[Regional] Online speech regulation in Mekong dominated by restrictive laws

Online communication policy in three Mekong countries are still dominated by government regulation that restricts freedom of expression.

On May 3rd 2018, SEAPA together with UNESCO and the Embassy of Sweden in Bangkok organized an event to commemorate World Press Freedom Day 2018.

During the event, SEAPA moderated a panel discussion on “freedom of expression online in the Mekong region: improving self-regulation.”

Speakers from Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand – Vicheika Kann (a reporter from VoA Khmer Service), Yin Yadanar Thein (Freedom of Expression Myanmar) and Yingcheep Atchnont  (iLaw Thailand) – all shared that their countries faced restrictive laws that limited freedom of expression online.

In the region, authorities often cite national security in order to enhance surveillance and restrict freedom of speech, posing challenges for both privacy and media freedom.

The situation in these countries confirm the findings of a UNESCO report, World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development 2017/18, about how national security concerns have been used to justify the existing measures. The report perceives this situation as a challenge, as the restrictions raise the issue necessity and proportionality.

The restrictive laws that being used in the region include cybercrime laws, telecommunication laws, and penal code provisions on defamation, sedition, and lese majeste.

Speakers agreed that those laws are deliberately being used to suppress the voice of dissent, especially human rights defenders and journalists who are critical of the government. Instead of making the online sphere a safe place, these laws are actually creating an atmosphere of fear.

In many cases the increase in laws and regulations on online speech has proved to be more problematic than an absence of regulation. One problematic area is the failure of these laws to differentiate between media organisations that publish or broadcast news content, Internet platforms that host content produced by third parties, and those producing deliberately harmful content. Online regulation tends to penalize ‘illegal content’ regardless of the role of those accused of being responsible for it.

The discussion also raised challenges from the expanded space for communications which has given rise to the spread of hate speech and disinformation, including new forms of harassment including doxxing (revealing personal information), cyber trolls, and online death threats.

With the fast expansion of the internet and online space, the laws are unable keep up with technology and in the end would fail to strike a balance between protecting the freedom of expression online and creating a safe space in the internet.

Sheen Handoo, a representative from Facebook Asia Pacific, participated in the panel to shed light on the company’s responses to the issues affecting the social media platform.

Algorithms and artificial intelligence are the primary tools used by technology companies to regulate content suspected as offensive. Because of the massive number of users in the region, companies are hobbled by the lack of native language speakers who can understand context of the use of offensive language to double check content flagged by machines.

Companies like Facebook have played a dominant role in regulating content inside their platform, often without intervention from the government. Often this, too, results in arbitrary censorship of legitimate speech in the often futile attempt to prevent hate speech and disinformation.

In short, self-regulation by online users is far from being a reality in the region dominated by governments using restrictive laws, and platforms trying to impose company standards on allowable content.

The challenge now is how to increase the involvement of civil society and other related stakeholders push for user’s rights and shift online speech regulation toward a more inclusive process.

To find out more about the discussion, please watch the video below:


If you wish to jump to specific topics, below are the timestamps:
05:02 Yingcheep Atchanont on The current situation of Freedom of Expression Online in Thailand
13:20 Vicheika Kann on The current situation of Freedom of Expression Online in Cambodia
20:58 Yin Yadanar Thein on The current situation of Freedom of Expression Online in Myanmar
36:20 Sheen Handoo on Facebook’s approach on the Freedom of Expression Online situation in the Mekong Region
48:04 Yingcheep Atchanont on Self-Regulation for Freedom of Expression Online in Thailand
50:27 Vicheika Kann on Self-Regulation for Freedom of Expression Online in Cambodia
54:45 Yin Yadanar Thein on Self-Regulation for Freedom of Expression Online in Myanmar
59:26 Sheen Handoo on the Role of Facebook in Self-Regulation for Freedom of Expression Online
01:02:09 Questions & Answers Session

For comments and questions about this panel discussion, you can message us at seapa@seapa.org.

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