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Republished with permission from APC member organisation EngageMedia.

EngageMedia sits down with Mong Palatino, Southeast Asia and Oceania editor of the community media website Global Voices, to talk about the threats to freedom of expression on the internet. Most importantly, we ask Mong: Is the internet still a safe space for us to freely express ourselves?

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  • Global Voices (GV) is an “international, multilingual, primarily volunteer community of writers, translators, academics, and human rights activists”. Among GV’s noteworthy initiatives are Global Voices Lingua, which supports the translation of GV content to multiple languages, and Global Voices Advox, which reports on attacks against freedom of speech.

  • When asked what continues to be the biggest threat to freedom of expression online, Mong said that access to the internet remains a pressing issue in the Asia-Pacific, in particular safe and consistent access to technologies that allow you to find credible information and connect with communities.

    • In the April snapshot of the Digital 2021 Report by We Are Social and Hootsuite, internet may have surpassed 60 percent of the world’s population, but “levels of internet adoption continue to vary meaningfully around the world“. For example, the snapshot cites that 1 billion people in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan remain unconnected to the internet. The Southeast Asia region also recorded a lower internet adoption rate, even if it has over twice as many internet users already as Northern America.

  • Governments in the Asia-Pacific have continued to use the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to curtail freedom of expression online, in the guise of curbing disinformation on the virus. Early on in the pandemic, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet already expressed alarm at this development, saying, “While Governments may have a legitimate interest in controlling the spread of misinformation in a volatile and sensitive context, this must be proportionate and protect freedom of expression”.

    • For more specific examples of ongoing censorship, check out IFI Media’s Press Freedom Tracker.

    • Other examples of governments’ agenda to control freedom of expression include controversial laws such as Singapore’s 2019 fake news law meant to police social media content, Malaysia’s 2021 fake news law meant to target COVID-19 disinformation, and the recent amendment to Myanmar’s Electronic Transactions Law that can also be used as basis to further silence military critics.

  • The pandemic is just one of many factors that are contributing to rising digital authoritarianism. In 2019, Mong wrote an article on how we in the region can combat digital authoritarianism, with many of his points still relevant today.

    • Another way we can fight this phenomenon and protect freedom of expression online is to urge Big Tech to be more transparent with how their community guidelines and privacy policies are created and enforced. A good start is the Apple Store’s privacy labels, but more needs to be done.

  • When Parler was shut down in January 2021 following the US Capitol riots, the app’s supporters were quick to criticise Big Tech’s alleged progressive bias. If freedom of expression is supposed to be a universal right, why are forums like Parler and Gab treated differently? To this, Mong shares on the podcast, “Freedom of speech does not mean a license to spread hate or violence to anyone, especially those struggling for democratic rights, especially the powerless”.