[Concept note] Regional Conference on Media and Internet Freedom

Venue: Best Western Premier Dua Sentral, Kuala Lumpur

Dates: 15-17 October 2014


Over the last few years, freedom of expression online has gained the attention and prominence with the use of laws to restrict the use of online spaces with threats of persecution in Southeast Asia. The threats have affected formal media outlets having online presence, alternative news sites online and individuals using of the platform for their own expressions. Yet, the threats have also evolved in form, target and intensity as online media outlets face DDOS attacks during peak political periods, or third party platforms such as social media are being taken down for allegedly inciting hatred. Intimidation and harassment of journalists and individuals for their content come from non-state actors as well, such as interest groups and citizens’ social sanctioning groups.

A common concern that feature in SEAPA’s discussions about media freedom in the region, which also reflect global trends, is the divide between the media that have mainly operated via broadcasting and print but with online presence in recent years, and organic online media (news, blogs) outlets or projects. We’ve often encountered in the region, somewhat of a tension between the mainstream media and online media, categories that have become more difficult to define. News organizations that once were in the print or broadcasting have equally strong online presence, for example, struggling with issues of sustainability, reach, and ethics, as much as the online only news outlets. Adding to this supply of information is the extensive use of user-generated content through blogs, personal websites, civil society campaigns, and social media. Many players, but the journalism industry finds it hard to come together on common causes related to freedom of the press and free speech. It is related partly to the need to define and distinguish who is a professional journalist and who isn’t, and what a credible media represents.

The debate is intensified by the surge in discussions about hate speech given the violent incidents and attacks that are reported as motivated by political, religious or ethnic differences. States have used the incidents to block access to information in a number of countries, but these are also being challenged as being unconstitutional where national security laws are used. The online media is being singled out in a number of incidents as fuelling the sentiments of hatred, leading to attempts by states to restrict or shut down, websites and social media sites.

Questions then naturally gravitate towards a dominant position of whether laws can be used to restrict the dissemination of information in the name of security, while free speech advocates say there needs to be fewer laws but good ones to protect rights against discrimination and of the media to be able to perform its roles effectively. An underexplored area is the legislative changes related to data retention and copyright that could have an impact on media establishments and individuals.

On an equally important front, it is still the early days as media, government and civil society grapple with the implications of the disclosure of the mass surveillance by the United States and other governments by ex-NSA consultant Edward Snowden and reportage by media like the Guardian and New York Times. But they open up a can of worms on diplomacy, state surveillance, silence of media on scrutinizing surveillance or violations of privacy. Yet, there is little attention in the media in the region on these global developments, but netizens have been raising concerns over industry involvement in surveillance in the name of security.

These issues have also taken centre stage in numerous global forums on internet freedom and the media, separately or together. Among them the Internet Governance Forum, Stockholm Internet Forum, the Human Rights Council, and UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Day events, among others. It is apt to bring some of these discussions to the relevant communities in Southeast Asia and to understand what are the regional or national issues and priorities.

About the conference

The regional conference will target up to 80 people from various groups with a focus on Asia, to discuss these issues through a number of lenses – human rights and ethics among the main ones. It is expected to generate debates and surface perspectives from the region about media and the internet. The conference is part of SEAPA’s goal to have better collaboration with its network partners for the promotion of better legal environments for the media and freedom of expression. We are inviting members of the media, media NGOs/associations, internet rights activists, academics and lawyers from Asia.

Conference Objectives

  1. To facilitate discussion among the different stakeholders on freedom of expression and access to information in a common platform
  2. To identify common threats and challenges in legislations and practices that could restrict practice of freedom of expression
  3. To critically review the practices of freedom of expression within ASEAN region
  4. To introduce global standards or fora on media freedom and internet governance to raise public awareness
  5. To share examples of projects or media products that could promote freedom of expression
  6. To prompt interest and initiatives for a regional network on internet rights

Conference Themes

Online and offline media : Where’s the real divide?

Why are there tensions between those who occupy the different media spaces? How important is it for people’s access to information for us to define the journalist versus the non-journalist? Are there better ways of describing what’s out there in terms of outlets offering journalism products and are there common causes and values that they share?

Hate speech : Why it is a hot topic these days and what can we do about it

Is it fair to say that the media – both established news media and social media – are fuelling or channeling hate speech? Are we agreed on what constitutes hate speech and are there ways of assessing them? What is the relationship between the political situation and media content that is said to fuel such expression? What standards do the media use when deciding on content that are legitimate criticism, harmful or inciting towards hatred? Should intermediaries and corporations also bear the responsibilities? Why and how?

Laws regulating the internet and media : are they too restrictive?

How focused are cybercrime laws on cybercrimes or are they nets cast wide for crimes of expression as well? Should regulations be enacted for expression, formal and informal communication? How far are laws on data and infrastructure (retention, security etc) potentially affecting media? What is the influence of the ASEAN human rights framework in the area of laws on media and the internet or can there be remedies?

Surveillance and privacy : Why we should be concerned

How have the revelations of mass surveillance by the US- National Security Agency been perceived in SEA? Should we as citizens be concerned? How much privacy are we giving up because of mass surveillance? Who are the main groups targeted by surveillance and how are private corporations involved in the providing for the surveillance technologies? How do these developments impact the work of the media and how can the media raise public awareness of the issues?

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