Global Conference for Media Freedom: Summary of regional consultations in Southeast Asia
- On October 8, 2020, Canada hosted virtual regional consultations in the lead-up to the second Global Conference for Media Freedom. The consultations included 24 journalists, academics and civil society participants from Southeast Asia. Discussions took place under Chatham House rules.
- Journalists and media advocates are concerned about current media trends in the region, including the effects of emerging technologies and social media platforms on public opinion and expression. The use of social media by unaccountable actors and authoritarian governments, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, has led many of the participants to no longer believe that social media is a net positive in their societies.
- Increasing polarization is both a contributing factor and a result of trends that are eroding media freedom in the region. Participants are worried about increasing intolerance of critical views in society, which has made it particularly difficult for journalists to report on sensitive issues and led to self-censorship.
COVID-19 and media freedom
Participants noted that the COVID-19 pandemic and legitimate concerns about regulating digital platforms have been used as reasons to limit media freedom. Legitimate concerns about national security or public health are being used as pretexts by authoritarian or populist governments to increase restrictions on freedom of expression and the press and to increase the governments’ control over access to information in general. Judicial harassment, political interference, physical and psychological threats, violence and even enforced disappearances are increasing in Southeast Asian countries. Media representatives serving marginalized communities often feel the brunt of these campaigns. COVID-19 and associated lockdowns have exacerbated existing inequalities in access to information and technology.
Artificial intelligence, digital technology and media freedom
Participants expressed a high level of concern about the role played by the Internet and social media in the region. Many stated that the negative effects of social media now far outweigh the positive benefits—particularly in environments where states or governments are harnessing the power of emerging technologies for their own political purposes.
Participants expressed concern over social media platforms and the artificial intelligence (AI) systems they employ being used as “behaviour modification systems.” Conspiracy theories now travel as fast as the truth, leading to society-wide polarization and decreasing trust in journalists. In 1 example raised by participants, a fringe campaign centred on the idea that journalists are criminals grew in popularity and mainstream support to the point where the general media environment was conducive to a large regional broadcaster being taken off the air, with the credible journalists who worked for it facing criminal charges.
Participants lamented a general lack of understanding on the part of journalists and the public about the algorithms used by Facebook and other social media platforms for micro-targeting and for collecting and disseminating information. Participants observed that micro-targeting is making it harder for users to be critical of information that aligns with their pre-existing views. Participants also noted the increased incidence of “doxing” (the intentional publication of personal information online) of journalists and activists in the region, with women 10 times more likely to be targeted than their male counterparts. Regional social media representatives, in turn, noted that governments have a necessary role to play in regulating platforms and holding them to account, and they emphasized their commitment to free expression. In the push for smart regulation of emerging technology, including greater platform accountability, participants underscored the importance of ensuring that civil society and voices from the Global South are represented.
State restrictions on the media
Southeast Asia has some of the world’s most restrictive media environments. All participants agreed that the region is trending in the wrong direction: freedom of expression is under attack and journalists are among the most popular targets via both legal and extrajudicial means.
Some Southeast Asian governments are misrepresenting western democratic examples to justify new laws and the use of existing laws to limit press freedoms. Authoritarian states do not have the same checks and balances as democratic states to protect citizens from their governments. New laws to control fake news provide additional resources and powers but without necessarily improving transparency or providing citizens with greater access to accurate information. Instead of information improving, its diversity and accuracy suffers, and some states purposefully misrepresent facts. Sweeping laws against the spread of fake news or against defamation or sedition allow governments in the region to criminalize or impose financial costs on some forms of free speech in a manner that is both politically motivated and yet entirely consistent with national laws.
Combined with near-total dependence on social media for dissemination and a collapsing business model, journalists working for mainstream outlets are feeling increasing pressure to conform and self-censor. While there is some space for citizen journalism or media start-ups, these groups are limited in number and in impact, and they are vulnerable to attacks from government, business or other groups.
Participants recommended several actions to increase media freedom in the Southeast Asian region:
- International organizations should continue to develop best practices and standards for media freedom to hold governments to account
- Governments should encourage the adoption of legislation that protects journalists, improves access to information and increases transparency while taking into account potential misuse of legal instruments against journalists
- Journalism should be considered an essential industry during the COVID-19 pandemic to allow greater access to information
- Oversight of social media platforms should be decentralized through an empowered civil society, and providing greater resources to the Global South should be emphasized
- Voices from the Global South should be represented in discussions about the use of emerging technologies and platform accountability
- Solidarity between civil society and journalists should increase and should include the protection of young journalists and the provision of legal assistance
- Governments and civil society organizations should foster tolerance of public criticism, recognizing its legitimacy and importance
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