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In the name of ‘fake news,’ Asian governments tighten control on social media

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Su Chii-cherng, head of the Taiwan government office in Osaka, committed suicide in September after he was criticized in mainstream news reports for not having made arrangements to rescue Taiwanese tourists temporarily stranded at a typhoon-flooded Japanese airport.

As it turned out, the foreign ministry in Taipei said, the 61-year-old diplomat was not allowed to send in vehicles, which meant the criticism, based on an unidentified traveler’s tip, was not justified. High-level Taiwanese officials are now citing the incident as they seek to strengthen penalties for the spread of what they deem false reports on natural disasters and food safety.

Taiwan is one of at least seven countries across eastern Asia that have recently enacted or are considering laws to limit or gain access to information about internet reports that officials claim are false, speculative, exaggerated, or truthful yet hurtful. As does President Trump, they often lump such reports under a vague, and often misleading, heading: fake news.

For nations with one-party rule, regulations squelching false or sensitive stories emanating from social media would result in an expansion of longstanding controls over the traditional mass media.

Such efforts have been on the rise over about the last two years due in part to the difficulty of identifying the authors of encrypted messages sent on social media, said Cedric Alviani, east Asia bureau director with the French-based media rights group Reporters Without Borders.

In these nations, the dramatic rise of smartphones has sent social media and overall internet use spiraling. Smartphone shipments to six emerging Southeast Asian countries tracked by market research firm IDC totaled 100 million in 2017, up from 22.5 million in 2012.

Government officials in Southeast Asia are focusing on social media commentary that causes “reputation harm” to themselves and their institutions, said James Gomez, board chair with the nonprofit human rights group Asia Centre in Bangkok.

“Unlike in the U.S., where Trump is attacking to do reputation damage to the fact-based traditional media,” he said, “in Asia, government representatives are focused on discrediting critics.”

In Thailand, authorities, citing “fake news,” have been strengthening their 12-year-old Computer Crimes Act to stop anti-government criticism, regardless of whether the statements are true. The law, initially aimed at stopping slights to the monarchy, has expanded to discourage criticism of the military government that took power in 2014, said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand.


Trump isn't censoring the media, just complaining about them. 

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