Censorship, hate speech, and meaningful access to digital technology were the key discussion points of the solidarity event held in Kuala Lumpur last January 14, 2023, Day 3 of the Asia-Pacific Digital Rights Forum.
EngageMedia partnered with Jumpstart@65, a community centre launched by the Hong Leong Foundation, to co-host the in-person event in Malaysia, which was held simultaneously with four other solidarity events in Dhaka, Bangkok, Jakarta, and Manila.
The parallel events aimed to provide spaces for changemakers to meet their peers and strengthen regional solidarity. EngageMedia invites participants to continue the discussions over at Forum.EngageMedia.org/Discuss.
Discussing censorship and online hate speech
The event started with Kelly Koh from the Sinar Project introducing the OONI Probe and how it can be used for research and advocacy on internet freedom. This kicked off discussions on internet censorship in Malaysia and other countries. While Malaysian internet is relatively unrestricted, there have been cases of political criticism being blocked online. These instances have not been challenged and may recur in the future.
During the session, the group also considered what would constitute a legitimate form of restriction of online freedom of expression and how it ought to be done to ensure digital rights are still safeguarded.
Nalini Elumalai of ARTICLE 19 then discussed online hate speech and the 2022 Malaysian general election, which saw the proliferation of hate content on social media. Elumalai explained the normative human rights standard on the right to freedom of expression and emphasised that any restriction must pass the test of legality, necessity, and proportionality. The group also learned about the Rabat Plan of Action which outlines a six-part threshold test for identifying incitement to hatred and a framework for addressing hate speech.
The solidarity event wrapped up with a film screening of Grey Scale by Evelyn Teh, which tells the story of a single elderly woman navigating the digital tools that became commonplace at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The film sparked discussions on how the increasingly digitalised world could be alienating and exclusionary for some, especially the elderly.
Learning and finding ways to protect digital rights
The event enabled participants to discuss digital rights concerns most relevant to their contexts. Svetlana Zens, Digital Rights Programme Manager of Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, said protecting digital rights is essential because it ensures that individuals and communities have access to information, freedom of expression, and privacy online. “This enables people to fully participate in the digital economy, access educational and other resources, and engage in political and social discussions”, she said.
Researcher Zana Fauzi added that by learning more about threats to digital rights, various stakeholders could strategise ways to address these issues and the systemic problems underlying them.
“While social media platforms amplify the actions of bad actors, there are far more systemic problems – xenophobia, homophobia, racism, that undermine the rights of people in the margins – that must be addressed beyond legal means, and should inculcate a ‘whole of society’ approach of inclusion, diversity, and pluralism”, she said.