In an effort to broaden the discussion on internet rights and freedoms, along with three other Malaysian activists, I flew to Dili, Timor-Leste in August 2016 to participate in the 11th ASEAN People’s Forum (APF). Personally, it was a trip with many doubts and uncertainties for two reasons. First, there was no direct flight to Dili. We had to fly to Bali, Indonesia, spent a night there and took an early flight the next morning to Dili. Secondly, none of my friends, colleagues or family members had been to Dili. Hence the only information I had was from what I could search on the internet and the logistics note provided by the organiser.
It turned out to be a worthwhile and inspiring experience though. Not least because Dili is a heaven that is relatively untouched by tourism, but the trip has also given me the opportunity to understand the many stories on the struggles for human rights and internet freedoms in Southeast Asia. EMPOWER along with its partners had organised an exhibition to collect stories about the internet in the region at the Dili Convention Centre. This was followed by a two-hour workshop that was conducted on 4 August 2016 at the National Post Office. Among stories heard and collected at the forum, the following issues (not in any particular order) have been identified as main concerns and challenges to internet freedom across the countries represented at the APF. (Note: No input was collected from Laos and Brunei.)
Access to ICTs and the internet
The internet has been widely seen as ushering in a new era of human development, but access to ICTs and the internet remains a faraway reality for some of the people in Southeast Asia. Rural populations in Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, Timor-Leste and Vietnam have been largely left out due to the absence of basic infrastructure, digital illiteracy, and high cost of access. The digital gap mirrors existing social inequalities and discrimination.
Net neutrality in Timor-Leste
Network discrimination is a real and growing concern in Timor-Leste. Telkomcel, one of the major internet service providers in Timor-Leste, has partnered with Facebook to launch Free Basics in the country. Compelled by economic reality in the country and much slower access to other websites and platforms, internet users inevitably perceive Facebook as “the internet” and it is becoming the main source of information and news. According to activists and a journalist from Timor-Leste, the spread of misinformation has become one of the main threats to internet freedoms in the country, more so when netizens are confined to Facebook as the primary and often only source of information and news. Thus, Free Basics essentially establishes Facebook as a global gatekeeper for internet connectivity in Timor-Leste, affecting access to a free and open internet.
Criminalisation of online expression
It is widely recognised that the internet opens up new opportunities for expression and participation, in particular for marginalised communities across Southeast Asia. The principle of freedom of expression has also been upheld by the UN Human Rights Council to apply equally online. However, developments in recent years indicate governments are extending the enforcement of laws on offline expression to control online expression. This is in addition to specific legislation governing online spaces and activities. In Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, draconian laws have been amended or introduced to investigate and prosecute expressions made on social media, online news portals, blogs, chat applications, etc. This essentially deals a serious blow to what can be called the last bastion for relatively free speech.
Blocking and censoring internet content
Traditionally, newspapers and television content in Southeast Asia were controlled through litigation, intimidation, cronyism and repressive laws; but blogs, online news portals and social media tend to escape these tight controls. However, governments in the region have in recent years resorted to internet censorship, including website blocking. In Singapore, the government has introduced new licensing rules to govern online news; Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have also seen a spike in internet censorship, including clamping down on online media and content related to LGBTIQ and human rights; and in Vietnam, access to Facebook was blocked during US President Barack Obama’s visit.
Online hate speech, abuse and violence
While the internet has tremendous potential in the promotion and protection of human rights, it is also a space that enables online hate speech and violence. While these are types of harm that may be faced by everyone, women, girls and LGBTIQ persons are being disproportionately targeted, often based on existing gender-based disparity and discrimination. Ethnic and religious minorities are also targeted. In Myanmar, the internet has been used as a platform to incite hatred and stoke religious intolerance against Muslims and Rohingyas. The situation is complex: some forms of hate speech are tolerated and sometimes promoted by repressive states when it serves political expediency; on the other hand, governments also equate legitimate criticism with online hate speech or abuse. All these inevitably pose a barrier to one’s freedom of expression and contribute to a polarised online space that is hostile to dissent, women, girls, LGBTIQ persons and religious or cultural minorities.
State surveillance is another major challenge to internet freedoms. It is conducted either through overt policing on social media or covert use of surveillance technologies. Online communications are vulnerable to electronic surveillance and interception. It is widely understood that public posts on social media or blogs are subject to surveillance in Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand. This has led to numerous arrests and prosecutions of human rights defenders over expressions made on social media. This form of surveillance poses significant risks to users’ privacy and may have a chilling effect on internet users exercising their right to freedom of expression.
I left Dili with a heavy heart and with a renewed commitment to stand in solidarity with my fellow comrades from Southeast Asia. As the saying by Desmond Tutu goes, “It means a great deal to those who are oppressed to know that they are not alone. Never let anyone tell you that what you are doing is insignificant.”
We have a lot more to do, and we will.
Note: This blog post aims to record sharings and stories from participants at the APF and is not intended to fully represent the diversity of online experiences in Southeast Asia.