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In Asia, parliaments must protect rights online — or lose democracy

As parliaments convene across Asia for debate and deliberation, governments continue to push deeply flawed laws and policies, while relegating digital rights to the sidelines. In India, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand, for example, governments are not only failing to meet their legal obligations and put in place basic protections for privacy, free expression, and other rights, they are actively stripping these rights to score political points — to the detriment of the people. Here’s a look at what is happening, and why members of parliament must take action to protect rights before any more damage is done.  

India: Pegasus is one of many threats to human rights and democracy

In India, the Monsoon session of Parliament is ongoing, as MPs seeking accountability from ministers regarding the Pegasus Project actively disrupt the proceedings to get answers about  the alleged hacking of lawmakers, journalists, rights activists, the legal community, and others. Parliament’s departmentally related standing committee on information technology will hold a hearing on the Pegasus Project revelations, providing an opportunity to question people from various government departments. This is a critically important development for the health of India’s democracy, and the panel must ensure that officials answer directly whether they had any dealings with the NSO Group, the company behind the Pegasus spyware. To protect Indians’ rights and the rule of law, the hearing should result in concrete measures to ensure responsibility, remedy, and reform, including: 

The Indian Parliament will also be considering the DNA Technology Bill which, among other things, proposes the creation of national and regional DNA data banks. This bill has not undergone adequate consultation and is deeply problematic for data privacy and security, in addition to raising serious concerns around the targeting of minorities. It is currently devoid of safeguards for informed consent and to prevent misuse. Further, the regulatory board lacks independence and judicial remedy is not provided for. 

In addition, it appears the Parliament may finally consider the Personal Data Protection Bill, which has been pending since 2019, as the joint parliamentary committee tasked with reporting it has appointed a former government minister as the new chair. Given the urgent need to protect Indians’ privacy and the current legislative vacuum, India desperately needs a data protection framework as soon as possible. However, the current draft needs more work to protect the right to privacy in the manner the Indian Supreme Court envisaged and international human rights principles require. This joint parliamentary committee has just received an extension of time to produce its report until the winter session of Parliament at the end of the year; it must use that time to address the criticism that it has not consulted widely with civil society and public interest representatives.

Finally, we may see the Parliament debate annulment of the controversial IT rules the Indian government issued in February 2021. Indian journalists and rights groups are challenging these overboard, rights-harming rules in high courts across India, and an MP in the Upper House has now made a statutory motion to annul them using the rarely exercised parliamentary power to ensure oversight of subordinate legislation the executive branch issues. 

Malaysia’s “fake news” laws are used to silence civil society 

Malaysia’s parliament reconvened on 26 July, following months of suspension after the government declared a state of emergency in January. Given the continuing instability of the coalition government, widespread concern about the failure of state measures to contain the pandemic, and the fact that there are only five days set aside for the sitting, we are worried that members of parliament will not have enough time, let alone the political will, to consider repealing laws that are being abused to harass, target, and silence human rights defenders, journalists, civil society activists, artists, and individuals online. Yet to protect Malaysians, the Emergency (Essential Powers) (No.2) Ordinance concerning “fake news” must indeed be repealed, and other problematic laws  — specifically, ones relating to defamation, national security, sedition, contempt of court, public assembly, and online communications — should also be either significantly amended or repealed in full to comply with Malaysia’s human rights obligations. 

Singapore’s “online falsehoods” law hurts free expression

On the same day, 26 July, Singapore’s parliament reconvened, and it appears lawmakers will sideline reform or repeal of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019, despite the persistent concerns raised by civil society, media practitioners, journalists, lawyers, industry, academics, independent publishers, arts organizations and politicians. The law should be tossed out or substantially amended to limit its use to the closed list of purposes under articles 19(3) and 20(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. However, the government does not appear to be interested in doing either one.

Thailand laws threaten to criminalize dissent 

In Thailand, following the sitting of the National Assembly, there are several laws that remain in force despite the threat they pose to human rights. These include: lese majeste and sedition-like offences under the Criminal Code; contempt of court and criminal defamation provisions; the Computer-related Crimes Act B.E. 2560 (2017); and Cybersecurity Act B.E. 2562 (2019).  If these laws remain on the books, they will continue to be abused to criminalise critical dissent and imprison individuals for merely exercising their rights to freedom of expression and information online. Instead of reform or repeal, however,  lawmakers have expanded regulations to allow state targeting of “fake news” online, in contravention of international human rights law principles.

To protect people and democracy, centre human rights

In a region that has one of the fastest-growing populations of internet users in the world, governments can no longer promote legacies of infringing on rights rather than protecting them. In a fully functioning democracy, safeguards for digital rights are not an afterthought but utterly crucial. As parliaments convene across Asia, digital rights should be front and centre of the agenda. If only the ruling parties also thought so.

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