EC must not act as censor

With concerns over how words and images will be spread to the electorate in the lead-up to the Feb 24 general election, some have proposed measures for the Election Commission (EC) and the media to guard against “disinformation, fake news and misleading information” in online campaigns.

Such concerns are not a false alarm, but the proposed measures to deal with them are misguided. If implemented, they could undermine both political parties’ election campaigns and the electorate’s right to information. What they will likely succeed in doing is allowing the EC to tighten state censorship.

By next month, the EC will issue regulations on election campaigns. EC president Ittiporn Boonpracong hinted this week that his agency will set up a task force to monitor the use of social media and curb misleading or false information.

Without a doubt, social media and online channels will play a key role in electioneering, similar to what happened in Malaysia’s general election this year and the 2016 US presidential election. Social media channels could also be exposed to bots and fake news. But it should be the job of the operators of platforms, such as Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, to be watchful for any coordinated campaigns of disinformation and come up with measures to counter them.

If there is to be a war room at the EC to monitor online campaigns and news, one has reason to be alarmed — not about fake news and disinformation but about the agency’s partiality and record of incompetence.

Selected by the regime-appointed National Legislative Assembly, the poll agency is nationally notorious for kowtowing to the needs of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) and the government. While it has refused to probe convincing allegations of illegal vote canvassing against the pro-regime Palang Pracharath Party, it has done the opposite to anti-regime parties, taking action against the Pheu Thai and Future Forward parties.

The EC’s record in tacking so-called fake news is not impressive. Ahead of the 2016 constitutional referendum, it brought lawsuits against activists and politicians who merely campaigned for the “vote no” camp. The EC wrongly branded their actions as the spreading of “false, slanderous, inciting, aggressive, rude or persuasive information”.

And it would come as no surprise if the EC were to be incapable of drawing a clear line between legitimate campaigns and disinformation efforts.

Another misguided call this week came from Somsri Han-anantasuk, an executive of the Open Forum for Democracy Foundation (P-Net). She encouraged the mainstream media to avoid reporting on campaigns that revisit past political events, particularly the military crackdown on the red-shirt protests in 2010 that resulted in multiple deaths and injuries.

Her concern is that giving coverage to these stories will reignite old political conflicts. Her suggestion implies that the media should apply self-censorship.

Ms Somsri failed to understand that political injustice or suppression against a particular political camp can be a determining factor among certain groups of voters for how they will cast their vote. Any political parties have a right to revisit those events and the media’s role in it is to remain impartial and factual in their reporting.

Of course, there will be slanderous, hate-provoking, self-serving and misleading information spread by candidates against their rivals, as has been the case in previous polls. But political parties will monitor negative information against them and use their resources to correct what they deem fake or misleading. The mainstream media will still play a key role in keeping the facts straight.

With about seven million first-time voters waiting to cast their ballots in the first general election in seven years, social media and online platforms will be the key channels where they acquire news and information on candidates. The EC should promote the use of such easily accessible platforms instead of trying to impose censorship on what can and cannot be posted on them.

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