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From 22-26 May, APC member EngageMedia organised DRAPAC23 – the Digital Rights Asia-Pacific Assembly – in Chiang Mai, Thailand, inviting participants to discuss emerging trends and challenges of digital technologies and build a shared vision of a rights-respecting digital future in the region. Conceived as an opportunity to “build knowledge, collaborations and momentum around digital rights”, the event brought together human rights defenders, digital rights advocates, journalists, artists, technologists and changemakers from Asia-Pacific and beyond.

Throughout the event, 544 participants from 35 countries participated in 161 sessions as well as film screenings by Cinemata and live podcast streams by EngageMedia. It also resulted in the drafting of a Statement of Solidarity, co-created by participants “with the aim of capturing the spirit of the Assembly and sharing it with a wider audience.”

The statement, signed by 77 organisations and 46 individuals, lays out the context of why this kind of event and subsequent network of digital rights activists is needed now in the Asia-Pacific:

“We recognise that the region is at an important crossroads, with the promise of the internet and emerging digital technologies to usher in an inclusive and equitable future on the one hand while millions still remain unconnected; a rise in repressive and reactionary governments and policies; threats to our human rights and fundamental freedoms; silencing of voices through violence and hate; misleading rhetoric and misinformation; corporatisation of resources, including our data; a looming climate crisis and the further marginalisation of already vulnerable communities including but not limited to gender, sexual and religious minorities, people with disabilities, refugees and indigenous peoples.”

Infographic by VOICE of key figures and highlights from DRAPAC23
Image: Infographic by VOICE of key figures and highlights from DRAPAC23.

The DRAPAC23 Public Outcomes Report states that “One of our primary objectives in hosting DRAPAC23 was launching the DRAPAC Network. [...] During the DRAPAC Network Co-creation Session, 91% of participants agreed to wanting to be part of this network [and] teasing out exactly what this means in practice will take more time.”

The report also outlined several collaborations that were initiated at the Assembly, including the following:

  • The Greater Internet Freedom programme will pursue an initial action plan to build synchronisation of digital rights and digital safety work in South and Southeast Asia.
  • Digital security trainers in South and Southeast Asia are planning to build a network to support each other through knowledge and resource sharing.
  • #PushbackUNESCO has continued in other venues (Stockholm Internet Forum, RightsCon) and contributors continue to coordinate through the private chat group formed at DRAPAC23.
  • Tech Tales Youth will explore a potential collaboration with South Korean filmmakers.
  • EngageMedia is working with Citizen Lab on collecting and submitting data to improve malware detection systems, specifically for spyware like Pegasus.
  • EngageMedia’s Indonesia team is working with Indonesian civil society on electoral disinformation, Bangladeshi fact-checkers, Myanmar disinformation researchers, and Taiwanese researchers for the research project “The Politics of Fact-checking”.
  • EngageMedia’s DR-TH project is working with three Thai independent media organisations on advocating for media freedom and providing digital security support.

As an organisation actively working on digital rights in the region, APC has been involved with this movement ever since COCONET, providing strategic inputs and funding. APC was also part of the DRAPAC steering committee and contributed to the development of the agenda, as well as providing input on the creation of the statement. During the event, APC’s coordinator and editor Hija Kamran sat down with Red Tani, EngageMedia’s programme and advocacy director, to discuss how the Assembly came to fruition and the spirit of co-creation and collective engagement that shaped its agenda. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What was EngageMedia’s motivation for organising the DRAPAC23 Assembly?

The impetus for this DRAPAC23 Assembly is a continuation of the COCONET Camps that started in 2017. The idea was to continue that spirit of connecting communities and networks across Southeast Asia at first, and then the scope grew to the broader Asia-Pacific. COCONET was initially something that was quite intimate as far as growing the group of participants. With COVID-19 and digitalisation accelerating at an unprecedented pace, we recognised that the scale of the movement we were building needed to keep up with the increasing demand for human rights advocacy, especially with technology accelerating in that way. DRAPAC23 was the result of all this.

We consulted with a number of COCONET partners, and then those partners grew organisation by organisation until we had a composition that we felt represented the region as well as the issues that we aimed to tackle. DRAPAC23 started with country forums in Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Cambodia. The country events were some of the first in-person events that EngageMedia organised since the pandemic started. We intended that to be the base, gradually building the network of people who would participate and contribute to the Assembly.

The country forums happened in late 2022. In early 2023 there was a three-day regional forum of which two days were designed to be online. Many of the same speakers from the country forums either spoke again or recommended other people who could speak. That was also the same pool that we relied on for the composition of the DRAPAC sessions. So there were two days of online talks and then the third day was a solidarity event in person, in five different cities including Manila, Jakarta, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Dhaka.

At the end of those in-person solidarity events we connected each venue through an online call and then we said, “Hey, look at everyone online, we’re looking forward to seeing them in person at the DRAPAC23 Assembly.” So I'm just emphasising the way that the gradual building up of this event happened.

That's the approach that we intend to take as we scale the DRAPAC network further. The intention is to use this event as a springboard for the inception of a DRAPAC network. We want to bring along as many organisations, individuals and voices to ensure the values of inclusivity and diversity. That includes the formation of the frameworks, charters, codes of conduct, etc. We wanted people to all have a say, to have ownership of this. If by the end of this Assembly people trust that their voices were heard and that they made meaningful contributions to this group, that they can co-create, then we will have succeeded in organising this Assembly.

Why is an Assembly for digital rights important in a context of increasing totalitarianism?

We just came from a climate justice-themed APC event at DRAPAC where many of the speakers emphasised that the global North has an oversized responsibility for the climate crisis, and the damage is absorbed by the global South. When it comes to digital technology and its negative impacts, it’s the same – we don't get as many of the benefits, but we get the harms of this information manipulation and algorithmic bias. It's experienced by the global South.

We wanted to bring together and connect these people to have knowledge sharing, collective campaigns and a real sense of solidarity. If we want our voices to be heard and have a seat at the table of these previously global North technology conversations, then we need to work together.

Did anything unexpected arise during the planning or implementation of the Assembly?

There were a lot of challenges that we faced trying to do this. We tried a new kind of peer-to-peer verification system to ensure security when we dealt with our host, Chiang Mai University. Our dealings were with one department and not the entire university and some of the venues were separated by several kilometres, and although we set up shuttles, we were afraid that participants would be bothered by the need to switch venues. We were surprised by how gracious people were in understanding those circumstances. Some participants took the bus rides and long walks together as an opportunity for the kind of bonding and solidarity building that we aimed this event to be. We were very appreciative of how that turned out.

I think that the success of this event is very much thanks to the participants. Our job was inviting people who we thought would engage, benefit and contribute. As far as the conversations and the sessions go, it's really been a collective success.


Read the full Digital Rights Asia Pacific Assembly (DRAPAC23) Statement of Solidarity.

Read the DRAPAC23 Public Outcomes Report: Advancing Digital Rights in the Asia-Pacific region.

Learn more about the DRAPAC23 Assembly by visiting EngageMedia’s website.


Cover image: EngageMedia on Twitter.