The Press Freedom Dilemma in the Digital Age: Early Steps in Southeast Asia Counteracting Hoaxes

According to data from the annual Reporters Without Borders [1] report on the ranking of press freedom in the world, for the Southeast Asia region, Indonesia ranked top, namely 124th, followed by the Philippines in 127th position. The next ranking is occupied by Myanmar which was previously ruled by the military but is now led by the former opposition party, ranked 131. Next is Cambodia, which is controlled by Prime Minister Hun Sen, ranked 132. Thailand is ranked 142, followed by Malaysia in the order 144th, Singapore ranked 151th, and Brunei was 156th. The two Southeast Asian countries in the lowest position are Laos (170) and Vietnam (175) classified as media black spots.

Freedom of the press in Southeast Asia is an interesting spotlight. Because, some countries in Southeast Asia have had experiences led by authoritarian governments where freedom of the press is one of the elements of rare democracy. For example in the era of the New Order government in Indonesia, the press could not move freely to carry out its function as a watch dog. At that time, the government through the Ministry of Information often carried out the eviction of newspapers or magazines that were critical of government policies. The press under President Soeharto’s administration tried to eliminate party organs and critical newspapers, defuse the press making noise, and ensure that workers and the press management were absolutely responsible for the government. [2] At this time the conditions began to be different, the press was more free to criticize. However, online news sites that are not necessarily credible also contribute to filling public information spaces in Indonesia.

Cases of repression against the press also occurred in Myanmar. In 2016, female journalist Myanmar Times newspaper Fiona MacGregor was dismissed after reporting a case of mass rape by security forces in the Rakhine region. The news came under fire from the President’s Office and Myanmar’s Ministry of Information. Rakhine is an area where millions of Rohingya Muslims are under pressure from the government and Myanmar Buddhist groups. Myanmar’s military has locked the Rakhine area since October 9, 2016. [3] Since the news, journalists have been forbidden to go and cover in areas that have the predicate. ‘troubling’. [4]

Although Southeast Asian countries still occupy the position of red and black points in the press freedom ranking according to Reporters Without Borders, the flow of information in the digital era is something that cannot be completely dammed. The presence of social media is slowly shifting the way media users access information. The use of the internet, especially social media raises a culture of ‘click-share’. Whatever information is read by the user, it can be easily shared with various other digital platforms. Information filtering in the digital era is becoming increasingly loose. Especially with the emergence of sites that contain information that is not credible or fake (hoax).

In certain cases hoaxes are related to cyberhate or the spread of hatred carried out by someone or a group of people to attack someone or another group of people through cyber space, one of which is social media. Cyberhate is like two blades of freedom of speech in the internet era. The condition that causes the emergence of cyberhate is the similarity of interests between internet users on an issue. In addition, information dissemination in cyberspace is unlimited and fast.

Hoax news from a site is often shared by readers to social media, such as Facebook or Twitter. The technological aspects in this context, specifically social media platforms, are important because social media has several characteristics that support the radicalization process. [5] Empirical research shows that the level of mobilization on Facebook is higher than using electronic mail. [6] Facebook is an effective platform for spreading ideology, where political action and the capabilities of an organization are more easily implemented through small groups on social media. Social media provides space to form a collective identity, share the same opinion and solidarity with certain perspectives on the world. [7]

At the end of 2016, the political climate in DKI Jakarta, Indonesia had heated up. Basuki Tjahja Purnama (Ahok) Governor of DKI Jakarta at that time was considered by some groups to commit blasphemy of Islam after Buni Yani uploaded a video containing pieces of Ahok’s speech during a work visit in Kepulauan Seribu, DKI Jakarta, Indonesia. The case continued until the legal sphere until finally Ahok was found guilty by a judge and received a prison sentence of two years in 2017.

As long as the legal process against the case took place, the mass media in Indonesia was so intense in reporting. However, the problem is not only the mass media that contribute to reporting the case, but also other mass media whose credibility is questionable. Ahok as the central figure in the case became the media spotlight. The inherent background also does not escape the attention of the public, such as race and religion. The sentiment towards people of Chinese descent and the mention of infidels for certain religious people revolved on social media. In addition, false news (hoaxes) revolved around the blasphemy case on social media. [8]

The phenomenon of hoax and cyberhate has also occurred in Singapore. In 2016, married couples named Yang Kaiheng and Ai Takagi, owners of the popular site The Real Singapore (TRS), were criminalized by Singapore authorities, because they published hoax articles that cornered foreign nationals in Singapore and potentially triggered xenophobia.

In Indonesia the hoaxes and cyberhate are overcome by enacting the Electronic Information and Transaction Law (ITE). For example, in article 28 paragraph 1, it is stated that every person who intentionally and / or without the right to spread false and misleading news, the threat can be subject to a maximum of six years’ penalty and a maximum fine of Rp.1 billion. Actors who spread hatred through cyber space can be processed legally by using article 28 paragraph 2 which reads that every person intentionally and without the right to disseminate information aimed at generating hatred or hostility of certain individuals and / or groups based on ethnicity, religion, race, and intergroup (SARA). Malaysia emphasizes the spread of hoaxes through short message applications, such as WhatsApp. The Malaysian government calls on WhatsApp group administrators and the like to be responsible for the credibility of the information disseminated in their groups. This then triggered a discourse that administrators of social media groups that let the spread of hoaxes get punished. Rules for warding off hoaxes have also been planned by Singapore. Singapore’s Home Affairs Minister said that Singapore plans to issue rules to ward off hoaxes in 2018.

Social media opens up a vast space for users to disseminate information, create content, and express opinions. Social media is also slowly shifting the way journalism works. At present almost every print mass media has online sites and social media accounts. They continuously share the news on social media. Social media provides an opportunity for the mass media company concerned to get many readers as well as profits through the number of clicks on the news article link. Often the headlines of online mass media are made sensational in order to invite readers to click and share. It is also used by hoax sites. Sensational and provocative titles become one of the key hoax news sites to get readers as well as profits.

On the other hand, the freedom of the press is now faced with a post-truth. The Oxford Dictionary defines post-truth as follows: public opinion than appeals to emotion to emotion and personal belief. There is a lot of information and as readers we can find information anywhere. The problem is how we can find credible and truly objective information. In the case of reporting on mass rape in Myanmar which was discussed in the initial paragraph, we can see that the news was criticized by the Myanmar government. However, does that mean that what MacGregor reports is a hoax? The definition of hoax becomes loose. Because, the truth of something is no longer permanent. When even this is not uncommon for mass media to be ridden by political interests. Information can be biased. In the end, everything goes back to the reader as the party who must filter the information that he reads, watches, and hears for himself.


[1] Reporters Without Borders, 2017, 2017 World Press Freedom Index.

[2] Hill, David T., 2011, Pers di Masa Orde Baru, Jakarta: Yayasan Pustaka Obor Indonesia.

[3] MacGregor, Fiona, 2016, Dozens of Rapes Reported in Northern Rakhine State, Myanmar Times <>.

[4] Murdoch, Lindsay, 2016, Media Freedom on Back Foot in Myanmar, Malaysia, Philippines, Sydney Morning Herald, <>.

[5] Hanzelka, Jan dan Ina Schmidt, 2017, Color Dynamics of Cyber Hate in Social Media: A Comparative Analysis of Anti-Muslim Movements in the Czech Republic and Germany, International Journal of Cyber Criminology (internet), Vol. 11(1), hal.143-160, <>

[6] Hanzelka, Jan dan Ina Schmidt, 2017, Color Dynamics of Cyber Hate in Social Media: A Comparative Analysis of Anti-Muslim Movements in the Czech Republic and Germany, International Journal of Cyber Criminology (internet), Vol. 11(1), hal.143-160, <>

[7] Hanzelka, Jan dan Ina Schmidt, 2017, Color Dynamics of Cyber Hate in Social Media: A Comparative Analysis of Anti-Muslim Movements in the Czech Republic and Germany, International Journal of Cyber Criminology (internet), Vol. 11(1), hal.143-160, <>.

[8] BBC Indonesia, 2016, ‘Hoax’ Seputar Kasus Ahok, FPI, 4 November, BBC Indonesia <>.




This article was written by Gisela Ayu, student of Culture & Media Studies, Graduate School, UGM, while working as an intern at Center for Southeast Asian Social Studies (CESASS).

Narrowing ICT Development Gap to Foster ASEAN Integration

The importance of ICT has been increasing time by time. Seeing the ICT development throughout the times has been affected the development of other sectors positively. Furthermore, ICT development enables the easier and faster cooperation and integration of other sectors within and among states. In regard to ASEAN, ICT plays the main role of better integration within and among its member states since its establishment in 1967. I can assure that without ICT development in ASEAN, the ASEAN Free Trade Area will be taken into force later than 1992; the establishment of ASEAN Community will take into force probably in the next 10 years. Moreover, most of cooperation and integration in ASEAN nowadays is ICT-based, so then the easier and faster agreement will be possible. Nonetheless, there remain obstacles for ASEAN integration along with the ICT development gap within and among ASEAN member states. In this article, I will specifically concern on the action that has been taken from certain elements/actors to narrowing the ICT development gap as well as its parameters. Eventually, I will recommend the possible solution that probably can be taken to close the gap as well as to foster the ASEAN integration.

Generally speaking, ASEAN itself to foster the integration has initiated the legal framework for ASEAN member states on ICT development that so called e-ASEAN Framework Agreement of 2000 (ASEAN, 2012). The aim of this framework is to integrate the national policy of all member states to address the ICT sector’s issue collectively. The e-ASEAN Framework Agreement focuses on ICT development which aimed to speed up the economic integration internally, and to enhance the global competitiveness of ASEAN externally (Dai, 2008). Nevertheless, the achievement of the implementation on this framework does not optimal yet proved by remaining high digital divide among ASEAN member states; it can be seen from the figure 1 comparison of ICT Development Index (IDI) between ASEAN 6 and CLMV Countries. Therefore, the ICT development in each ASEAN member states is highly needed to sustain the integration of ASEAN.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has implemented the ICT Development Index (IDI) as the most recognized measurement for ICT development globally (International Telecommunication Union, 2016). According to the ITU, there are 11 indicators that cover in 3 areas for measuring the IDI which are ICT access, ICT use and ICT skills (International Telecommunication Union, 2016). According to the Measuring the Information Society Report 2016, the ICT development gap between ASEAN 6 and CLMV countries can be seen from this figure.

There is an ICT development gap between and within ASEAN 6 and CLMV countries. Singapore is the country that has the highest IDI value among the ASEAN member states followed by the other ASEAN 6 countries; Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, Philippine and Indonesia as the lowest country. However, Vietnam has the highest IDI value among CLMV countries even exceeding Philippine and Indonesia. Reiterating the fact from the figure above, there is a strong association between the economic and ICT development of the state. The more country developed in ICT sector, the better economy that country will get.

Aside from the fact showed in the figure 1 about the IDI rates gaps between ASEAN member states, the e-ASEAN Framework Agreement still the most applicable and comprehensive legal framework for ASEAN to enhance ICT development. It becomes the coherent framework because of it covers three main scopes of ICT development; e-Commerce, e-Government and e-Society in which will enable the inclusive ASEAN citizen, especially on enhancing the economic integration. To some extent, the linear ICT national policy as well as infrastructure within ASEAN member states has developed following the establishment of the framework. All member states slightly have similar ICT policy and infrastructure development. Furthermore, the developed countries within ASEAN have to assist the development of other countries particularly the CLMV countries on ICT sector. Most importantly, the good governance will be very helpful to increase the ICT development index. Therefore, the framework is not about something idealistic in order to integrating ASEAN, but it is a concrete gateway for ASEAN to move forward to further stage of integration. In the other side, the non-state actors are counted to contribute toward the attainment of the zero-gap of ICT development within and among ASEAN member states in order to foster the ASEAN integration.  For instance, the NGO such as Computer Society as well as the MNC such as Singtel, Axiata and many others have been massively on socializing and giving an opportunity for society toward ICT access, use and skills by building the ICT infrastructure (International Telecommunication Union, 2016). Thus, in accordance to IDI measurement, it will make possible the better ASEAN integration.

Personally speaking, those actions are possibly worthwhile for fostering the ASEAN integration to further stage of integration yet it can takes the longer time unless we can close the ICT development gap within and among ASEAN member states. The important thing that must be addressed is all about how we can go beyond the society and constructing the idea of the importance of ICT not merely for ASEAN integration, but also to increase our life quality. By doing so, it will be mainstreaming the notion that ICT is one of our primary needs; hence each individual not only adult or youth but also the elderly will try to get the ICT access, to own the ICT facility and to possess the ICT skills. Then who are able to mainstream this notion? I can straightforwardly say all of us are responsible for this. The government either national or regional ASEAN perhaps contribute the most for mainstreaming this notion through its promotion and socialization agenda. Despite that, the non-state actors such as MNC and NGO are very helpful on building the infrastructure as well as advocating the government policy related to ICT development. Those actions will be much easier when the media either mass media or social media become the key role on reshaping the society mindset and behavior particularly on ICT development through its information. To be sure, the lack of media’s role on concerning to this issue is decelerating the ASEAN integration. ASEAN by always maintaining and improving its attempt to narrow the ICT development gap will accompany the better ASEAN integration.



ASEAN. (2012). e-ASEAN Framework Agreement.

Dai, X. (2008). e-ASEAN and Regional Integration in South East Asia. In A.-V. Anttiroiko, Electronic Government: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools, and Applications (p. 8). New York: Information Science Reference.

International Telecommunication Union. (2016). Measuring the Information Society Report. New York: International Telecommunication Union.

International Telecommunication Union. (2016). The ICT Development Index (IDI): conceptual framework and methodology. Retrieved June 13, 2017, from International Telecommunication Union:



This article was written by Muhammad Ammar Hidayahtulloh, an undergraduate student from Universitas Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta (UMY), while working as an intern at Center for Southeast Asian Social Studies (CESASS).