential elections in the first half of this year, Australia is likely to vote in May, around the time the Philippines holds midterm polls. The three Southeast Asian countries are among the world’s five most internet-addicted, according to We Are Social’s 2019 global survey. Using the online Twitter analysis tool Sparktoro, which works by taking a representative sample of followers — along the lines of an opinion survey — it appears Indonesian President Joko Widodo has over 5.1 million fake followers. That equates to more than 47% of his total follower base.
BANGKOK — The arrest last week of a high-profile journalist in the Philippines and a gag order against a Thai television station are the latest reminders that Southeast Asia’s press freedoms rest on the whims of governments. But after investors poured a record $145 billion into the region last year, there is little reason to think they will be deterred by the latest clampdowns. Last year’s inflow, recently reported by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, included an unprecedented sum for Vietnam, a one-party communist state. As usual, around half of the money went via Singapore, which has been ruled by the People’s Action Party since independence in 1965 and where reporting is stymied by prolific use of the courts against foreign critics of the ruling elites. “In general, if we compare to other factors — political stability, infrastructure, predictability of rules — [press freedom] is not a decisive factor” in investment moves, said Miha Hribernik, head of Asia politics research at Verisk Maplecoft. Nonetheless, a free press can at least inform business decisions, according to Ebb Hinchliffe, Executive Director of American Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines, and John D. Forbes, Senior Adviser to the chamber. “A responsible free press is more useful and important than a censored one for the purpose of being informed,” they said in an email.
JAKARTA — When Mahathir Mohamad’s Alliance of Hope coalition surprised the world — and perhaps even themselves — by winning last May’s parliamentary vote in Malaysia, it was not just the first-ever opposition election win in the country’s history. Some saw it as the result of the first “WhatsApp election,” where the platform’s encrypted private messaging provided a sanctuary for citizens to discuss politics away from the raucous finger-pointing of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. WhatsApp “offered security in that messages would come from ‘trusted’ contacts and thus be more ‘believable'” than open services such as Facebook or Twitter, said Serina Abdul Rahman, whose election research for the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusok Ishak Institute took her to rural areas in the south and north of Malaysia. Apprehension over commenting publicly was likely heightened by Prime Minister Najib Razak’s anti-fake news law, which was announced ahead of the elections. Some saw the law as a tool for Najib to avoid public discussion of corruption allegations related to the scandal-riddled sovereign wealth fund, 1MDB.
SINGAPORE — The recent exposé of how polling firm Cambridge Analytica mined Facebook for information on voters was focused mainly on the United States. But the investigation, which aired on the UK’s Channel 4 last month, has caused ructions in Malaysia after Mark Turnbull, a Cambridge Analytica executive, was filmed bragging that they helped the governing coalition retain power in the country’s last elections in 201, apparently by using social media to profile voters and deliver campaign messages. “We’ve done it in Mexico, we’ve done it in Malaysia and now we’re going to Brazil,” Turnbull said. With another election due anytime between now and August, Malaysia’s opposition predictably seized on that claim. The government in turn said it had nothing to answer for, blaming Mukhriz Mahathir, a former ally turned opposition member, for personally hiring Cambridge Analytica.
JAKARTA — The region’s jarring social media jousting means that platforms such as Twitter are not really “social” anymore, but have become “weaponized” according to Indonesian political analyst Wimar Witoelar, who has 439,000 Twitter followers. “So interaction is more often divisive than not. You cannot form a consensus. Instead you sharpen your differences,” he said via WhatsApp. Even Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s president, is not immune to savaging on social media, taking to Facebook in September to make his point. “I was asked, ‘President Jokowi, how is the state of social media in Indonesia?’, I replied, ‘In Indonesia, it can get very vicious,” he posted.
JAKARTA – Widodo has come under fire in social media for aspects of his presidency so far, with critics and supporters alike lambasting his perceived indecision after Indonesia’s unloved national police filed charges against leaders of the country’s popular Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), which had branded Widodo’s nominee for new police chief a corruption suspect. Widodo’s electoral success had partly been down to his own clean image and his anti-graft rhetoric, so it is little wonder, perhaps, that Widodo has kept his own fingers off the “send” button as millions of Indonesians weigh in, often using hashtags such as #SaveKPK and #Shameonyoujokowi.
JAKARTA – In a darkened university classroom in east Jakarta earlier this week, 50 or so students looked straight ahead, silent. On screen in front, a shrivelled, twitchy old man recounted how he killed, often gruesomely, a half century before. “Human blood tastes both salty and sweet, did you know that?” Inong, the murderer, said. He was recounting a half century old memory – that of his own savagery carried out during Indonesia’s mass killings of 1965-66. The footage appears in director Joshua Oppenheimer’s latest, The Look of Silence, which was given a rare airing in the Indonesian capital.