Serious concern as recently enacted “fake news” laws threaten media freedom across South East Asia.

There has been a significant decline in media freedom across South East Asia in recent years. Freedom House labelled “every Southeast Asian country as “not free” or “partly free”” in their 2018 Freedom on the Net report. Elsewhere, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and South East Asia Journalists Union (SEAJU) recently launched a report highlighting the challenges facing journalists and the media – online and offline – within the region, such as low wages, poor working conditions and targeted attacks.

But according to these reports, another challenge facing media freedom is the introduction of laws to combat the spread of disinformation and misinformation. While these are often introduced under the guise of protecting the public, they are more often used as tools to limit the ability of journalists to hold power to account. 

In this Focus on PSM, we explore the impact of these laws across South East Asia,  particularly on media freedom. 

Read more: Holding the Line: South East Asia Media Freedom Report


In Cambodia, a set of directives named “Prakas” were introduced in May 2018 by authorities in the run up to the general election, which enabled them to regulate news websites and social media in the country. These were intensified in September when Cambodia’s Information Ministry announced renewed warnings to revoke the licenses of print and online media outlets “found guilty of spreading disinformation that threatened “national security””. 

In an interview with IPI, Sek Sophal of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media explained: “To my knowledge, there has been no official definition of fake news in Cambodia…Those with power can easily interpret and manipulate the term in their favour. [The government] accuses people of disseminating ‘fake news’ only to silence the critical voices.”

The Cambodian Association for the Protection of Journalists (CAPJ) recently organised a forum alongside the Ministry of Information and IFJ to encourage journalists to collectively draft an amendment to the outdated 1995 Press Law, which up until now has not covered digital media despite a growing number of online media outlets in the country. According to the IFJ, the current law is poorly drafted and ambiguous, allowing those in positions of power to “restrict freedom of the press rather than assist it.” Furthermore, any amendment to the law should provide better protections for journalists while rejecting restrictions applied to the  activities of journalists through government licencing and respecting their right to safely gather information. 


Singapore’s ‘Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation’ Act (Pofma) came into effect at the start of October. This enables government ministers to order social media sites to put warnings next to posts that authorities deem to be false, and in extreme cases get them taken down.”

The “fake news” law was exercised for the first time last week when an opposition party politician, Brad Bowyer, was ordered to correct his Facebook post, which claimed that the government had influenced decisions made by state investors. According to The Guardian, Singapore’s official government fact checking website explained that the politician used “false and misleading” statements. 

The law was enacted in a second instance last week, when the Singapore Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) claimed that the States Times Review needed to correct their Facebook post for allegedly containing “falsehoods” referring to the elections process. However, the editor of the page refused to comply. According to the Straits Times, “those who disregard these orders or intentionally spread falsehoods against the public interest can be criminally sanctioned. Technology firms can be fined up to $1 million, and individuals jailed up to 10 years.” An appeal can be made to challenge the directive, although this depends on whether it is agreed that the case will be taken to court. If so, the defendant will then need to pay $200 for the court hearing. 


Thailand is the latest country in the region to regulate online speech having opened an anti-fake news centre last week . The centre will operate by officers notifying authorities about posts published on social media platforms or websites that they deem false, particularly those critical of the government, the military or the royal family.

Sunai Phasuk, a senior Thailand researcher for Human Rights Watch, was quoted in the Straits Times as saying: “The Anti-Fake News Centre is likely to be a tool for censorship. The policy of Thai authorities over the past five years has focused exclusively on clamping down and punishing critics and dissidents even for comments made in good faith.”

Emilie Pradichit, director of the Thailand-based Manushya Foundation, explained to Reuters that the law’s ambiguity poses particular problems: “In the Thai context, the term ‘fake news’ is being weaponised to censor dissidents and restrict our online freedom.”  

An internet censorship law already exists in Thailand called the 2007 Computer Crime Act, which makes any anti-government criticism punishable. 

It was reported earlier this year that nine people were arrested for spreading so-called “fake news” on Facebook about election officials and ballots during the vote in March. They could be charged with a $3,100 fine and up to five years in jail.


Malaysia’s Anti-Fake News Act was introduced in March 2018. It was widely condemned as a way of silencing critics and stifling free speech. Those found guilty of breaching the law could be imprisoned for up to six years and forced to pay fines of up to 500,000 ringgit (approximately US$120,000). 

Last year and under a new government, Malaysian lawmakers tried to repeal the law but were rejected by the country’s upper house, which still has strong links to the former ruling party. However, their second attempt has proven successful. As Rappler explain, even though the upper house previously blocked the bill, it “is only able to block a bill once, meaning the legislation will now be scrapped.”

Repealing the Anti-Fake News Act was a priority for Pakatan Harapan’s administration upon getting into government in 2018. Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, was quoted as saying, The anti-fake news law was a huge threat that would have devastated press freedom in Malaysia if it had ever been implemented.”


The Philippines was historically considered to have the freest media system in the region. However, under Duterte’s government, media freedom has continued to decline, with censorship and attacks on the media rife within the country. PMA reported on this trend earlier this year.

Nevertheless, a small glimmer of hope was offered when President Duterte signed an amendment at the end of August to the 73-year-old “Sotto” law, which traditionally enabled only print media to protect their sources. As of 25 September, the law also enables online and broadcast journalists to not reveal their sources. The caveat, as with other laws in the region, is that a source must be revealed “if a court or committee of the Senate or House of Representatives deems that the information of the confidential source is necessary for national security”.

The uncertainty and ambiguity surrounding these laws has led to the silencing of critical voices, self censorship and constrained media freedom across the region. Deutsche Welle refers to this trend as “digital authoritarianism”, achieved by removing or correcting content that is not deemed in the “public interest” by authorities, amalgamating in costly fines and prison sentences in some cases.

The Public Media Alliance condemns these threats to journalism across the region and supports any progress being made to protect media freedom and ensure journalists can continue to hold power to account.

Do you have concerns about so-called “fake news” laws in your region? Email:

Header Image: clue/iStock