EngageMedia wrapped up the three-day Asia-Pacific Digital Rights Forum on January 14, 2023 with in-person solidarity events happening simultaneously in five locations in the region, providing an opportunity for over 100 digital rights advocates to meet their peers in their respective countries and around the Asia-Pacific.
The parallel events in Bangkok, Dhaka, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, and Manila were co-hosted by EngageMedia in collaboration with the Asia Centre, Digitally Right, SAFEnet, Indonesia Jentera School of Law, Jumpstart@65, and Out of the Box Media Literacy Initiative, respectively.
The solidarity events provided dedicated spaces for participants to delve deeper into the digital rights issues in their countries and strengthen connections with other changemakers. At the end of the day, participants from the five in-person events had an opportunity to interact with each other in a virtual video call to share their learnings with the broader regional digital rights community.
EngageMedia invites changemakers to continue the discussions from these sessions over at Forum.EngageMedia.org/Discuss.
Shared concerns over surveillance and free speech
During the solidarity events, participants discussed various digital rights concerns most relevant to their specific contexts. Several issues emerged as shared challenges in the five locations: digital authoritarianism, hate speech, online freedom of speech and censorship, and strengthening the digital rights movement.
Participants of the Manila event cited government surveillance, the weaponisation of laws such as the cyber libel law, Anti-Terror Law, and the SIM Card Registration Law to suppress digital rights, and the current environment of information disorder as some of the critical concerns of the digital rights movement. Participants stressed the need to revisit strategies for advocacy amid other systemic problems, such as limited media literacy and the lack of localized digital rights resources tailored to cultural contexts.
Similar concerns on surveillance and online freedom were raised by participants from civil society, academe, law, and other sectors joining the Dhaka event. They noted the importance of nuanced conversations on censorship, pointing out the need to balance restricting harmful content and upholding free speech. Participants also tackled online gender-based violence, and how discussions have evolved from the personal lived experience of gender minorities into broader conversations on intersectional feminism and LGBTQI+ issues.
Censorship and hate speech were the key discussion points in the Kuala Lumpur event. Aside from the Sinar Project’s demonstration on using the OONI Probe for research and advocacy on internet freedom, participants discussed how to deal with online censorship and what safeguards should be in place. They also discussed ways to identify hate speech and take action against it.
Digital authoritarianism and strengthening the digital rights movement
In Thailand, discussions focused on how political forces and legal systems are shaping the use of technology to assert digital authoritarianism. Participants said government officials often invoke national security to suppress critical voices, which will be a crucial concern as Thailand heads to the polls this year. While elections should be an exercise of democracy, there are concerns that restrictive tools and disinformation will create disharmony among the electorate.
In Jakarta, participants discussed ways to strengthen the digital rights movement. They stressed the need for better tools and training on knowledge production for more effective advocacy, and for civil society organisations to share knowledge and support each other so they can be better equipped in tackling complex digital rights issues.