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A Call for Action and Renewal: Reflections on 2021

2021 was a year of widespread regression in human rights, digital rights, and civil liberties in the Asia-Pacific.

Most egregious was the coup that overthrew Myanmar’s emerging democracy. It has been replaced by a dictatorship and a brutal crackdown on free expression, widespread imprisonment and torture, and a growing civil war.

Across the region – from Malaysia, to Thailand, to Singapore, and even to Australia and New Zealand – governments have taken advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to extend their powers. Facilitating much of this is the digital realm: the use of contract tracing apps and vaccine passports laden with privacy vulnerabilities; artificial intelligence (AI) and surveillance tech; social media control; and the media framing of data and events.

Disinformation continues to flourish, as do those weaponising “disinformation” to silence criticism. Under the pretext of combatting disinformation, we see increasing censorship by Big Tech, unleashing a slippery slope that threatens the messy but necessary free expression that underpins democracy. The result is less accountability for those in power, corruption, and decisions that favour the powerful.

The technologies of today provide highly effective tools to address social problems, and yet they are simultaneously also tools of social control. A new digital authoritarianism has taken hold amid these states of emergency, advanced by actors across the political spectrum.

There is a great necessity to re-invigorate human rights and civil liberties, to pause amid the media panic to take stock and ask: Are we losing things that might be very difficult to get back? Are our digital rights at risk? In the rush to address the pandemic, are we losing or putting at risk the fundamental values of our society?

EngageMedia has been addressing these issues across our Digital Rights, Open and Secure Technology, and Video for Change programs. In 2021, we:

We cross the threshold into 2022 with many challenges but much to inspire us: from the bravery of the people of Myanmar, to the everyday acts of Filipino advocates demanding free expression under the shadow of an election that looks set to further entrench the new authoritarianism.

This rising authoritarianism will be EngageMedia’s key focus for next year, beginning with our call for articles on COVID-19 and digital authoritarianism. Our work is also poised to extend further, including:

  • An initiative to translate digital security tools into Khmer, Thai, Burmese, Filipino, and Bahasa Indonesia
  • Expansion of our research program into the human rights implications of AI technologies, as well as exploring civil society’s use of open and secure technologies
  • Growth of our support for Indonesian digital rights actors and networks
  • Additional support for human rights activists in Myanmar and Thailand
  • A third season of Pretty Good Podcast
  • A series of digital rights forums in the Philippines, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Thailand, as well as an online event for the Asia-Pacific
  • Ongoing growth for regional social change filmmakers via Cinemata
  • Extension of our support for digital rights actors in Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and beyond, via the Greater Internet Freedom program
  • A renewed focus on targeted advocacy campaigns

As I transition from Executive Director to a board role, EngageMedia will continue to uphold our core values and commitment to freedom of speech and expression, privacy, human rights, civil liberties, and democracy.

The pandemic is not over and a difficult road still lies ahead. But as we move closer towards the end of this journey, it is critical that the values of a free and open society remain not just intact, but renewed.