How “Hoax” Hysteria Used to Justify Tighter Internet Laws and Repress Free Expression in Southeast Asia

SAFEnet’s report on hoax handling in Southeast Asian countries was prepared for “Building an Informed Community: Principles for Cross-Sector Collaboration in Southeast Asia” workshop at Lee Kuan Yew, School of Public Policy NUS and Facebook APAC on May 2-4,2018.

The report, entitled How “Hoax” Hysteria Used to Justify Tighter Internet Laws and Repress Free Expression in Southeast Asia was written by two SAFEnet volunteers, Damar Juniarto and Alvin Nicola after monitoring how the Southeast Asian governments seek to curb “hoaxes” by creating rules that even curb freedom of expression for its own political sake, rather than fixing the issues arising from the spread of the hoax to the public.

HOAX is apparently everywhere. All over the world, legislators and officials are trying to regulate content with “fake news” legislation, as though the term could somehow be narrowly-defined enough that regulation could even have a positive effect.

Hoax is related to online disinformation and misinformation used by elite politics to alter people opinion and gain political support. In every Southeast Asia countries, hoax has a wide meaning depending on who drive the political interest from hoax hysteria.

In some countries, the government use “fake news” as an excuse to silence criticism. While in some other, the government use “fake news” to justify their action against humanity, such as in Myanmar where they use hoax as fuel to genocide Rohingya people.

Countries already known for heavy-handed control of the internet are using “fake news” to seize even more control of news outlets and communications platforms. What’s unique about the context of the Southeast Asian region is that fake news and disinformation operate within a framework where existing laws already inhibit freedom of expression.

In countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, and Myanmar, disinformation and hateful rhetoric online have had serious consequences for public opinion. In cases like Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Singapore, where there are existing laws that curtail freedom of expression, social media has become the new avenue for government to exercise control over free speech.

In this year or two, many Southeast Asian countries will undergo electoral processes involving their respective presidencies. These governments are beginning to exploit concerns over “fake news,” as though it were a novel phenomenon, in order to adopt proposals to increase state control over online communications and expand censorship and Internet surveillance.

These governments aren’t concerned about fake news, but they are concerned about their official narratives being countered by speech carried on platforms they can’t directly control. Fake news legislation is an easy way to grant themselves the power they need to nuke content that contradicts government portrayals of events, incidents, and lawmaking efforts. It not only turns the production or sharing of government-designated “fake news” into a crime, but also allows the government to directly target internet companies for content posted by their users.


More elaborate on the hoax in everyday life in Southeast Asia countries.


The Singapore government want to update the Broadcasting Act in order to address the rise of misinformation and “fake news” on the Internet. Hoax is not in line with the community values, including the need to uphold racial and religious harmony.

In 2015, The Real Singapore, a rival socio-political news and opinion website that was shut by the government earlier this year. The Real Singapore was ordered to close by the Media Development Authority (MDA) after being found guilty of publishing inflammatory, racist articles to boost traffic.

Singapore’s media regulator has suspended the license to operate of socio-political blog The Real Singapore for publishing “inflammatory” content that it considered posed a threat to public order and national harmony in a bid to boost traffic.

The site must be taken down or TRS’ administrators could be fined S$200,000 or face up to three years in jail.

The MDA said TRS had faked articles by falsely attributing them to members of the public, and inserted passages in articles that were either lifted from local news sources or sent in by contributors “so as to make the articles more inflammatory” to boost traffic and, in turn, ad revenue.

The MDA believes this editorial strategy of deceiving readers and doctoring articles was an attempt to increase traffic to TRS, and thus boost advertising revenue. In so doing, TRS, including its two foreign editors, were seeking to make profit at the expense of Singapore’s public interest and national harmony.

MDA has suspended the statutory class license for Ai Takagi (Australian) and Yang Kaiheng to operate the website

Formerly in 2013, Singapore required major news websites to register with the government and pay a licensing fee. The licensing requirement law also empowered authorities to remove online content that destroys “social harmony”.

Singapore’s media watchdog, MDA, has been very active in its attempts to manage the local blogosphere in the two years since it introduced a licensing framework for websites with high traffic that report on Singapore.

Since May 2013, The Breakfast Network, a local news site founded by a former Straits Times journalist, has closed. The Independent, a site set up by the founder of TODAY newspaper in August 2013, was leant on to get a license as soon as it launched, on the grounds that the MDA suspected The Independent had foreign backing.

The same reason was given to, another Singapore news blog, that was instructed to get a license under the Broadcasting Act in April last year, and The Opinion Collaborative, the publisher of The Online Citizen, which was told to do the same five months later.

The government of Singapore is working its way towards regulating “fake news.” This is already a problem, as no government that has tackled this issue has been able to define what “fake news” is, other than news the government doesn’t like. A government granting itself the power to unilaterally remove competing narratives is something that never goes out of style, and those picking up the “fake news” torch from the Twitter feed of the leader of the free world tend to be of the authoritarian variety.

The government’s “Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods” sought input from citizens on the proposed legislation. Then it recast that input by memorializing it in a way that downplayed, if not excised completely, any input that didn’t align with the government’s views.

The government in Singapore has been mulling over legislative measures. Although the country has yet to see any major social or political issues caused by misinformation as a whole, according to a government poll conducted last year, more than 90 percent of Singaporeans supported strong laws to remove or correct fake news. In January, the parliament voted unanimously to create a committee of MPs who will focus on the problem of deliberate online falsehoods. The potential new legislation raised concerns that it would further stifle the limited freedom of expression in the country; in February, journalists, academics, advocacy groups and others made public the submissions they sent to the select committee.



In 2018, following U.S. President Donald Trump accused some media groups of reporting fake news and banned them from attending press conferences in the White House, Cambodian leaders used the same arguments, The Cambodia president Hun Sen identified Voice of Democracy, Voice of America and Radio Free Asia as media groups which report inaccurately about Cambodia. He also repeated Trump’s description of some media entities as producers of fake news in what appeared to be an effort to downplay reports criticizing his government.

The crackdown on media in Cambodia may intensify with the proposal of a new law targeting creators and publishers of “fake news,” which comes just weeks after Malaysia approved an “anti-fake news” law that could see offenders jailed for up to 10 years.

The suggestion to outlaw so-called fake news arose when Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen met with his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuân Phúc last week. According to the Phnom Penh Post, the two leaders discussed how to deal with supposedly inaccurate news. Following the meeting, a spokesperson for Cambodia’s ruling party announced the potential changes, explaining that the law, if enacted, would apply “to some media in which they use the wrong information or fake news.”

Last month, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications called for a fight against “fake news” and in January, Hun Sen said that media outlets considered producers of “fake news” by the government are guilty of violating the law. Advocates of press freedom fear that an anti-fake news law could result in a clampdown on reporting that take issue with Hun Sen’s government. The 65-year old Cambodian prime minister has been ruling the country since 1985 and is up for another election in late July – one that he is likely to win after his main competitor, the Cambodian National Rescue Party, was dissolved by the Supreme Court last year.



In Malaysia, just a month ago the authorities bulldozed an anti-fake news law through parliament which many believe will be used to suppress critical thinking and dissent.

The Malaysia Anti-Fake News Bill 2018 was passed in the policy stage in the Dewan Rakyat on April 2, 2018 following a bloc vote, following days of heated debate. The Bill, which seeks to formulate a new law to stop the spread of fake news which could threaten the country’s political stability and undermine public order and national security, was passed with 123 voting in favor and 64 against.

Several amendments were made to the Bill, which were reducing the jail time for creating and spreading fake news from 10 years to six years, and replacing the word “knowingly” to “maliciously.”

The Bill, provided that any person who, by any means, creates, offers, publishes, prints, distributes, circulates or disseminates any fake news or publication containing fake news is liable to punishment.

The Anti-Fake News Bill which sets out fines of up to 500,000 ringgit ($123,000) and a maximum six years in jail or both. The bill will be debated in the Senate as early as by Thursday, 5 April 2018. Once passed by both houses, the law may come into force within days.

The Malaysian law defines fake news as “news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false.” News includes stories, video, and audio content.

Malaysia launched a debunking site called (“sebenarnya” means “actually” in Bahasa Malaysia). The initiative was launched by Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), a regulatory body. The MCMC also launched an initiative to teach media literacy, responsible internet use, and digital safety through its Klik Dengan Bijak Programme. ‘Klik Dengan Bijak’ roughly translates to “click wisely” or “click with care”.



In the Philippines, media outlets face similar threats, with president Rodrigo Duterte threatening to shut down the news site Rappler and regularly accusing it of being a “fake news outlet.” Philippines government are fending off criticisms by labeling certain media outlets as “fake news.”

House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez filed a bill mandating that social media companies verify the identity of users before registering them on their networks, so that they could more easily to prevent users from creating fake accounts and spreading fake news. The proposed Social Media Regulation Act of 2017 even identified certain social media companies that would be affected by the draft:

This proposed bill seeks to afford a remedial measure on the foregoing matters and will regulate these social media by mandating social media companies (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc.) to reasonably verify the identity of user applicants before they are allowed to open an account. Penalties are also provided for failure to comply with this verification requirement.

The Filipino Senate’s Committee on Public Information and Mass Media chair, Grace Poe, filed a bill that would hold public officials and government agency employees accountable for disseminating false information. But Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque immediately dismissed such a bill as unconstitutional. In the past, President Rodrigo Duterte said such a law wouldn’t be passed in Congress. Duterte had previously called the online portal Rappler a “fake news outlet” in January.

Facebook has started blocking some pro-Duterte websites that are suspected of peddling fake news, as the world’s largest social network intensifies fact-checking efforts to weed out misleading content and false information. According to Facebook, users are prevented from sharing content from the banned websites for not following the social network’s “community standards” and for being “unsafe.”



The Indonesia government keep using blocking mechanism as way to control the internet, especially the spread of hoax. In 2017, the government start using Artificial Intelligence System (AIS) to control hoax. This 19,7 billion rupiah AIS engine called Cyber Drone 9 is used to track down and report websites spreading fake news. Blocking threat also used by the government to rule the social media who didn’t obey to take down hoax content on their platform. The government also maximizing the use of IET Law to punish people who spread hoax against Joko Widodo and the government.

Three suspects from the Saracen group were arrested for the publication of hate speech and disinformation online which the group allegedly sold to prospective buyers. The group is also reportedly behind several fake accounts used to propagate hate and fake news on social media. Members of the group are facing charges under the Information and Electronic Transactions (ITE) Law.

President Joko Widodo in January appointed a chairman of the newly established National Cyber and Encryption Agency to combat “fake news on social media” along with the state intelligence agency and the police, which has stirred some criticism. Earlier this month, the police arrested suspected members of the Muslim Cyber Army for spreading fake news and defamatory content. Members of another online content syndicate, Saracen, were arrested on similar accounts last year.

Indonesian authorities have actively been blocking accounts or removing content deemed harmful to society. In the country, all types of misinformation are singly referred to as the Indonesian word for “hoax.” Google, Facebook and other social media and messaging app companies are reported to be working with the government to tackle the spread of harmful content, including pornography and “hoaxes” with blocking, removing or flagging certain content.

And the last one, MICT launched Masyarakat Anti Hoax movement as a way to get public support toward the war against hoax.

Indonesia is battling a wave of fake news and online hate speech ahead of presidential elections in 2019, as a string of arrests underscore fears it could crack open social and religious fault lines in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.

Police have cracked down, rounding up members of the Muslim Cyber Army (MCA), a cluster of loosely connected groups accused of using Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to attack the government and stoke religious extremism.

Two of the group’s most high-profile falsehoods were claims that dozens of Islamic clerics had been assaulted by leftists and that Indonesia’s outlawed communist party was on the rise, according to police.

Indonesia’s problem with internet hoaxes and misinformation campaigns reached fever pitch in the lead up to elections in Jakarta in late 2016 and early 2017, with incumbent governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, nicknamed Ahok, bearing the brunt of it.

Another case under this law involves the recent arrest of a woman for spreading a “defamatory” meme of House of Representatives (DPR) Chairman Setya Novanto. The case has been criticized for the broad application of the law, deemed as repressive of criticism against government.



In Myanmar, several media reforms were instituted in recent years, such as the dissolution of the censorship board, but the lingering effects of censorship are still felt and indirectly enforced. Hard-hitting journalists continue to face defamation charges and other harassment suits. The government is also accused of deliberately preventing the improvement of Internet connections in the country in an effort to control the spread of critical information.

Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi has been quoted as saying “fake news” has been fanning conflict over the Rohingya crisis. While the Muslim group has been a victim of violence and neglect on the ground, they’re also facing attacks online, as social media platforms become venues for vicious hate speech directed toward the minority.

Myanmar’s Ministry of Transport and Communications announced a 6.4 billion kyats ($4.82 million) budget for a new Social Media Monitoring Team tasked with identifying online speech that could threaten national stability.



Thirty-five political bloggers are currently in prison in Vietnam right now. Continuing persecution suffered by bloggers and dissidents has highlighted the urgent need to reform laws that govern speech and online content in Vietnam.

Article 88 of the Criminal Code, which bans anti-state propaganda, is often used to detain individuals who oppose the government. Article 258 of the Criminal Code punishes misuse of “democratic freedoms to attack state interests and the legitimate rights and interests of collectives and individuals” and carries a sentence of seven years in prison. Last year, the nation’s Prime Minister issued a directive ordering a crackdown on “reactionary” blogs. Broadly speaking, vague provisions in the law allow authorities to make arbitrary arrests with little structure for accountability.

Early this month, Decree 72 took effect, putting into force a law that many activists have described as the country’s harshest legal offensive against freedom of information. The new regulation bans the sharing of news stories or so-called “compiled information”. But the government claims it is intended only to protect intellectual property.

A “press card” system frequently is used to control mainstream media



Thailand’s most notorious media regulation is practiced through Article 112 of the country’s Criminal Code, known as the lese-majeste law, which forbids anyone from insulting the king and members of the royal family.

It is described by many commentators as one of the world’s “harshest” speech laws as it carries a minimum mandatory sentence of three years imprisonment and a maximum sentence of 15 years for a single offense. The law is often invoked to censor web content and shut down websites. Aside from webmasters and editors, even ordinary citizens have been jailed for allegedly sending mobile phone text messages that insult the royal family.



In 2014, Laos enacted a law that enforced even stricter control over media in the country. The decree has been criticized for having vague stipulations that could be used to stifle free speech.



In August of 2017 a website with the url “” reported that Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah invested $720 million in a tech startup called “The Bitcoin Code”. There are no reports to corroborate this claim nor to vouch for the legitimacy of the startup.



Countries Definition of Fake News Reason to regulate Fake News Regulation on Fake News
Malaysia Any news, information, data, and reports that are partially or entirely wrong, whether in the form of articles, visual or audio recordings or in other forms that may reflect words or ideas. Fake news ruins social harmony Akta AntiBerita Tidak Benar 2018 (Akta 803) enforced on April 11, 2018
Singapore Hoax is not in line with the community values, including the need to uphold racial and religious harmony.

Lowering the risk the possibility of foreign players intentionally promulgating fake news online directed at undermining the credibility of public figures and institutions and causing rifts between Singapore’s diverse racial and religious groups.

Update the Broadcasting Act
Philippines Posing criticism over Government action Proposed Social Media Regulation Act of 2017 – a bill mandating that social media companies verify the identity of users before registering them on their networks, so that they could more easily to prevent users from creating fake accounts and spreading fake news.
Indonesia Hoax against Joko Widodo and the government. Hoax could crack open social and religious fault lines in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country. The use of AIS Engine Cyber Drone 9 and the establishment of National Cyber and Encryption Agency to combat hoax.
Myanmar Hoax could threaten national stability. Ministry of Transport and Communications announced a 6.4 billion kyats ($4.82 million) budget for a new Social Media Monitoring Team tasked with identifying online speech that could threaten national stability.
Cambodia Inaccurate news Hoax is an effort to downplay reports criticizing the government.
Thailand Hoax insulting the king and members of the royal family. Article 112 of Criminal Code (lese majeste law)
Vietnam Article 88 and 258 of the Criminal Code and Decree 72




It is important to hold on the Article 19 of ICCPR – freedom of expression article – due the substance to rule hoax distribution on internet (social media). According to Rome Statute, the right of free expression is limited only by these 3 things, such as:

  1. Incitement to war
  2. Disturbing national security
  3. Damaging people reputation that make someone lose their dignity

Based on that principle, such regulation to limit freedom of expression, especially the new or updated law to regulate fake news/hoax in Southeast Asia countries should follow these directions.

We assure that the fight of hoax/fake news is important, but it should not undermine the right of free expression, the press freedom and the right of information. The government should collaborate with the society: news media, human right and free expression defender, social communities, internet activists, social media platforms, academic and scholar to cut the spread of hoax, debunking hoax, and dismantle the fake news producer for healthier online experience.

For the countries where the government using the regulation to justify tighter internet laws and repress free expression, we are suggesting to withdraw the law/regulation and respect people rights to express opinions, criticisms, to make the country better, rather than accusing them as fake news producers.

Report by: Damar Juniarto and Alvin Nicola, SAFEnet volunteers

This report was prepared for “Building an Informed Community: Principles for Cross-Sector Collaboration in Southeast Asia” workshop at Lee Kuan Yew, School of Public Policy NUS and Facebook APAC on May 2-4, 2018.

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