Struggling to unshackle expression and decriminalise the internet

Across Asia, the legitimate exercise of rights on the internet by individuals is increasingly branded as criminal activity. Defamation and sedition laws are the new forms of addressing inconvenient expression. As elections approach, there is a growing fear of the voice of people echoed on the internet.

As a result, states have sought to regulate and control online spaces and activities of individuals. Regulations pertaining to online spaces have taken many forms. Information and communications technology (ICT) laws throughout Asia have provisions that seek to censor and criminalise speech online. These regulations pose a significant challenge to people’s freedom of expression and their ability to participate in democratic processes such as elections. Media and journalists along with human rights defenders are finding it increasingly difficult to engage in online spaces with the threat of prosecution looming large.

In light of this, the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), in collaboration with the Internet Policy Observatory at the University of Pennsylvania and civil society organisations in India, Malaysia, Pakistan, Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia, published a report that examines criminalisation of online expression in these six Asian states. The report, “Unshackling Expression: A study on laws criminalising expression online in Asia“, was published as a special edition of APC’s Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch).

“Overall, threats and restrictions to human rights on the internet are increasing worldwide. In Asia in particular, censorship and criminalisation of speech online are among the most critical challenges,” said Valeria Betancourt, manager of APC’s Communications and Information Policy Programme. “Unshackling Expression addresses the complexity of the political, legal and regulatory landscape in Asia by reviewing the situation and trends in a number of countries in the region. We believe the study contributes to deciphering that complexity and to identifying areas where civil society advocacy should continue focusing on to ensure that internet-related regulatory and legal frameworks are developed and applied in accordance with international human rights standards and with a human rights approach as a reference.”

The report notes that forms of online expression ranging from websites documenting rights violations in Cambodia, to satirical art in Malaysia, to humorous memes in India, to Facebook posts comparing the colour of clothes worn by two personalities in Myanmar, to posts criticising oil companies for their impact on the environment or even the mere act of liking a post on social media in Pakistan have been subject to state-imposed criminal sanctions. “Freedom of expression is thus written off as collateral damage in the name of defending the dignity of political personalities, religion and the good reputation of states,” observed Gayatri Khandhadai, the Asia policy regional coordinator at APC.

Another alarming trend recognised in the report which needs immediate attention relates to the harsher punishments and penalties imposed on online content as compared to similar offline content or activities. “This is particularly problematic when the state uses security-related legislations like SOSMA [the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012] in conjunction with ICT laws to target lawyers and human rights defenders. What we are essentially witnessing is the legal euthanisation of dissent and political expression,” said Sevan Doraisamy, executive director of the Malaysian human rights organisation SUARAM.

According to Khandhadai, “In most cases ICT legislation is enacted as a knee-jerk reaction to developments around us. The long-term implications for legitimising such untenable restrictions on freedom of expression and other rights online through legislation are undesirable for any democratic society.”

The findings of the report, particularly in relation to the curbs placed on media and the clampdown on expression during elections, along with other pressing concerns, will be discussed by authors of the report at an event on 24 April 2018 at Hotel Renaissance in Kuala Lumpur.

Full report available: http://www.giswatch.org/sites/default/files/giswspecial2017_web.pdf

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