ASEAN Forum discusses freedom of expression in the digital age

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has recognised the vital role of information and communications technology (ICT) in ASEAN integration. Towards this end, it has laid out plans for its development under the ASEAN Connectivity Master Plan. New technologies such as the internet, satellite and digital broadcasting have touched many aspects of people’s lives and of societies, including the way people communicate and share information.

ICT has had an impact on rights, particularly freedom of expression, including citizens’ right to know and be informed of their rights. New opportunities are emerging for greater freedom to exercise these rights. The internet, for instance, has provided many more ways in which individuals may exercise freedom of expression for self-publication and interaction through blogs and social media. The internet has become a critical space for women’s expression and participation in public life. It is for this reason that policies in relation to ICT are kept within the net of democratic control and human rights standards.

ASEAN Peoples Forum 2014

At the recently concluded ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN Peoples’ Forum (ACSC/APF), the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) together with the Foundation for Media Alternatives (FMA), Women’s Legal and Human Rights Bureau (WLB), Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), EROTICS Indonesia, and Myanmar ICT Development Organization (MIDO), organised a workshop to discuss ICT and its implications for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Titled “Freedom of expression, privacy and women’s rights in evolving digital information societies”, the workshop surfaced issues and challenges around freedom of expression, privacy and gender in the evolving ICT landscape. The workshop, which gathered a total of 69 participants, was held on 22 March 2014 at the Myanmar Convention Center in Yangon, Myanmar. Chang Jordan of WLB facilitated the discussion. The workshop had an all-women panel.

Lisa Garcia first set the context of the discussion by talking about global and regional ICT development and the emerging policy frameworks in the ASEAN region. She mentioned the ASEAN ICT Master Plan and noted that the plan does not consider the gender gap in terms of accessing ICT, as well as protections for women online.

Gayathry Ventiteswaran of SEAPA talked about “Internet Freedom of Expression in Southeast Asia”. She highlighted the lack of compliance with obligations and standards in protecting and promoting freedom of expression and access to information, and how states fail to end impunity in the killing and attacks against journalists and individuals through any form of media.

Nica Dumlao of FMA discussed how some states are trying to regulate control and police the internet. She talked about the cyber crime law in the Philippines and shared the efforts of groups in challenging the law.

WLB talked next about ICT-related violence against women and ASEAN integration. They emphasised that ICTs are an alternative site for self-determination, freedom of expression and association, where women can claim their rights over their bodies. But there are also threats faced by women and other marginalised and vulnerable groups, and thus there is a need to ensure women’s access to justice in cyberspace. She called on ASEAN to come up with concrete programmes to prevent sexual violence in cyberspace by promoting human rights for all and harnessing ICT’s potential to promote women’s empowerment.

Kamilia Manaf discussed “Queering the Internet Governance in Indonesia”. She cited examples whereby the internet could be used as a space to advance sexual citizenship. She also highlighted the need to guarantee the promotion, protection and fulfilment of internet rights as human rights, as adopted by the UN Human Rights Council on 5 July 2012.

Htaike Htaike Aung of MIDO talked about the online harassment experiences of Myanmar Women’s Human Rights Defenders and the efforts of MIDO to counter these.

Workshop recommendations

The following were the recommendations of the workshop:

1. ASEAN governments need to be proactive in ensuring people’s access to the media and information, and to provide for an enabling environment for independent and community media to operate.
2. Call upon all ASEAN states to respect and adhere to the resolutions added by the UN General Assembly in bringing an end to impunity in the killing of journalists and human rights defenders.
3. Call upon ASEAN states to ensure women’s access to justice including guarantees of protection to vulnerable groups in cyberspace.
4. Call upon ASEAN to involve individuals, communities and CSOs in the development and drafting of guidelines for implementation of the ASEAN Connectivity Plan.

These recommendations formed part of the 2014 Official Statement of the ACSC/APF that will be handed to ASEAN heads of states in May.

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