Before the COVID-19 pandemic, several countries in Asia had experienced rising levels of autocratization and digital repression as governments leveraged digital technologies to stifle online dissent and surveil critics. The pandemic, however, could deepen governments’ capacities for digital repression. Recent developments in South and Southeast Asia offer insights about this worrying trend.
The trend toward “lawfare”—the abuse of laws to criminalize oppositional civil society and generate a chilling effect to achieve self-censorship—emerged in South and Southeast Asia long before the pandemic. Provisions condemning defamation, sedition, and public assembly have been instrumental in suppressing pro-democracy voices for years in established autocracies such as Vietnam, increasingly authoritarian regimes such as in Cambodia and Thailand, and democracies like India. In the past decade, computer- and cyber-related laws have added a new ingredient to this cocktail of legal repression. In Thailand, for instance, social media users have been charged under the Computer Crime Act for online speech offending the royal family. In India, Section 66a of the Information Technology Act have empowered the authorities to censor posts and websites or to arrest citizens for any online content deemed offensive or inciting.
The following table lists examples of these laws and their respective dates of enactment in South and Southeast Asian countries.
|Table 1: New Laws Enabling Online Censorship in South and Southeast Asia|
|Country||Law||Year of Enactment|
|India||Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules (executive rule)||2021|
|Nepal||Information Technology Bill||2020|
|Pakistan||Citizen’s Protection (Against Online Harm)||2020|
|Singapore||Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act||2019|
|Sri Lanka||False News Bill (draft)||2019|
|Bangladesh||Digital Security Act||2018|
|Malaysia||Anti-Fake News Act||2018, revoked in 2019, reintroduced in 2021|
|Vietnam||Cyber Security Act||2018|
|Thailand||Amended Computer Crime Act||2016|
|Laos||Law on Prevention and Combating Cyber Crimes||2015|
|Bangladesh||Section 57 of the Information Technology and Communication (ICT) Act||2013|
|Singapore||Internet Code of Practice||2013|
|Philippines||Cyber Crime Prevention Act||2012|
|India||Sections 66A and 69A of the Information Technology (Amendment) Act||2008|
|Indonesia||Electronic Information and Transaction Law||2008|
|Sri Lanka||Computer Crime Act||2007|
|India||Section 54 of Disaster Management Act||2005|
COVID-19 has spurred governments in South and Southeast Asia to accelerate the weaponization of these laws—particularly to punish critics under the guise of combating “fake news.” For instance, between January and March 2020, the police in Vietnam took action against 654 cases of purported fake news and sanctioned 146 people, including a dissident publisher. In Cambodia, by April 2020, around thirty activists and opposition members had been detained on the charge of spreading “fake news” about COVID-19. In Singapore, alleged spreaders of “fake news”—including political rivals of the government and independent journalists—were targeted under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act. In Malaysia, the government used a health emergency decree as a pretext to revive a “fake news” bill that had been revoked in 2019. In Indonesia, one of the region’s last-standing democracies, the government arrested citizens, including a West Papuan pro-independence leader, for spreading supposedly false information.
The state of digital rights is not looking any better in South Asia. In India, hastily introduced executive rules gave the government sweeping new powers over digital content, curbing peoples’ rights to free speech and privacy. Following a devastating second wave of COVID-19 infections, these rules enabled the broadening of the definition of disinformation to include criticism of the government. Subsequently, user posts were taken down on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. At least fifty-five journalists who reported on COVID-19 were attacked or arrested in 2020, a number that has climbed since then. In Sri Lanka, the police arrested multiple individuals who criticized the government’s response to the pandemic on social media. Similarly, in Bangladesh, the government exploited the Digital Security Act to crack down on journalists critical of its overall corruption and management of the health crisis.
The pandemic has increasingly normalized the deployment of facial recognition technology by governments in the region and increased the prospects of mass surveillance by legitimizing invasive measures on public health grounds. These developments present a special risk in countries that lack institutional checks against the misuse of digital surveillance. COVID-19 has enabled states to reformulate public health surveillance as law-and-order issues; in Singapore, for example, the authorities now use data collected from a contact tracing app in criminal investigations. Many such surveillance measures lack sunset clauses, thereby establishing new norms for states to control their citizens through their data.