By Joseph Cummins
CAMBODIA and Malaysia have exploited the Covid-19 pandemic to introduce draconian new regulations on information, a press watchdog has said.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said that acts passed since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic by the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (UMNO) and the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) allow the ruling parties to monitor and limit internet traffic, communication and the media.
The Malaysian ‘anti fake news’ law, passed in March this year, makes it an offence to publish or reproduce any “wholly or partly false” content related to the pandemic or an emergency declaration imposed nationwide since January. The penalties for breaking the law are heavy fines and up to six years in jail.
The Cambodian New Internet Gateway – akin to China’s ‘Great Firewall’ – will give authorities a single point of control to the internet and allow them to block connections and online information from 2022.
United Nations Special Rapporteur on Cambodia, Professor Rhona Smith, told Redaction Politics: “The internet gateway allows the Cambodian authorities to monitor and conduct surveillance of intimate activities and intercept digital communications and collect, retain and share data.
“During the pandemic there has been a lot of effort to try to find some kind of control over the media and what the government has referred to as ‘fake news’.
“To me that is a concern from a human rights perspective, and certainly poses a risk to freedom of expression.”
Professor Smith added that while the CCP claims new Cambodia media outlets are independent, their proximity to the country’s largest development partner, China, raise warning flags to their independence.
Most government news comes from Fresh News, but many government departments use Facebook to share press releases and official statements. The decree introducing the internet gateway was itself published to Facebook.
The gateway is thought to control what can be published to the platform and other sites. The rate of prosecutions for publishing information criticising the government on matters including Covid and vaccinations is already in the increase.
Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, said last month: “The creation of this new gateway is very likely to signify the end of the freedom to inform on the Internet, which continues to be one of the few spaces where the Cambodian government’s critics can still speak out.”
“[Leader] Hun Sen is jeopardizing years of economic and social improvement at the expense of civil liberties – all to maintain a grip on power he has held for 35 years.”
In its annual Press Freedom Index released this month, RSF ranked Cambodia 144 out of 180 and Malaysia 119, the latter suffering an 18 place drop down the index – the most of any country since the start of the Pandemic.
RSF attributed Malaysia’s fall to the anti-fake news decree that enabled the newly formed government to impose their own version of the truth.
The annual report ranks 180 countries by the freedom afforded to the press, analysing state intervention and how journalists are treated and protected in the countries they work.
It believes that the Covid-19 pandemic has been used by many states to impose repressive legislation, suppress civilian dissent and limit already dwindling freedoms.
It said in a statement: “These countries have adopted extremely draconian laws or decrees in the spring of 2020 criminalising any criticism of the government’s actions and, in some cases, making the publication or broadcasting of “false” information punishable by several years in prison.
“Malaysia embodies the desire for absolute control over information. Its astonishing 18-place fall, the biggest of any country in the Index, is directly linked to the formation of a new coalition government in March 2020.”
Norway tops the ranking for the fifth year running, yet even they report a decline in access to state held information during the pandemic.
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