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Participants discuss key digital rights concerns during the solidarity event in Bangkok last January 14, 2023
With less than four months to go, EngageMedia is gearing up for our biggest event this 2023: the Asia-Pacific Digital Rights Festival! Together with our partners and collaborators, the team is hard at work designing a week-long program packed with events and activities to delve deeper into the key digital rights issues today, and strengthen connections among a broad range of allies in the digital rights movement.
As we head into this event, we share our journey towards the Festival, and what you can expect come May 2023.
In 2022, EngageMedia envisioned hosting a series of digital rights events after over two years of virtual convenings and limited networking opportunities. It was an apt time to discuss the pandemic’s impact on digital rights in the region and to bring in diverse voices and allies to the digital rights community.
At the heart of these events was the emphasis on co-creation and adopting an open space technology approach. The agenda and design of the four country forums in Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, and the Philippines were led by participants and changemakers who know their own countries’ contexts and challenges best. From these forums, we expanded the conversations to the broader digital rights community in the three-day Asia-Pacific Digital Rights Forum, where our partners and collaborators hosted breakout sessions and led discussions in the in-person parallel solidarity events.
Throughout these events, we at EngageMedia have learned a lot from our peers about the shared themes, issues, and concerns we face in our work, the thorny issues we need to continue discussing as a community, and how we can stand together to address these challenges.
Shared challenges and collaborative sense-making
The shared nature of the digital rights challenges in the Asia-Pacific and the importance of collaboration was the common theme throughout the four country forums and the regional convening. Participants repeatedly pointed out the common dangers digital rights advocates face: state surveillance and laws restricting freedom of speech in Thailand and the Philippines, censorship in Malaysia, and online gender-based violence and hate speech in Bangladesh and Indonesia, to name a few.
In the regional forum, keynote panelists also noted other underlying issues compounding these digital rights challenges: the lack of meaningful access to technology, power imbalances skewed towards Big Tech, and weak regulations over the technology sector and non-state actors.
Given the nature of these challenges, building solidarity and learning from each other is crucial. This does not just mean collaboration across organisations in different countries, but also expanding the digital rights space to bring in perspectives from other disciplines, such as law and journalism. During the regional forum, EngageMedia Executive Director Phet Sayo emphasised the interdisciplinary nature of the threats we face and said that sense-making should be a shared effort. Similarly, LIRNEasia’s Helani Galpaya stressed the need for activists to be present in spaces beyond the usual digital rights fora so they can be part of conversations where norm-setting and policies are crafted.
According to the participants from the five parallel solidarity events, critical reflection within the movement is also needed. To strengthen digital rights advocacy, organisations should learn from each other, fully engage with local perspectives, and learn from the successes of past rights movements.
Screenshot from one of the breakout sessions during the three-day Asia-Pacific Digital Rights Forum
Ongoing conversations and negotiations
With the pandemic making hybrid events common practice, EngageMedia opted to combine in-person and virtual events during the country forums and regional convening, drawing on over 15 years of experience working remotely across the Asia-Pacific in distributed teams.
Planning for and hosting the online breakout sessions and keynote panels brought up discussions on using open and secure technology (OST) – one of our core issue areas. As a team, we had extensive conversations on what platform to use for the online events. Ultimately, we settled with Zoom due to limitations with other open source alternatives. This will continue to be an area of negotiation for us as we explore more ways to consistently move towards using OST. During the Forum, we hosted a focus group discussion as part of our ongoing research on open and secure technology adoption among human rights defenders. We expect to have more of these conversations at the Festival, and we look forward to hearing from a broad range of participants, including perspectives and insights from at-risk and marginalised communities.
At the Asia-Pacific Digital Rights Forum, participants from the five parallel events meet virtually to share learnings with the regional group
Deepening partnerships and collaborations
As mentioned repeatedly during the forums, collaboration is crucial, and this extends to the behind-the-scenes work in hosting these digital rights events and the upcoming Festival. EngageMedia is privileged to have built strong partnerships with established organisations around the region. The solidarity events and breakout sessions were made possible with their active involvement in co-creating the agenda: Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, Social Technology Institute, Initiatives for Dialogue and Empowerment through Alternative Legal Services, Cambodian Center for Independent Media, Asia Centre, Digitally Right, Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network, Indonesia Jentera School of Law, Jumpstart@65, Out of the Box Media Literacy Initiative, and all the organisations who shared their knowledge and expertise in the breakout sessions. We are also privileged to have our work supported by our funders Sida, ARTICLE19, and the Association for Progressive Communications.
As we continue preparing for the Festival, partnership and solidarity remain a core focus. We invite interested organisations and collectives to co-create the agenda with us by organising various sessions – whether it’s a panel discussion, lightning talk, hackathon, or entertainment and self-care activities to celebrate the digital rights community coming together. The Festival will be a space for changemakers to network, learn more about each other, and find ways to work together. We hope to continue the conversations from the forums and see familiar faces in Chiang Mai!