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3 March 2022 | Updated on 9 June 2022
The context

Digital spaces have become an important part and an extension of the democratic and civic space. As the United Nations has affirmed on many occasions, the rights that people have offline must be protected online as well. Unfortunately, states have co-opted digital tools and online spaces to mount targeted attacks on human rights defenders (HRDs) and voices of dissent, severely restricting human rights online. Restrictive laws, including digital laws, are repeatedly invoked by states to crack down on dissent. This has opened the door to intimidation, harassment and surveillance of activists and digital rights defenders (DRDs) in Southeast Asia. In addition, control over content and compilation/use of data is concentrated in specific private sector actors, which makes users, including HRDs and DRDs, more vulnerable.

Research by APC indicates that the repressive online environment in Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and the Philippines has a significant impact on civic and democratic space. Technology is consistently used to silence, surveil and harass dissidents, political opposition, human rights defenders, activists and protesters, and to manipulate public opinion. Governments in these countries are ordering internet shutdowns more frequently and blocking websites and platforms ahead of critical democratic moments such as elections and protests. These repressive practices have worsened in the context of COVID-19.

Consultations among the APC network’s members and partners in the subregion since 2015 highlighted the urgent need to support and strengthen the digital rights movement to counter the increased pressure from both state and non-state actors. This has become especially pertinent in the context of the pandemic, given that online networked environments have become central to any social justice work. In addition, with the private sector emerging as a new force mediating rights, privacy and content moderation, civil society needs to be able to engage and hold them accountable.

Opposition to these repressive developments requires concerted and strategic efforts. Technology is evolving and there is a need to apply specialised skills with traditional activism to better understand digital spaces and develop a network to support the growth of digital rights activism. Southeast Asia lags behind other regions on engagement in internet governance processes and legal developments on digital rights. The digital rights field is still in nascent stages of development and there is a lack of sufficient actors in the digital rights ecosystem. New entrants in this field, including those with experience in human rights advocacy, lack technical expertise and resources, which results in the pushback against digital rights violations being sporadic and uncoordinated. There is an urgent need for capacity building of digital rights defenders, connecting them to other actors in the space, and supporting the work of different actors to promote a human rights-based approach to information and communications technology (ICT) policy making and advocacy.

How will we contribute to change this scenario?

In order to ensure that the digital rights movement in the region is sufficiently strengthened, we will gather a cohort of 15 organisations and individuals from Southeast Asia who identify as new entrants to the digital rights space in the region to advocate for and uphold digital rights. Our theory of change involves three interconnected strategies: promoting closer relationships through network building across the cohort, building their capacity, and resourcing the cohort to support their work, which will lead to better understanding of key issues related to digital rights and strategies to counter attacks and carry out advocacy. These measures will ultimately strengthen the digital rights movement in the region.

The specific objectives of the initiative will be to work with the cohort on:

  1. Movement building: Promote closer relationships, interaction and knowledge exchange among the cohort members and other digital rights defenders in the region towards strengthening the digital rights movement.

  2. Capacity building: Build the capacity of cohort members to understand digital rights issues and engage in strategic advocacy.

  3. Resource building: Enable the work of cohort members through small grants and fellowships that allow for learning opportunities with other organisations in the region and carrying out activities such as research, capacity building, advocacy and campaigning.

The cohort members will be part of a four-stage mentoring process on digital rights advocacy and governance, encompassing online and face-to-face capacity-building instances. This phased approach to movement, capacity and resource building will help participants move from a basic to intermediate to advanced level of learning about digital rights issues. The cohort members will also have an opportunity to practically apply the skills they learn by participating in internet governance processes. The fellowship will facilitate learning of the cohort members from the experiences of other organisations in the field and the small grants will allow them to start implementing their own projects around promoting digital rights in the region. All these elements combined will contribute to a strengthened digital rights movement in Southeast Asia.

Meet the members of the first cohort – Southeast Asia chapter (coming soon)