However much free speech was already waning in Southeast Asia before the coronavirus-induced crisis, there’s still plenty room for it to descend to new lows. Today, there is a sentiment from certain quarters that goes something along the lines of: “I don’t mind if the authorities suspend free speech for now if it means we are safer.”
No doubt many of those in favor of censorship for the sake of battling the COVID-19 pandemic are motivated by good intentions – namely, stopping the spread of misinformation and “fake news” in order to save lives. Yet I assume the reader is aware of where roads paved with good intentions can lead. This kind of thinking creates a slippery slope, especially in a region already struggling with restrictions on free speech and expression.
The censorial powers that Southeast Asia’s authoritarian leaders are now wielding with apparent public approval – from “state of emergency” legislation in Thailand and Cambodia to Singapore’s natural implementation of its Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Law that was passed last year – are certain to be retained once this crisis ends. Autocratic governments rarely look gift horses in the mouth; they are proverbial hoarders of repressive tools and trinkets.
As could be expected, groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have been busy lately, putting out seemingly daily press releases about how rights are being abused in the region because of this crisis. “Thai authorities seem intent on shutting down critical opinions from the media and general public about their response to the COVID-19 crisis,” Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch informed us on March 26. Two days earlier, his colleague Phil Robertson noted that “the Cambodian government is misusing the COVID-19 outbreak to lock up opposition activists and others expressing concern about the virus and the government’s response.”
To take just one example, earlier this month Sovann Rithy, director of the online TVFB news site – one of the few Cambodian media outlets not in the government’s payroll or back pocket – was arrested for reporting accurately what Prime Minister Hun Sen had said at a press conference. The police later claimed the comment was a “joke” by the prime minister – and, therefore, it would appear, not permissible for reprint, a rule nowhere to be found in any local law book. It’s still not clear exactly how the authorities will try squaring this circle if the case gets to court, but TVFB’s broadcasting license has already been revoked because, the Information Ministry says, by reporting the Prime Minister’s comments Rithy engaged in activities “to generate an adverse effect on the security, public order and safety of society.”
Such a phrase fits perfectly with how other Southeast Asian governments are further restricting free speech during this crisis. And like the wording of most repressive legislation in Southeast Asia, it is equal parts vague and precise: vague because just about anything can be deemed as having an adverse impact on public order; but precise because it makes the government the sole arbitrator of what does or doesn’t have adverse effect on security and public order.
Reasoned and accurate journalistic criticism of how a government is handling the coronavirus crisis, for instance, can obviously have an adverse effect on administration. Yet a spiel of state propaganda, which is untrue but whips up public support behind a government’s responses, can have positive effect on health responses. In other words, the permissibility of ideas or information becomes dependent on their consequence, not intention or content.
The main threat to free speech in Southeast Asia, of course, is authoritarian governments. But allied to them (and equally threatening) is a growing chorus of people clamoring to be “protected” from speech and opinions they don’t like. This descent was happening well before the new coronavirus emerged in Wuhan in late 2019. But it will only worsen and harden once the crisis passes.
If you’ve been following any of the current global debate about free speech, you will have most likely stumbled upon the words of the late American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, whose analogy of “shouting fire in a crowded theater” still constitutes the go-to cliché of when it’s acceptable to silence free-speech. But as I wrote in a longer essay (see: Saviour Or Censor: The Future Of Facebook and Free Speech in Southeast Asia), the problem in Holmes’ analogy is not the person shouting “fire” in the theater but the audience too quick to panic. I put it thusly:
This, in fact, cuts to the root of many free speech issues. The readiness to panic at the slightest mention of something disturbing and the readiness to blame the person shouting “fire,” not the crowd acting in a mobish frenzy. One can hope, instead, that an educated, reasonable crowd knows that if “fire” is shouted it would be best to actually take a moment to assess whether there is a fire or not and, then, not rush the doors in blind panic. And if there is no fire, allow the show to continue and treat the shouter for what he is, a liar and fear-monger.
The question today, during our health crisis, is comparable. It might be the case that some people (I certainly wouldn’t go as far to say “many” or “most) in Southeast Asia believe in the kinds of conspiracy theories and false information that could exacerbate the health crisis, potentially causing harm to others. However, I suspect the number of these people is much inflated in the minds of those who demand censorship – as well as in the minds of regional autocrats, who cannot find enough of these people to justify their censorial intentions so, instead, are using “fake news” laws and claims of public security threats to lock up journalists and pro-democracy activists.
Crises bring out our infantalist impulses. Indeed, the logic behind restricting free speech is that governments reckon their populations are too simple and childish to come face-to-face with uncomfortable information. But probe gently and you’ll find that those ordinary civilians who are now clamoring for censorship never think of themselves as likely to be affected by false information and “fake news.” No, it’s always someone else, some other fellow citizen, who is so uneducated and uncivilized that they need to be quarantined by the state from such troublesome ideas. Hard to miss is the cynicism at play.
It’s only natural for people to revert to some form of infanthood and demand that higher powers (whether supernatural or secular) protect us during times of crisis — and in exchange offer up their own rights. As an English witticism I heard some time back goes, in a crisis one must choose between habeas corpus and hundreds of corpses. Things are not so binary. But everyone today, just as in any crisis, has to struggle with the question of whether means justify ends. Is it worth giving up today – and likely for the foreseeable future — whatever little free speech there was in Southeast Asia because of the unproven suggestion that doing so could save a few lives?