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Rules of Engagement: Challenges and Learnings from Digital Rights Defenders in South and Southeast Asia

To sustain the digital rights movement, digital rights defenders need to expand the work to reach other sectors of society and broaden the field to include a broader range of allies. But how can we better collaborate with these stakeholders, especially at a time when the region is facing a number of violations against digital rights and internet freedom?

At the 2023 Digital Rights Asia-Pacific Assembly, 32 representatives from South and Southeast Asian digital rights organisations discussed shared challenges and learnings based on their experiences and what worked in their respective countries. The regional co-learning session was organised by EngageMedia as part of the Greater Internet Freedom program, which aims to enhance digital security for civil society and media organisations, engage citizens in internet governance debates, and advance human rights online.

The participants of the co-learning session emphasised the involvement of two key stakeholder groups: National governments and broader national and regional civil society organisations (CSOs). Especially noted was the importance of engaging with national governments when it comes to drafting and implementing rights-respecting policies on digital rights and internet freedom. 

EngageMedia outlines below key action plans outlined by the co-learning session participants to address common challenges. 

Engaging with national governments

Challenge: Unclear jurisdiction between government agencies when it comes to internet freedom issues, which can cause internal confusion and fighting

Action Plan: Map out potential allies

  • Identify government agencies and officials with political will and are likely more open to collaborate
  • Involve influential stakeholders in your plan specific to your context and considerate of variations in government cooperation and preferences

Challenge: Ingrained suspicion of civil society organisations, which can lead to reluctance to collaborate with digital rights defenders

Action Plan: Communicate with purpose 

  • Offer actionable solutions to internet freedom issues instead of outright criticism
  • Balance the language and tone when being critical, to increase the chances of being heard

Challenge: Unwillingness and/or ignorance to address internet freedom issues, which is particularly evident in states with more oppressive and authoritarian contexts

Action Plan: Participate in the process

  • Utilize available legislative public consultations during the drafting of a relevant bill or decree
  • Provide easily understood analyses of existing laws, emphasizing the real-world impacts of digital rights
  • Offer free or affordable services such as trainings, workshops, and modules to foster a sense of partnership and collaboration with the government

Success Story: Maldives

In early 2023, the Society for Peace and Democracy worked together with the Thulusdhoo and Guraidhoo Island Councils to train their respective Women’s Development Committees on digital literacy and security.

Engaging with local and regional CSOs

Challenge: Lack of public awareness of how internet freedom and digital rights affect everyday lives

Action Plan: Relate to tangible issues

  • Break down in simple terms how a threat against our online selves is also a threat to our physical selves
  • Use familiar technologies and apps as examples when explaining digital safety and security concepts

Challenge: Lack of intergenerational and intersectional knowledge sharing and collective action

Action Plan: Connect and bridge gaps

  • Include in workshops or training some practical tips derived from diverse experiences of various groups
  • Use more familiar technologies and applications when explaining digital safety and security concepts
  • Always adapt concepts to local contexts, especially when involving at-risk and marginalised communities

Challenge: Convincing other local and regional groups focused on other advocacy to include digital rights and internet freedom in their plans

Action Plan: Provide tools and collective strategies

  • Collate accessible resources on digital rights tools and the current work of local digital rights organisations for other CSOs’ easy reference
  • Strategically seek out local and regional groups to amplify advocacy efforts, emphasizing the deliberate integration of internet freedom into their existing plans

Success Story: Philippines

The Take Ctrl ⇧ Shift Habits media campaign by Out of the Box included workshops with different sectors of society, including mothers in Payatas, Manila, and university students in Baguio City, northern Luzon.