Democracy has been on a retreat globally in the past years as affirmed by several reports tracking human rights developments around the world. This holds true in Southeast Asia, where press freedom and freedom of expression are under siege.
Representatives of several media groups, civil society organizations (CSOs), and activists in a forum discussed issues on shrinking civic space online and offline and sought to draw up actions to fight back.
The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) and the Asia Democracy Network (ADN), with support from Bawaslu (Elections Supervisory Agency), organized from 21-22 June 2019 a multi-stakeholder forum titled “Towards Building Regional Solidarity To Reclaim Civic Space In Southeast Asia” in Tangerang, Indonesia.
Ichal Supriadi, ADN secretary general, said “the Asia region has become more dangerous for media and CSOs to operate,” and highlighted the “dire need to consolidate efforts” across sectors in the region.
SEAPA Executive Director Tess Bacalla called for more “earnest discussion” on issues of press freedom and freedom of expression as the challenges are “too huge” that no one organization could take them on.
“Democracy is messy, more so now that everyone has a (virtual) megaphone,” referring to social media such as Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. We need to be able to reclaim the ability to engage meaningfully in civil discourse,” Bacalla said.
The participants shared insights on the state of press freedom and freedom of expression issues in their countries. They also proposed actions to take moving forward and fighting back against these challenges.
Yuyun Wahyuningrum, Representative of Indonesia to the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), recognized the limited space they can move in terms of pushing for a more human rights-oriented ASEAN.
The regional bloc has been drawing flak for widespread perceptions of a poor track record in dealing with escalating violations of human rights in the region, including the right to freedom of expression.
AICHR cannot conduct fact-finding missions, cannot monitor and investigate human rights violations, and that the country representatives lack independence to decide on relevant issues, said Yuyun. She said among her initiatives, in her capacity as AICHR representative, is to push for the establishment of a forum for human rights defenders working on freedom of expression in the region.
Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director of Human Rights Watch, enjoined the CSOs and media groups to get technology companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google “on board with freedom of expression advocacy” in the region.
“We need to be speaking with Facebook, Google, Instagram, Twitter, and representatives of various encrypted chat programs like Whatsapp, Telegram, Signal and others to get them on board our idea that freedom of expression needs to be preserved,” Robertson said. “We need them as allies. We can’t have them in the middle, we can’t have them alongside the government. They have to be with us.”
He also suggested building a rapid response mechanism on press freedom cases across Southeast Asia.
For human rights defenders, criminal defamation is also a major concern. “People should not be criminalized for their opinion,” he said, adding that defamation must be decriminalized.
With more so-called anti-fake news laws in the offing, Robertson also said there was a need for a regional response to this growing phenomenon.
“We need to have a regional response to fake news legislation because it is coming ; we need to fight back. If we wait, we’re going to lose it,” referring to the fight against disinformation and propaganda.
The Singapore Parliament passed the “Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill” on 8 May 2019 despite opposition from activists and rights groups, fearful it would further curtail freedom of expression in the city-state.
Malaysia passed its Anti-Fake News Act on 2 April 2018. Efforts to repeal the law under the new government of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad have been met with resistance by the opposition-dominated Senate.
Prof. Cherian George of the Hong Kong Baptist University said what the world is witnessing today, including in Southeast Asia, is an “authoritarian contagion”, which is in stark contrast to the “democratic contagion” that had been in place in the past.
He said there is a need for basic civic education among the general public, given the wrong assumption that people understand human rights defenders and the work of journalists.
“Journalists are bad with PR [public relations] because we believe that our work will speak for itself. Maybe we need to do more in that respect,” George said.
He cited as an example what the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) has on its website presenting, case studies from around the world on the social good that journalism has yielded.
He also proposed to organizing fellowship programs or study trips for Southeast Asian journalists to facilitate understanding of the different countries in the region and sharing of experiences.
Ming-Kuok Lim, Advisor for Communications and Information for UNESCO Office in Jakarta, proposed a roadmap to achieving more concrete regional actions among media, civil society, and other sectors of society toward reclaiming shrinking civic space in Southeast Asia. These include the mapping of opportunities for future dialogue, identifying possible areas for networking and collaboration, engaging the public in discussions, enriching public knowledge through education, and capacity building efforts, and diversifying information and media sources.
Lim said the lack of media diversity in the region is a growing concern while plurality of media sources has significantly declined. These issues have adverse impacts on the accuracy of information that the public receives.
Referencing the popular television series Game of Thrones, Bambang Harymurti, former editor-in-chief of the independent Indonesian weekly Tempo and who was imprisoned for his work during the Suharto regime, said that in the current situation, referring to the erosion of press freedom and freedom of expression across Southeast Asia, one can say that “winter is coming.”
“What do we do?” he asked.
“We have choices. One, we prepare for the winter and that we keep the hope that winter is not forever. Or like many animals, we migrate to a better climate.”
In a hopeful tone, he said: “We have faced worse winters and survived (them), and therefore we should be able to do it again. We should not give in to the current situation.”