In April 2022, EngageMedia held the South and Southeast Asia Digital Rights School which aimed to empower new and upcoming digital rights defenders in seven focus countries under the Greater Internet Freedom (GIF) project in South and Southeast Asia.
The 18 selected participants from the Philippines, Indonesia, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Nepal attended the three-day program, which covered various topics such as Digital Rights 101, online freedom of speech, online privacy, digital inclusion and connectivity, online gender-based violence (OGBV), online disinformation and hate speech, digital hygiene, and mainstreaming digital rights. These topics were chosen due to their prevalence and recurrence in the seven South and Southeast Asian focus countries.
Through the program, participants were equipped with the knowledge to launch digital rights campaigns, activities, and projects at the regional, national, or sub-national levels that are rooted in the realities of their respective countries and communities.
EngageMedia is publishing a series of blog posts highlighting key takeaways from the digital rights school. As the GIF program approaches its third year, the seven focus countries have experienced unique local-level issues regarding digital rights activities. However, the countries also face similar challenges, such as the following:
- Crackdown on free speech online: The exercise of free speech in social media platforms is increasingly met with an aggressive response by South and Southeast Asian governments. Critics online are subjected to arrest, legal charges under controversial laws, and even threats of violence. Some countries have resorted to warning internet users against practising free speech online in politically-sensitive cases.
- Digital gaps due to unique geographical challenges: Most of the focus countries are island and archipelagic states, making it difficult to provide equal internet access across their respective jurisdictions. Countries have sought to address this through ambitious digital development schemes, such as building nationwide submarine cable connections (Maldives) and satellite launches (Indonesia).
- Poor cybersecurity systems in place for key digital infrastructures: Almost all the focus countries reported hacking or data leak incidents on government-affiliated sites and servers. Rudimentary preventive measures and little to no legal protection highlight governments’ lack of commitment and understanding in aspects of online safety and security.
- Use of digital tools to infringe on privacy: Digital tools and surveillance equipment have been used to collect sensitive information from citizens. Some countries (Bangladesh, Indonesia) were also allegedly among the countries where the controversial spyware Pegasus was in use. In addition, the countries have also utilised existing domestic laws and proposed new measures with vague provisions prone to misinterpretation, providing legal loopholes to evade accountability.
- Cases of OGBV increase due to minimal legal protection: All seven countries grapple with the challenge of addressing OGBV issues unique to their contexts, but they all share similar obstacles of having limited legal instruments to adequately address OGBV cases and ineffective safeguarding tools online to quickly address incidents.
- Weaponised political disinformation: Governments have used political influencers (buzzers), whether through affiliated accounts or bots, to distort public discussions. Some countries utilise mainstream media to create and distribute misleading information in favour of the ruling regime. The right to determine what constitutes ‘disinformation’ and ‘hate speech’ is often with the government, and it is often abused to benefit those currently in power.
Read the blog posts:
- Digital Rights in Bangladesh: An Overview
- Digital Rights in Cambodia: An Overview
- Digital Rights in Indonesia: An Overview
- Digital Rights in Maldives: An Overview
- Digital Rights in Nepal: An Overview
- Digital Rights in the Philippines: An Overview
- Digital Rights in Sri Lanka: An Overview
The South and Southeast Asia Digital Rights School was organised by EngageMedia through its work under the Greater Internet Freedom program.