Has ASEAN turned a blind eye to human rights online?

by EM News November 28, 2017

ASEAN Digital Rights Roundtable
Social struggles and movements have changed over time, constantly adapting to realities of the challenges and technologies of the day. As the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) ICT Master plan picks up pace, and people across the region invite digital technologies into their lives in more pervading ways, the effects of technology on people and human rights challenges online should not be ignored.

In line with this, EngageMedia and the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), collaborated with EMPOWER Malaysia, Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), and Viet Tan to hold 'TECH. ACTIVISM. HUMAN RIGHTS.', a roundtable discussion on the state of activism and digital rights in Southeast Asia on 10 November 2017 at the Journalism Department of University of the Philippines Diliman, College of Mass Communications. Over 35 human rights defenders from ASEAN region met to discuss a range of challenges they are facing online.

“The internet has undeniably opened up spaces for us to challenge and discuss social and environmental issues in a way that was simply not possible before,” remarked Don Le of Viet Tan. To this, Thilaga of ASEAN SOGIE Caucus and Justice for Sisters Malaysia responded by saying, “the mere availability of technology and access to the internet does not make us equals. The discrimination groups and individuals face in offline spaces, especially those belonging to LGBTQIA communities is real and in some ways has been exasperated by the internet.”

The participants of the roundtable debated on the role the internet has played in addressing social and political issues in the region. “Religion is a burning issue in Indonesia. Hate has turned into a business for economic and political gain, executed in a professional and organised manner,” warned Anton from SAFENET Indonesia. Discussants from the Philippines debated over the validity of the discourse on “fake news”, stating that the phrase is an oxymoron and that the real issue rests with disinformation, the solution to which can only be more news, more speech, and not criminalisation.

Ed Legaspi of SEAPA explained that, “the rights we enjoy and are entitled to offline apply online as well. Therefore, the guarantees including freedom of expression should remain the same online as has been affirmed by the United Nations Human Rights Council repeatedly.” Gayatri Khandhadai of APC added by saying, “human rights are not platform specific and we carry our rights to all spaces, irrespective of whether they are online or offline.” Several concerns were raised about laws being applied to online activities which criminalise expression and stiffen democratic discussions.

Touching on the efforts made so far in ASEAN, Lisa Garcia of Foundation for Media Alternatives noted that, “there is a pressing need for individuals to engage in internet governance spaces including national and regional fora.” Nica Dumlao, EngageMedia’s Digital Rights Coordinator added by saying that, “we need to take technology-related discussions to all our spaces and communities, it is an issue that affects us all”. Nica noted that the roundtable discussion is part of a bigger initiative of digital rights organizations in Southeast Asia to raise awareness on digital rights and how technology is impacting the work of civil society.

'TECH. ACTIVISM. HUMAN RIGHTS' was one of EngageMedia’s activities during the ASEAN Civil Society Conference / ASEAN Peoples Forum 2017 (ACSC/APF 2017) in Manila, Philippines. The ACSC/APF is a solidarity gathering of diverse civil society organizations (CSOs) in Southeast Asia, which organizes its own parallel activities during the ASEAN Summit.

EngageMedia also collaborated with feminist & queer activists and organized a pop-up installation and discussion entitled, “Imagining a Feminist & Queer Internet in Southeast Asia” on 12 November.

*With report from the Association for Progressive Communications