2013 Fellowship: Commons amid contrast

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Burma and Singapore are obviously different: from economic development levels to political structures, they sit on opposite ends of a scale. Yet, they represent some of the fundamental challenges, and, of hope, in understanding the media landscape in the region and the discussions related to internet governance in Southeast Asia.

Internet governance has become an important global policy issue, with the United Nations hosting an annual global forum annually since 2006, following a mandate from the World Summit on Information Society in Tunisia in 2005. The forum does not provide legally binding decisions but allows for multi-stakeholder debate on governance open to representatives of governments, corporations, and civil society, technical and academic communities, This year’s meeting will be held in October in Bali, Indonesia.’

Download a pdf copy of the bookorRead the articles online:

Internet: A New Tool to Change Burma’s Old Laws by Ayee Macaraig

sidebar: Back in Burma, exiled media face own transition

Internet: A new political battleground by Chen Shaua Fui

sidebar: “Magic show” in rural Burma

Is Burma’s ‘Disconnectivity’ Deliberate? by Jefry Tupas

sidebar: “No SIM City, this”

Youth power strives for maturity by Nanchanok Wongsamuth

sidebar: To young Burmese, IT’s both toy and tool

Shaking off the fear of state censorship –youth hold out hope by Marlon Alexander Luistro

sidebar: The ‘economics’ of defamation

Constricting the space for online expression of opinion by Ulisari Eslita

sidebar: Does freedom of expression matter?

This is a compilation of stories by six fellows from the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, four of whom traveled to Yangon, and two, to Singapore, during the three-week 2013 SEAPA Annual Journalism Fellowship in August.

Working on the theme Freedom of expression challenges to internet governance in Southeast Asia, the fellows explored the issue from various angles and how politics, access, legislation, education, civil society, poverty and development have an impact on the way the internet is regulated, and vice versa.

With one of the highest internet penetration figures in the Southeast Asian region, Singapore has also one of the tightest controls over expression, and in particular online expression. The Burmese people, on the other hand, struggle to keep up with only one percent internet penetration throughout the country but demonstrate a stronger desire and movement to change and reform.

Net issues in the region

There are some 150 million users out of a combined population of 600 million in Southeast Asia, a region characterized by diverse political and economic systems. Internet penetration figures vary with the highest in Brunei and Singapore (>75%) and the lowest in Burma and Timor Leste (1%). Investments in information communication technologies have been steadily increasing, with chunks of the sum going to infrastructure and security. Contributions from investments in ICT to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was USD32 billion or 3% of combined gross domestic product in 2012, according to the World Economic Forum’s network readiness index.

For the ordinary citizen, often seen as the end user, the tangible is often more important – speedy services, access, and affordability – while the intangible such as rights, privacy and freedom of expression are given little attention. Businesses hope to reap the benefits from the expanding opportunities along the supply chain from hardware, software, delivery and dissemination.

States, on the other hand, tend to be more concerned with the issue of security, in the context of national security given the borderless nature of the technology, online dissent, and crimes online. Interestingly, ASEAN, together with APEC, the IGF, the International Telecommunications Union and NATO, is among the top influential agenda setters where cyber security is concerned. In light of global revelations on surveillance and filtering, one wonders about the extent to which governments here are making decisions about the internet that could adversely affect its citizens.

One of the major concerns of free expression advocates is the excessive state controls in the form of censorship and legal action over online expression, often under the guise of protecting national security. Netizens and intermediaries have been at the receiving end of lawsuits and jail sentences, with concerns that these have overshadowed the fight against real crimes perpetrated online.

Hope for the internet

Against this backdrop, journalists writing about Burma highlight the ever-present contradictions in the low levels of telecommunications infrastructure and the vibrant demand for the technology for expression and mobilization. Both Chen Shaua Fui (Malaysia) and Jefry Tupas (Philippines) raise the issue of whether the lack of infrastructure and connectivity could be a deliberate decision by the government, which controls the communication and energy sectors. Both also highlight the opportunities and challenges faced by communities outside the capital in using the internet, either for getting information, or in disseminating them.

Ayee Macaraig (Philippines) highlights the weak legal environment in Burma on media and telecommunications, citing the challenges faced by the civil society in ensuring good laws are in place to support the changing landscape for expression. The media community resorted to the online spaces to mobilize themselves in the wake of laws being proposed, with mixed results given that information is still at low levels due to years of restrictions to expression and access.

Nanchanok Wongsamuth (Thailand) explores the use of the social media by the youths to encourage debates about key topics, which can be a challenge given the typical user is more interested in personal communication and entertainment. But the new wave of youth movement has found uses for social networking sites to educate and mobilize themselves.

Chen, Nanchanok and Jefry also show that the different communities they focused on agree that the benefits of an unregulated internet on freedom of expression can be seen in facilitating the free flow of information, dialogues and debates even where certain topics are considered sensitive. From peace to youth empowerment, the internet can become a critical opportunity for pushing the democratic agenda ahead.

In Burma, one gets the impression that Facebook is the internet. But it is more than that, as Ayee Macaraig reports on the importance played by the formerly exiled media that have relied extensively on the internet to disseminate their news content. Now back in the country, they need to overcome the transition challenges in terms of credibility and capability to reach out to the millions in the country who are not yet connected.

Ulisari Eslita and Marlon Alexander Luistro, from Indonesia and Philippines, respectively, describe the extent of control using legal tools against critics in Singapore, where a recent policy has been introduced to regulate websites carrying news content. They write that while it has been a challenge for citizens to express themselves, there is a sense of hope that the online platform will provide an alternative space for a society that is inching towards political openness. Ulisari’s focus on the impact of the recent Media Development Authority’s licensing rule, also discusses the future of independent online media in the country with new sites being set up to fill in the gaps by the mainstream media.

With the next IGF being held in Southeast Asia, it will be interesting to see how the key players such as governments, businesses and civil society negotiate their interests and agendas in relation to the internet.