For Filipino satirist Raden Payas, there is a clear line between what he writes and the fake news phenomenon that is sweeping across the globe.

His articles lampooning politicians’ eating habits and referencing the sexual exploits of political pundits are not meant to be taken at face value, he insists, but instead are social commentary.

“There are fake news items that are not offensive and can make people laugh, they are just fake humour articles, they’re satirical,” he says.

As officials in Southeast Asia look to stop the spread of fake news by passing laws that carry stiff penalties – including prison time – free speech activists worry that, because what constitutes fake news is not clearly defined, legislation could stifle voices like Payas’ in a region where more and more media seems to toe the party line. But Payas isn’t worried about the proposed laws. He thinks they are a good idea.

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“I have no problem with that,” he says. “I believe it will be hard for lawmakers to pass a bill on this. But then again, fake news that can destroy someone’s reputation is another story.”

Payas, who runs okd2.com, says that while fake news sites are meant to defame politicians and stir political vitriol, the aim of his website is humour and is purely satirical.

IS IT FAKE? DEPENDS WHO YOU ASK

Fake news comes in various forms in Southeast Asia. Esther Margaux Uson Justiniano, the singer-turned-sex guru better known as Mocha Uson, has 5.4 million followers on Facebook and is a rabid supporter of Philippine strongman President Rodrigo Duterte.

She has been widely accused of using her massive social media following to peddle fake news and bolster her political agenda.

One of her more outrageous claims came in August when she lambasted Duterte’s rival Vice-President Leni Robredo for not attending the wake of a police officer killed in an anti-drug operation that month. It turned out the fallen officer had been dead for more than a year.

In Indonesia, the Saracen website was notorious for spreading fake news with a racist and hateful tone. With nearly a million followers on Facebook, the site was earning as much as US$7,500 (HK$58,500) a post from advertisers, according to media reports – however, the website was shut down by police in August.

Meanwhile in Singapore, the sociopolitical website, The Online Citizen (TOC), known for its anti-establishment stance, reported on the legal saga of Dr Ting Choon Meng, who had sued the defence ministry for allegedly stealing his idea for a mobile emergency clinic. The defence ministry sought a court order requiring TOC to declare what it wrote as “false”, according to Remy Choo Zheng Xi, one of the founders of the site and Ting’s lawyer.

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These cases demonstrate that fraudulent content is not always the sole qualifier for fake news. The power and political leaning of the one who defines “fake news” also plays a role. This complexity, along with government censorship in Southeast Asia, makes criminalising fake news a weapon for killing freedom of expression, free speech advocates argue.

Myanmar’s Rohingya, often described as the world’s most persecuted people, have suffered some of the worst social and political consequences of fake news.

Thein Than Oo, general secretary of the Independent Lawyers Association in Myanmar, says fake news and photos have been used both to defend and attack the Rohingya, along with those who support and criticise the country’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi. “It has caused chaos and confusion from both sides,” he told a recent conference in Manila.

In the Philippines, armies of keyboard warriors – reportedly paid by the government – manufacture information against Duterte’s political foes, according to a study by Freedom House, the pro-democracy watchdog, and another study by Oxford University.

The Duterte camp has denied these allegations.

‘MORE NEWS, NOT MORE LAWS’

The chaos fake news can sow has sparked calls for punitive measures to stop its spread.

In the Philippines, Duterte’s fiercest critic, Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, and other senators have sponsored bills that would allow fines of up to 10 million pesos (HK$1.5 million) and prison sentences of up to 10 years for those who create and spread fake news.

In Singapore, K Shanmugam, the law and home affairs minister, has pushed for the passage of a law that would also impose penalties upon those who produce and proliferate fake news.

The Advocates for Freedom of Expression Coalition-Southeast Asia (AFEC-SEA), a coalition of activists, argues both laws are unnecessary given the already strict measures in both countries against libel. It believes the laws could have a negative effect on trusted news organisations.

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Gilbert Andres, from AFEC-SEA, thinks the biggest flaw with the bills is their failure to clearly define fake news. He points out that “false news” is already punishable under the Philippines’ Revised Penal Code. False news has been defined under the code as information that “may endanger the public order, or cause damage to the interest or credit of the state”.

This subjective definition – plus the lack of checks and balances in most Southeast Asian countries – can make the implementation of any law against fake news arbitrary.

Danilo Arao, journalism professor at the University of the Philippines, says self-regulation and media education are the ways to combat fake news. “Legislating would end up compromising freedom of the press and of expression. Not only is fake news hard to define, but we cannot trust legislators to define it for us.”

The antidote to fake news, according to Andres, is not more laws that could limit freedom of expression, but stronger support for established news organisations.

“The solution to fake news is not less news, but more news,” he says.