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In the Asia-Pacific, the challenges to human and digital rights are multifaceted, ranging from discrimination and online gender-based violence (OGBV) to surveillance and disinformation. These issues worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic as governments around the region imposed measures of control and digital authoritarianism. With various lockdowns in place, civil society organisations (CSOs) and digital rights advocates had few opportunities to come together and address these shared challenges.

In May 2023, EngageMedia held the Digital Rights Asia-Pacific Assembly (DRAPAC23) to foster knowledge-sharing and collaboration with the digital rights community after over two years of limited in-person convenings. Much has changed in the digital rights landscape, but the pandemic made it clear that there was need for a cross-sectoral approach to address new and emerging challenges to digital rights, and to continue amplifying the voices of digital rights defenders.

The Pretty Good Podcast Live at DRAPAC23 (PGP Live at DRAPAC23) series of video podcasts, recorded live during the week-long Assembly, aimed to raise awareness of critical issues through the lens of rights advocates working on the ground. Through a conversational style and video format, the series presents complex issues in a digestible format that can resonate with a broader audience. The video podcast series was post-produced and published through the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) Grants for research and campaign support. APC support enabled us to broaden the impact and reach of this project.

Delving deeper into the digital rights issues in the region

EngageMedia approached human rights activists, legal experts, media professionals and CSOs during the DRAPAC23 Assembly to talk about the digital rights challenges they encountered – and continue to face – and how they see the digital rights community moving forward. The podcast series aimed to expand understanding of key digital rights issues through a format easily accessible and available even to those who did not attend the Assembly, and to spotlight the work of featured guests and CSOs for a wider audience.

The topics featured in the PGP Live series cover a myriad of human rights issues in the digital age – from digital security, open tech and internet freedom to data privacy and freedom of expression. Aside from offering a nuanced exploration of the challenges and opportunities that shape the contemporary digital rights landscape, the series also explores the innovative ways the featured guests navigate these challenges. Beyond being a platform for rights advocates to explain what they do, the series is also a way to reach new audiences and seek opportunities for collaboration and support from like-minded organisations.

A particular focus throughout the episodes is the transformative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on digital rights. The episode featuring IDEALS, Inc. explores the intersection of digital rights and legal aid. Legal officer Jonnah Morado shares about their initiative, Tisya Hustisya, a human rights chatbot offering free legal consultation in the Philippines. The platform, born in response to the pandemic, has evolved into a community-driven hub and earned recognition as a finalist in the 2022 World Justice Challenge. With over 35,000 clients and 60,000 legal consultations online in almost three years, the platform has benefited digital rights activists, human rights defenders and those with limited access to legal consultation.

The challenges exacerbated by the pandemic are further exemplified in the episode featuring Digital Rights Nepal. Tanka Aryal discusses the organisation’s work to address digital security challenges and issues related to the intersection of technology and law. Amid the limitations brought on by the pandemic, the organisation continued its capacity-building initiatives through a digital rights school, workshops and training sessions. These activities are aimed at professionals, journalists, parliamentarians and students, providing them with essential knowledge and skills to navigate and combat digital challenges.

Podcast guests also shared some innovative approaches, such as using technology and data to empower Indigenous communities and environmental advocates. For instance, Pyrou Chung, director of the Open Development Initiative at East-West Management Institute, highlighted their efforts in strengthening data governance for Indigenous communities and promoting women's roles in environmental advocacies. Their collaboration with the World Wide Fund For Nature involved mapping the data ecosystem across the Mekong region to support CSOs in environmental governance.

Meanwhile, art, storytelling and music were some of the strategies employed by the Filipino Freethinkers to raise awareness on freedom of expression and religion, the rights of women and LGBTQIA+ communities, and digital rights in the Philippines. Through these initiatives, they aim to cultivate the internet as a safe space, especially for marginalised groups.

These stories reflect the resilience and innovation within the Asia-Pacific digital rights community, showcasing a path forward amid challenges. We encourage individuals and rights advocates to explore opportunities for collaboration and engagement with these organisations. For more information and to connect with the podcast guests, detailed resources are available in the accompanying blog post for each episode.

Moving forward

Through the series, we gained deeper insight into the interconnected challenges faced by digital rights defenders in the Asia-Pacific. Amid these difficulties, a recurring theme emerged – a theme of hope. Despite the risks and threats, these organisations and individuals continue to find ways to leverage technology as a tool for initiatives that contribute to a safer and more rights-centric digital sphere. In showcasing these narratives, we aim not only to shed light on these critical human rights issues but also to emphasise the resilience and the positive impact that these endeavours bring to the digital rights community. As we reflect on these stories, it becomes evident that collaboration is key to amplifying these efforts.

Following the recording of these episodes, the podcast guests have forged connections with other DRAPAC Network members, opening doors for creating shared solutions to digital rights challenges. Digital Rights Nepal’s Tanka Aryal mentioned plans to apply the insights gained from DRAPAC23, including methodologies from Chiang Mai University’s School of Public Policy, to address hate speech and misinformation challenges in Nepal. Open Culture Foundation’s SzuHui Huang noted new potential regional partnerships from DRAPAC23, and Filipino Freethinker’' Kristine Tan Chan shared about the podcast’s role in showcasing digital rights leaders and inspiring collaboration with rights defenders in the region.

The series has also paved the way for the creation of the DRAPAC Series of live webinars that aim to continue the conversations from the DRAPAC Assembly. Together, these initiatives aim to explore, connect and inspire meaningful change towards a more inclusive, equitable and rights-respecting digital future.


Image: Video podcast recording of Sinar Project’s episode during the DRAPAC23 Assembly, via 239 Studio.

Jen Tarnate is a multidisciplinary storyteller with roots in documentary filmmaking. She produces EngageMedia’s ‘Pretty Good Podcast: Discussion on Digital Rights’. She is also the lead curator of Cinemata, a video platform for social issue films about the Asia-Pacific.
Katerina Francisco produces content on digital rights issues as EngageMedia’s editorial coordinator. She is a Filipino writer with a background in journalism and social sector communications.