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Opening Remarks at the KAS-Forum “Digital Sovereignty - Laws and Policies to govern Digital Media and Social Media in Asia”, 17 March 2021

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Dear Mr Samse,
Dear Mr Echle,
Distinguished panelists,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

The weeks since the military coup in Myanmar have reminded us of the positive empowerment ‚social media’ can provide as a communication platform.

It has been impossible to stem the flow of information from the country. Images and videos of protests were shared online almost immediately as events unfolded. 

Just a few weeks earlier, we were all shocked by the opposite pole.

The images from the Capitol in Washington have been a reminder that it does not suffice to let primarily social network providers and digital media deal with content matters in social media. 

 No matter how much importance the people in Rangoon, Mandalay or elsewhere attach to these tools

- the internet does neither exist nor develop in a legal vacuum. 

States and governments have to live up to their responsibility as well to curb their negative effects, such as hate speech or the rapid circulation of fake news. 

The challenges of the choices to make were well illustrated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

She pointed to the problematic issues arising from Twitter closing down the account of Donald Trump as an elected President. 

Rights such as the freedom of speech “can be interfered with, but by law and within the framework defined by the legislature - not according to a corporate decision.” her spokesperson stated.

This case from the US exemplifies that it is neither democratic nor a sign of plurality when commercial companies who are ultimately only responsible to their shareholders, dominate markets and use their power to decide on freedom of expression.

Countries in Europe and in Southeast Asia have embarked on different legislative approaches to deal with the new scope of problems our societies are facing in a digital and social media world.

In Germany, the Network Enforcement Act obliges social networks to combat agitation and fake news.

It has essentially proven its worth as a robust tool protecting fundamental rights. 

It does neither follow the liberal US-approach.

Nor does it come close to the strict control not shying away from censorship in China or elsewhere.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In Singapore, the ‘Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act’ (POFMA) was designed as a neutral and impartial tool to tackle misinformation on social media. Usually it is wielded by a government representative who enjoys a considerable degree of discretion.

Although her or his decision can be challenged in court it has immediate effect and creates a precedent.

The POFMA law has therefore drawn criticism from Singaporeans as too all-encompassing causing increased self-censorship as well as for its inconsistent application.

For sure, further mending of policies will continue in such a dynamic field as digital media.

But above all, let’s not forget that these social networks are an important tool for expressing opinions – not only for the people of Myanmar!

Ladies and Gentlemen,

What we need is an international social discourse about free access to information and protection against misinformation. 

With the adoption of the so called political ‚Guidelines on the Indo-Pacific’ in September last year, the German government has pledged to make an active contribution to shaping the international order in the Indo-Pacific. 

At a time in which ‘social media’ is shaping the world view of many – sometimes by being the only source of information - communication is an indispensable and effective foreign policy instrument. 

Authoritarian actors and others make intensive use of communication to manipulate and influence civil societies. 

The German Federal Government is countering the considerable spread of disinformation by increasing the availability of fact-based information.

To this end, the Federal Government will be expanding its global network of Regional German Information Centres with a new centre in Singapore. 

German Information Centres (GIC) provide information on German Foreign Policy positions and activities.

They are organized regionally – currently with branch offices in Cairo, Mexico City and Pretoria – to ensure targeted information.

In this context the planned GIC in Singapore will target the ASEAN-countries in the Indo-Pacific region. 

Its channels will  serve as a virtual gateway into latest German Foreign Policy positions.

Yet another constant in our identity is our European reflex.

Whatever our undertaking – we try to embed our approach in a European context.

That applies in the same way to our policy guidelines on the Indo-Pacific where we are aiming for a joint European approach.

And this is also the case with the GIC where we will seek to coordinate our efforts closely with our European partners. 

Against this backdrop you will surely understand that the topic of today’s event has more than wetted my and my colleague’s appetites. 

I am very much looking forward to your insights and the discussion afterwards.

In closing, let me also welcome Stefan Samse, the new programme director at KAS Singapore following Gisela Elsner and allow me to wish Christoph Grabitz, outgoing leader of the KAS media programme all the best.

All the best for them and a fruitful discussion for all of us!

 

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