Cases of Online Censorship in Southeast Asia
In 2017, a game called Fight of Gods was blocked by the Malaysian Communications Multimedia Commission (MCMC), as it is a “[t]hreat to the sanctity of religion and interracial harmony in the country”. Similarly, both Malaysian and Indonesian governments were found to be blocking FanFiction.Net, due to its contents’ homesexual and erotic nature.
Without announcements or justification from the government, it would be difficult to figure out if censorships are being done. We have seen numerous examples of governments’ campaigns against certain types of content that violate their laws and/or values. But how vulnerable is this power to censor content to abuse?
In 2017 as well, 161 websites was banned by the Indonesian government, which included sites that cater to the LGBT community, an independent news outlet based in the United States and a blog that features criticism for the current government. No news, no anything from the government. However, using one tool, Indonesians learned that their access is being controlled by the government.
While there are more sophisticated and time-consuming strategies to measure censorship, Tor Project, which is in the forefront of censorship circumvention and privacy-centric initiatives, developed a much simpler tool that can be used by anyone around the world: the Open Observance Network Interference (OONI) Probe. This very tool helped in realising and validating the censorship of 161 active websites in Indonesia.
What is OONI
Formulated in 2012, OONI is a “free software [and] global observation network for detecting censorship, surveillance and traffic manipulation on the internet.” As freedom of speech and censorship on digital platforms are relatively new concepts, there are little to no tools that can measure blocking. Unlike traditional censorships in form of shutdowns, similar to the recently ended powering down of TV stations in Kenya, that can be immediately observed with the lack of aired shows and news on TV, journalists and advocates did not have any capacity or knowledge of a tool that would help in proving instances of online censorships in seemingly democratic countries. OONI ultimately aims to answer this.
What OONI Does
In order to do this, OONI runs the probe daily using a working test list of pertinent websites mainly identified by CitizenLab. Each country has its own working test list, which can be downloaded and updated by anyone who is interested. The probe tests censorship per internet subscription or network, as one website can be censored in one, and be completely accessible in another. This is extremely helpful in uncovering and analysing rationales behind every censorship, may it be to hinder the public to in receiving information or due to hidden corporate interests.
OONI Probe Mobile App
In their desire to operate the probe holistically and involve a much wider set of stakeholders, OONI also developed a mobile app which is available both on Android and iOS devices, which is more accessible and easier to use for the common people. With the prominence of messaging apps such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, the app can be easily used to see if a network blocks access to these apps. Moreover, like a bonus feature, the app also has the capacity to conduct a speedtest. These accessibility features resulted to more people using the app and contributing to the fight for freedom of speech and right to information.
EngageMedia and OONI
EngageMedia continues to explore how it can maximize existing initiatives like OONI to the strengthening of digital rights advocacy in the region. This year, EngageMedia sent a representative to attend a regional workshop on testing and collecting evidence of network interference organised by Sinar Project. This workshop participation led to a small-scale collaboration project of doing baseline probe testing & analysis in the Philippines. [Keep posted to the Link of the Report on the Testing].
Opportunities for Collaboration
OONI, as a platform, is a relatively young initiative and is not without faults. In fact, there were a few instances where evidences of censorship were false positives. It is still in continuous development and needs all the help it can get. Anyone who is willing to contribute to testing and/or finalising test lists can do so by contacting OONI directly at email@example.com.
EngageMedia- Yogyakarta was invited at the 13th Jogja-NETPAC Asian film festival. which took place from 27 November to 4 December, with “Disruption” as its central theme. During the festival, several special screenings, discussions, public lectures and educational sessions took place in various venues across Yogyakarta. On the 30 November, EngageMedia’s Pitra Hutomo and Egbert Wits organised a community forum on social impact and video for change for an audience of about 40 film-makers, activists and students.
Pitra launched the forum by introducing EngageMedia and the variety of activities the organisation initiates or has been involved in. She introduced the Papuan Voices program, which has enabled local youth from Papua to tell their stories via documentaries and films. Mama Mariode (2018), a short film from the 2nd Papuan Film Festival (2018), was screened to provide a glimpse of the initiative. The film featured indigenous woman Mariode discussing environmental issues in West Papua and was met with great enthusiasm. It also received a heartwarming applause from the audience.
After which, Egbert then introduced the Video4Change network and EngageMedia’s involvement in the network’s research on social issue documentary and impact. In particular, he shared various aspects of the Impact Pathway, a concept which helps film-makers, activists, individuals and organisations working with video on how to design for and evaluate social impact(s). Through relatable Indonesian films, the audience was familiarised with different types of social changes that can be achieved through video.
Egbert also stressed that, notwithstanding differences in video for change approaches, there are certain ethical values that all for video change practitioners should respect and uphold. These values range from risk management and inclusion and participation of others to ensuring transparency in expectations and the working process. However, he acknowledged that the implementation of these values is never a one-size-fits-all matter; as all is dependent on risk factors, existing power relations and level of engagement with affected communities.
Before opening the floor for questions, a short video documenting a participatory research was shown. The research is part of Highrise, a long-term collaborative documentary experiment that explores vertical living around the world. It is an excellent example of a participatory process with a strong capacity-building component that led to a positive impact during the research and development stages of a video for change initiative.
At the end of the session, the presenters received several questions, particularly on security. Fortunately, Manu and Thois from Papuan Voice were able to attend the session after their six-city Javanese screening tour. They joined Egbert and Pitra in front, and shared their experiences with regards to the tour and producing issues-based films in Papua. Their stories about dealing with the absence of roads and electricity in several communities, and making the most of simple equipment were inspiring and reminded all those present about the importance of persistence and belief in the process, as contributions to social impact seldom come overnight and are never achieved alone.
Interestingly, a question on how to quickly create more impact was directed to the presenters. Egbert answered explaining that it is more important to be more realistic in setting goals to achieve through the use of video; respectfully advising those who wonder similarly to revisit personal motives and expectations, prior to going out and producing an amazing impactful film.
The session ended with a group photo. Pitra and Egbert were also able to stay around to mingle and discuss with some participants. It was definitely a successful first appearance at JAFF. Hopefully, we will be able to join again next year!
To commemorate the International Human Rights Day, EngageMedia, along with the Myanmar ICT for Development Organization (MIDO) and Phandeeyar Innovation Lab, organised a film screening and discussion on 16 December 2018 in Yangon. It featured two remarkable short films that showcased the everyday struggles of Myanmar people in fully exercising their human rights online.
This event is a culmination of our collaboration with the movement behind the Myanmar Digital Rights Forum (#digitalrightsMM); bringing in amazing local film-makers: the award-winning Kyal Yi Lin Six and up-and-coming animation and graphic design start-up JOOSK Studios.
“This digital rights film collaboration project channels the power of films to effect change on digital rights, not just for Myanmar people but for all peoples in Southeast Asia,” said Yatanar Htun of MIDO.
Are We Ready?
“Are You Ready?” is a film produced by animation and graphic design start-up JOOSK Studios. It narrates how the Article 66(D) of the 2013 Telecommunications Law has been continuously used by military people and political parties to silence critics and dissenters of the government.
"There have been no effective changes even though Telecommunications Law was amended in 2017. But there were more than 70 cases under the law. Are You Ready reflects the impact of Article 66(d) and it is very helpful to the Telecommunications Law amendment campaigns," said Maung Saung Kha, who was among those who were arrested in 2015 under Article 66(D) for creating and publishing a poem online. He founded Athan, an activist organisation that forwards freedom of expression for the Myanmar people, that just recently won the Human Rights Tulip Award.
It's Time to Talk
Directed by award-winning film-maker Kyal Yi Lin Six, “It’s Time to Talk” visits a day in a life of a female journalist, a Punjabi student-activist and a transgender woman who all have experienced harassment in digital platforms. The film tackles how presumed safe spaces online have become areas for discrimination and harassment.
It also outlines possible steps to combat cyber harassment: from changing privacy and account settings on digital platforms to urging key actors to push for changes in culture and behavior.
Myanmar’s Fight for democracy & free speech
“This event is to remind everyone that there are human rights issues that we're all facing when we use the Internet and that we should all work together to address them,” says Ei Myat Noe Khin, Phandeeyar's Digital Rights Manager.
The event, along with the films, hopes to raise public awareness, empower people to speak of their struggles in exercising their human rights online and mobilise more people to call for the immediate attention of the Myanmar government in upholding human rights online and offline.
The film launch event also comes at a critical time, as free speech advocates continue to call for the immediate release of Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who covered the massacre of Rohingya Muslims, a year after their arrest.
This film project is made possible by a project grant from the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA).
The next public screening of the two short films will be during the Myanmar Digital Rights Forum in January 2019. Registration for the Forum can be accessed here. Deadline is on 31 December 2018.
On December 10, we celebrate the International Human Rights Day to commemorate the historic adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly on the same day in 1948 in Paris, France.
Today, we will focus on internet rights as a basic human right. For millions of people in the Southeast Asian region, social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, and messaging apps like Line and WhatsApp are extremely popular and have been the main source of information. These platforms tend to be manipulated by certain actors (e.g. government-sponsored troll armies, corporations, political candidates, etc.), which result in disinformation spreading like wildfire. To the authorities, the best response to this is censorship and crackdown affecting freedom of speech of the common people.
Human Rights Online Resolutions
The Association for Progressive Communications, a global network advocating for internet rights, listed United Nations resolutions recognizing human rights online here. As early as October 2009, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution that recognises the impact of the internet on human rights. It includes the recognition of the importance of all forms of the media, including the internet, in the exercise, promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; calling on States to facilitate equal participation in, access to and use of ICTs, applying a gender perspective.
Since then, numerous resolutions have been produced. In fact, during the 21st and 24th sessions of the Human Rights Council in 2012 and 2013, the States were reminded of their obligation “to respect and fully protect the rights of all individuals to assemble peacefully and associate freely, online as well as offline.” In 2013 as well, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution recognising privacy in the digital age; and even assigning a Special Rapporteur in 2015.
In addition, in July 2018, a resolution entitled “the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet” was again adopted in consensus by the Council.
Diminishing Internet Rights
However, despite the increasing recognition of internet rights, most countries in Asia are still considered either “not free” or “partly free” in the latest Freedom on the Net report. According to the report, there is an observable rise of digital authoritarianism, as governments tighten control over their citizens’ data, and use “fake news” as excuse in order to suppress dissent.
According to the report, there is a decline in internet freedom in Myanmar, India, Cambodia, the Philippines and many more countries around the world. As recently reported, in Myanmar, two Reuters journalists investigating a massacre of Rohingya boys and men were arrested in December 2017, and were later implicated to seven years in prison in August 2018. In addition, the Philippines’s ranking dropped from “free” in 2017 to “partly free” in 2018, due to the increase in libel cases being filed against critics. To add, in India, local internet shutdowns and the proliferation of misinformation and “fake news” across social media can also be observed. In Cambodia, internet freedom restrictions and violations are also on the rise during the leadership of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The need to fight back
Asia, as one of the world leaders in mobile internet usage with thousands of new technological adopters emerging every day, will be directly affected in the absence of internet rights. This is why there is a pressing need to reiterate that internet rights are a basic human right to be guaranteed by international laws and each country’s constitution. It is high time that human rights defenders in the region to work together to fight for the recognition of internet rights; and pressure authorities to formulate and implement policies in the interest of privacy and free expression.
Internet Rights for Emerging Voices
Projects such as Internews' Internet Rights for Emerging Voices (iREV) was designed to empower local organisations and individuals seeking to advocate for a free, fair and open internet in their communities. iRev shifted Internews’ focus to communities and regions where there is little to no internet freedom advocacy efforts being conducted. In Asia, there are two organisations that are being currently supported by the project: The Bachchao Project in India, and Body & Data in Nepal.
With iREV support, The Bachchao Project aims to focus on building capacity of rural women and fight against internet shutdowns in India; while Body and Data aims to intensify discussions on gender, sexuality and technology with women human rights defenders and tech communities in Nepal.