June 11, 2021
By Karen Lee and Andreyka Natalegawa
Since the beginning of the pandemic, governments around the world have used emergency measures to suppress negative press coverage regarding Covid-19. Southeast Asia is no exception. This alarming trend parallels the latest findings by Reporters Without Borders, whose World Press Freedom Index 2021 found that press freedom has declined largely throughout the region. While Southeast Asia has long experienced challenges to press freedom, censorship of Covid-19 journalism poses a unique threat as it undermines public confidence in the government’s response to the pandemic and limits the availability of information citizens need to make decisions. informed about their health and safety during this crisis.
Multiple governments in the region have used misinformation laws to suppress Covid reporting and criticism. Cambodian government on 4 May prohibited reporting from its red Covid-19 areas, where residents barred from leaving their homes were experiencing food shortages. In July 2020, the Malaysian authorities deported a man from Bangladesh for criticizing the treatment of migrant worker governments during the pandemic in an Al Jazeera documentary. In March 2021, Malaysia as well switched a fake news ordinance that made it punishable by up to three years in prison for publishing false information about Covid-19. Surprisingly, Malaysia ra 18 countries in 119th place in the annual World Press Freedom Index, the biggest drop of any country.
In neighboring Singapore, the government has also used disinformation laws to crack down on the negative press about the pandemic. The Online Lie Protection and Manipulation Act (POFMA) passed in 2019 GRANTS government ministers to order any information on the internet that they deem to be false or misleading. Health Minister Gan Kim Yong utilized POFMA in February 2020 until issue a correction order for the owner of a Facebook page claiming the government was unable to trace the source of the Covid-19 cases in the country. Facebook and Twitter in May 2021 were also ordered to post a warning on their platforms after an Indian government official claimed there was a dangerous Covid-19 variant originating in Singapore. City-by-city dropped two places to 160th in the World Press Freedom Index, the second lowest ranking in Southeast Asia over Vietnam.
Southeast Asian governments have justified their actions by pointing to the threat posed by Covid-19-related disinformation, arguing that curbing fake news is necessary to maintain public order. Some concerns about misinformation are undoubtedly well-founded. Recent events, however, point to the possibility of efforts against counterfeit news, as well as the extent to which they can be adopted to achieve political goals, rather than public health.
Moreover, the constant targeting of journalists and others who report critically on the state of affairs regarding Covid-19 carries important implications for public trust. It may also limit the ability of Southeast Asians to make informed decisions about their health and safety amid the pandemic. Beyond the implication of a major crisis in press freedom, suppression of Covid-19 coverage could exacerbate vaccine reluctance, lack of public cooperation with contact tracking efforts, and disregard for public health measures.
Thailand seems to be one such case. In March 2021, Thai police accused former Future Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit with lse-magnificent criticism of government dominance over Siam Bioscience, a king-owned company, to produce and supply AstraZeneca vaccines to Thailand and the wider region despite the company not having previous experience in the production of vaccines. These allegations against Thanathorn appear to be aimed at stifling wider criticism of Thai-made vaccines which Thai authorities have begun delivery domestically and will start exporting in July.
Thai citizens have accused short-sighted government not to buy enough vaccines from other sources amid a third wave of infections. Although Thailand aims to vaccinate 70 percent of its population by the end of 2021, less than 2 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated, casting doubt on the recovery of tourism-dependent economies. Vaccine reluctance has grown up rapidly at the top of governments the spread of vaccines across the country, with the willingness to get vaccines decreasing from 83 per cent to 63 per cent between January and May. This represents the highest degree of hesitation among Southeast Asian countries. Public distrust of the Thai government has worse this vaccine reluctance, especially in relation to vaccines procured by the government from China.
Vaccination machines in Thailand further demonstrate how restrictions on press freedom, particularly around Covid-19-related reporting, can restrict citizens’ access to accurate information and lower public confidence. On June 2, the Thai Minister of Digital Economy and Society ordered Internet service providers to CLOSER eight Facebook accounts accused of posting fake news on social media are all run by pro-democracy activists or political commentators. As of June 11, these sites are still accessible in Thailand. Attempts by Thai governments to control pandemic-related fake news in this case appear to be a thin-walled attempt to cover up the vaccinations of governments by silencing political dissidents.
Achieving herd immunity and eradicating coronavirus should be a group effort. Given serious shortcomings in pandemic-related data collected and disseminated by governments, Southeast Asian citizens have turned to the media and civil society as critical sources of information. Openness and freedom of the press will go a long way in building trust and may prove to be essential as a means of ensuring compliance with public health responses and minimizing vaccine reluctance. However, if attacks on press freedom continue, the confidence deficit in the region will widen and citizens will be left in the dark about the purpose and nature of the crisis, hampering efforts towards pandemic recovery.
Karen Lee is a Research Intern with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC Andreyka Natalegawa is a Research Assistant with the Southeast Asia CSIS Program.
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