In the Philippines’ digital spaces, threats to human rights abound – from privacy risks and online harassment to attacks on journalists and activists. To address these challenges, collaborative and cross-sectoral solutions that engage people at the grassroots level are needed.
This emphasis on collaboration and strengthening advocacy efforts was a key point of the Philippine Digital Rights forum held last November 4 and 5, where digital rights advocates from various sectors gathered to discuss the state of digital rights issues and explore ways to co-create and collaborate on solutions.
The two-day event was organised by EngageMedia in partnership with Initiatives for Dialogue and Empowerment through Alternative Legal Services (IDEALS). It is the second of four digital rights country forums to be held throughout 2022, with the first country forum held last October 29 and 30 in Thailand.
EngageMedia Project and Communications Manager Vino Lucero said the forum aimed to bring together a broad range of actors with various advocacies to strengthen the digital rights movement. “With the passage and implementation of Philippine laws and policies that put the observance of human rights in the digital space under threat, this forum serves as a space to assess the current situation and strategise ways and spaces where we can contribute together as a community”, he said.
Aside from the opening and closing plenaries, the event utilised an open space technology concept, where participants themselves host sessions related to the event theme. EngageMedia, along with participants representing Foundation for Media Alternatives, Out of The Box, IDEALS, Access Now Digital Security Helpline, and the Polytechnic University of the Philippines-Department of Broadcast Communication hosted breakout sessions on topics such as gender issues, digital rights education, and media literacy.
Hopes and Feeds, the EngageMedia-produced documentary on disinformation during the 2022 Philippine elections, was also screened during the event, emphasising a multimedia approach to digital rights advocacy.
Co-creating solutions to shared challenges
During the opening plenary, Garcia outlined some of the key challenges in the Philippines’ digital rights landscape today: from threats to freedom of expression and privacy to the pervasive problem of disinformation and inadequacy of current fact-checking initiatives.
“Digital spaces have become a very important part and extension of our democratic and civic space…And yet when we look at the digital age, it has also brought with it immense challenges in protecting human rights and democracy”, Garcia said during the opening plenary.
She added: “We actually don’t have to look far to see how technology is being used by the state [and] non-state actors to silence dissent, surveil, harass human rights defenders and activists, and manipulate public opinion”.
In response, participants noted the need for cross-sectoral and intergenerational collaboration online and offline to address these shared challenges. Network-building initiatives play a key role in infusing the digital rights movement with a wide range of actors from different sectors, such as those from the academe and gender advocates. Through events like the EngageMedia forum, they learned how their own advocacies are inherently tied to digital rights advocacy.
Using technology for activism
A significant challenge raised during the discussions was the difficulty of engaging the public on digital rights issues such as the privacy threat of laws like the recently-enacted SIM Card Registration Law and why disinformation threatens democracy. How can changemakers make these issues matter to the general public?
Participants made several suggestions, such as localising digital rights concepts by improving engagement at the grassroots level. This is especially important in initiatives like fact-checking, where simply providing people with fact-check reports is not enough to change their minds.
“Fact-checking should not just be the advocacy of experts, scholars, and media. It needs to become a grassroots movement,” Palatino said. “Fact-checking needs to be a political movement…The people themselves should identify what narratives need to be fact-checked so they will embrace and accept it”.
Palatino also pointed out that today’s digital rights movement can learn from the lessons of the past when activists used technology and social media to coordinate protest movements online and offline. This was the case in events like the 2013 Million People March against corruption and more recently the widescale volunteer ‘pink movement’ supporting the presidential candidacy of Leni Robredo.
Following the Philippine digital rights forum, EngageMedia is set to host two more country forums in Indonesia and Cambodia on November 24 and 25. These network-building events build up to a second group of digital rights events in 2023: the Asia-Pacific Digital Rights Forum, a three-day regional forum to be held in January, and the Asia-Pacific Digital Rights Festival to be held in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in May 2023.