Skip to main content

This piece was originally published by FORUM-ASIA

From 4-6 October 2017, FORUM-ASIAAPC, Bytes for All, Pakistan and Global Partners Digital are organising a regional consultation in Bangkok on the State of Freedoms of Assembly, Association, Expression and Religion on the Internet in Asia.

Day 1 

The first day started with words of welcome from the four organisers by: Chat Garcia Ramilo from APC; Rachel Arinii from FORUM-ASIA; Sheertal Kumar from Global Partners Digital; Marvi Sirmed from Bytes for All, Pakistan; and Jerome Pons from the EU Delegation to Bangkok.

For a short video of this session, click here.

After a short recap of the agenda and setting of the ground rules, the floor was given to the key-note speaker of the first day, Prof. David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

His address focused on the web of intersections, tackling these through six different angles: the intersection of rights, including Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees the freedom of expression, but also other rights that guarantee privacy, freedom of religion, public assembly and participation; the intersection of conflicts, which entails areas where these same rights conflict with each other, as, for example the rights to expression and privacy at times do; another crucial intersection in our day-and-age, is that between what is private and what is public. Is something subject to private regulation or public rule, can mean a world of difference; another intersection is there where the virtual influences the real world and vice-versa. What we say online does not just stay there, particularly when it comes to harassment and violence; another intersection is that of our identities, the different demands on our individual or community identities, and the different social demands these bring; finally, there is the intersection of security. As the narrative of national security is growing stronger, we are losing the argument of what security online is.

The original hope that the Internet would provide us with a space for expression and growth is increasingly being subjected by threats and repression. The Internet has become a dangerous place. Which is why Prof. Kaye called on all participants to share their thoughts and experiences with him over the coming days, so he can carry these onwards in the fulfillment of his mandate.

For a video of his speech, click here.

Following the key-note address, three discussants were asked to comment on his reflections. Urantsooj Gombosuren, Chair of the Centre for Human Rights and Development (CHRD), Mongolia and of FORUM-ASA, spoke particularly to the importance of anonymity, which at times can be a blessing, but at other times can also give those attacking you with the cover of secrecy.

Arfi Bambani from the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), Indonesia, reflected on the complicated balancing act between the freedom of expression and incitement, which has become a great challenge in Indonesia of today.

Finally, Malavika Jayaram, Executive Director of the Digital Asia Hub, talked about the very real consequences many of the challenges Prof. Kaye mentioned have in real life, as underscored in a horrendous fashion in the form of reporters and activists that are being killed. It is the dual nature of the use of technology, which can be fantastic and horrible at the same time.

For a video of their reflections, click here.

The rest of the day featured parallel sessions. Starting with one session on the impact of ICTs on civil society, with presentations on online realities in Taiwan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. At the same time, there was a session on the state of the Internet in Asia, which reflected on trends in challenges and developments in India, Malaysia, Thailand, Pakistan and the region overall. During the open discussion concerns about Myanmar and the position of refugees came up too.

The second set of parallel sessions had one that focused on gender and expression online. Issues discussed included: the role of corporations and big data; the inequality gap when it comes to access and the right to Internet; the challenges of researching the real experience of women on social media; and gender-based violence.

The other session discussed expanding and shrinking spaces: assembly and association online. The session featured Annalisa Ciampi, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, who called in through Skype. She addressed the overall opportunities that ICTs offer, but also how these are being threatened by shrinking freedom of expression and assembly in Asia today. This was further exemplified by the other speakers who gave examples from Malaysia, Pakistan, India, and the Maldives.

In the final round of sessions, one group of speakers reflected on the Big New World, big data and digital surveillance, starting with questioning what big data actually is and how it is being used for surveillance. The session continued to look into biometric data, little versus big data collection, and the positive and negative aspects of big data collection.

The other final session of the day looked at religion, minorities and hate online. The speakers spoke about the current realities of tensions and conflicts of religions and minorities in the region, including the situation of the Rohingya, and how this plays out online. Others spoke about how religion is being used for political gain and the mobilisation of the masses, and finally the horrendous consequences hate speech and incitement online have in real life.

Day 2

One of the sessions looked at the role and influence of the media when it comes to the state of the Internet in Asia. Some of the main trends identified were: the increase in killings and harassment of reporters and bloggers; the silencing of reporters and bloggers through existing and new laws and legislations; and the banning of publications, removal of content and shutting down of sites.

Speakers also highlighted the need for the media to challenge existing framing of stories that triggers violence and hate-speech. At the same time, traditional media and press-councils need to open their ranks to bloggers and digital news reporters, both to create codes of conducts and to offer them protection from harassment. The disappearances of bloggers has not only had the effect of silencing them, but also to instill fear in those that previously hoped the Internet would offer a space to create alternative narratives.

A different set of challenges for media comes from lack of transparency on ownership and finances of outlets, as it raises questions on who determines content and who has final editing power. It is crucial to create and maintain a culture of editorial independence in the newsroom. Finally, the phenomenon of reporters gaining an income through online advertisement through channels such as YouTube and Google has drastically and permanently changed the media landscape.

Another session, Death of a writer, looked at politics and political dissent, art and artistic expression. Increasingly leaders in Asia come to power on the back of social media, the session opened, but this does not mean that they remain so open to online expression once they are in power themselves. The digital age has seen new tools and expressions coming out in response to the crackdown on dissent that are combining online platforms with artistic expressions and humour.

At times this has meant that it is difficult to distinguish between political dissent and artistic expression online. Particularly the use of humour and creativity seems to be flourishing the more leaders try to silence dissenting voices. However, especially in cases where this is mingled with religion or minority groups, backlash and violent responses have spilled over into the offline world. Sometimes such backlash has come with quite substantial delay – months or years after – causing suspicions that they were being orchestrated. If you are part of group or gender that is traditionally repressed, exercising your freedom of expression becomes political, speakers concluded.

One of the final sessions looked into different perspectives of sexual and gender identity, sexual minorities, LGBT issues in the region. Speakers also discussed what people mean with legitimate sexual expression, both online and offline and what can be classified as problematic. Participants discussed the concept of consent and how consensual sex and expression is not always consensual in the practical sense and why that is.

The other final session looked at ‘natural allies – influencing national human rights institutions’. It was recognised from the beginning that when it comes to national human rights institutions there are significant differences across the regions in what kind of profile they have online, what options, tools and information they provide through their websites and social media, and how digitally secure they are. Particularly national human rights institutions that receive complaints and store data and information about these online, need to be highly aware of their digital vulnerability.

At the same time, national human rights institutions both increasingly receive complaints related to human rights violations online, but also find themselves subject to harassment and intimidation online. In the age we live in, it is crucial that national human rights institutions are not only digitally secure, but are aware of how activism and freedom of expression play out and are threatened online.