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Sadaf Baig from Bytes for All Pakistan, in Jakarta.Sadaf Baig from Bytes for All Pakistan, in Jakarta. On 3-5 June, more than 70 human rights defenders, activists and journalists got together for the Regional Consultation on Expression, Opinion and Religious Freedom in South Asia. The event, which was organised by Bytes for All Pakistan, in collaboration with APC, FORUM-ASIA, Global Partners Digital, the Internet Democracy Project, ICT Watch and KontraS, was a unique forum to discuss pressing issues of freedom of expression and freedom of religion in a context of increasing threats and tensions in the region.

To review the goals, needs and outcomes of this meeting, APC’s Leila Nachawati conducted the following interview with Sadaf Baig, Bytes for All Pakistan’s digital rights programme manager.

How was the idea for this consultation born?

Two years ago there was a freedom of expression conference in Bangkok. Frank La Rue, the former Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression was there, and a very vibrant discussion took place. We identified so many points that needed more in-depth discussion, strategies to develop, action plans… that we realised there was a need to meet in a more organised way. We saw the need to find trends, common ground, shared strategies in this region, which is facing complex challenges and issues that need joint analyses and reactions.

Is the intersection of freedom of expression and freedom of religion THE issue in terms of expression in the region?

It definitely is. The religious card is being used throughout the region to create favour or hatred between voters. To control difference, dissidence, to suppress free speech… In countries like Pakistan or Bangladesh, power structures use Islam, in others, like Myanmar or Sri Lanka, Buddhism is used in the same way. Religion is used to divide the population, concentrate power, and these are trends we should challenge, because they are taking a huge toll on freedom of expression in the region.

There are differences from country to country, but the maps of threats show some shared challenges like impunity, misuse of legislation to curtail freedom of expression, use of religion for political purposes, public security allegations to challenge free speech… There are many patterns in terms of perpetrators and victims throughout the region.

Can you give us an overall assessment of this consultation, and its outcome?

What we always aim for is to consolidate the voice of civil society across the region. Now we are working on a declaration based on the discussions and ideas gathered at the consultation, including recommendations to reach out to media, states, and other stakeholders. This should be published within the coming days. In the next Human Rights Council meeting, we will be hosting a side event, taking outputs produced during the consultation to develop a set of standards on freedom of religion best practices. Based on all these materials and ideas, we will also strategise on how each of us can use these documents in our advocacy.

Also, the fact that David Kaye and Frank La Rue, key figures of the defence of free speech at the UN level, were with us, is an important step. Their connections within the UN framework are very useful for us in order to push some issues forward.

What is the role of gender in this forum, and in the discussions around freedom of expression and freedom of religion?

This was a cross-cutting issue in the consultation, one that APC has helped us incorporate. We think it should be integrated in the discussion around freedom of expression and freedom of religion, to problematise the different issues from the gender lens. Gender language and concerns were incorporated in drafting the resolution that came out of the conference.

People attending the conference were very aware of this. When we contacted one of our Sri Lankan participants, a woman who works on the issue of minorities and women’s rights, the first thing she asked was, “Is there a gender approach to the discussions? Otherwise I won’t come.” This awareness is a great accomplishment, it is what we are looking for.