Online freedom of expression in the Mekong region: improving self-regulation – World Press Freedom Day 2018 public panel

Online freedom of expression in the Mekong region: improving self-regulation – World Press Freedom Day 2018 public panel

Representatives from freedom of expression NGOs, media and Facebook to join UNESCO, the Southeast Asian Press Alliance and the Embassy of Sweden for debate on critical issue in region’s media scene at Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand

Southeast Asia has the third largest number of internet users in the world – a figure that has grown by more than 30%, or 80 million people, in the past year alone.

The promise and potential perils of this rapidly advancing digital age is a hot-button topic in the Mekong Region.

We have, on the one hand, unprecedented access to information and communications platforms opening up to millions with the potential to ensure that development is truly equitable and sustainable. Then there are the dangers: hate speech and harassment are rife online, personal data leaks are a growing concern and online platforms may stoke the fires of violent extremism. These are threats that governments around the world can and often do cite when clamping down on freedom of expression online – filtering content, blocking websites or even blanket internet shutdowns, often without a well-defined basis.

On World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) 2018, 3 May, UNESCO will hold a special event at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand that delves will into the contentious issue of online freedom of expression. The panel will discuss:

•   What are the challenges of freedom of expression online in the Mekong region?

•   How do internet companies and governments address these challenges?

•   How can we balance individuals’ freedom of expression with privacy concerns?

•   Does online speech need regulation or self-regulation?

•   What does effective self-regulation look like in the context of the Mekong region?

 

What: UNESCO World Press Freedom Day 2018 debate, “Freedom of expression online in the Mekong region: improving self-regulation.”

When: 3 May, 8:30am (registration)-12.20pm (full programme below)

Where: Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand

Maneeya Building – Chit Lom BTS

518/5 Phloen Chit Rd (Map)

Phone: +66 2 652 0581

Who: H.E.M. Staffan Herrström, Ambassador of Sweden to Thailand, Myanmar and Lao PDR, will deliver opening remarks along with Ms Misako Ito, Regional Adviser for Communication and Information, UNESCO Bangkok, followed by the launch of UNESCO Global Reports by Ms Duong Bich Hanh, Programme Specialist and Chief of Culture Unit, UNESCO Bangkok. The panel discussion will be moderated by the Southeast-Asia Press Alliance and include:

•   Ms Yin Yadanar Thein, Co-founder, Free Expression Myanmar

•   Mr Yingcheep Atchanont, iLaw, Thailand

•   Ms Sheen Handoo, Public Policy Manager for Asia-Pacific, Facebook Singapore

•   Ms Vicheika Kann, Reporter, Voice of America’s Khmer Service, Cambodia

Experts Mr. Cedric Alviani from Reporters Without Borders and Dr Pirongrong Ramasoota from Chulalongkorn University will also share their insights on improving self-regulation in the region.

Speaker Profiles


Note: The public panel discussion will be followed by a training course for selected artists, communicators, and digital art creators to develop their artistic expression of UNESCO’s Internet Universality concept and its associated R.O.A.M principles. Their works will be displayed and launched at an exhibition around the International Day for Universal Access to Information (28 September).

 

Full programme:

8.30-9.00              Registration

9.00-9.20              Opening session

•   Opening address by H.E.M. Staffan Herrström, Ambassador of Sweden to Thailand, Myanmar and Lao PDR

•   Welcoming remarks by Ms Misako Ito, Regional Adviser for Communication and Information, UNESCO Bangkok

9.20-9.50              Joint launch of the UNESCO Reports

•   World Trends Report in Freedom of Expression and Media Development, Dr. Golam Rahman, Member of the UNESCO Report Advisory Group

•   Global Report “Re|Shaping Cultural Policies”, Ms Duong Bich Hanh, Programme Specialist and Chief of Culture Unit, UNESCO Bangkok

9.50-11.20           Panel discussion and Q&A:

‘Freedom of expression online in the Mekong region: improving self-regulation’

•   Ms Yin Yadanar Thein, Co-founder, Free Expression Myanmar

•   Mr Yingcheep Atchanont, iLaw, Thailand

•   Ms Sheen Handoo, Public Policy Manager for Asia-Pacific, Facebook Singapore

•   Ms Vicheika Kann, Reporter, Voice of America’s Khmer Service, Cambodia

Moderator: Ms. Anisa Widyasari, Advocacy Officer, Southeast-Asia Press Alliance (SEAPA)

11.20-12.20         Way forward:

Sharing Good Practices and Recommendations

•   Internet Universality and ROAM principles by Ms Misako Ito, Regional Adviser for Communication and Information, UNESCO Bangkok

•   Journalism Trust Initiative by Mr. Cedric Alviani, Director of Reporters Without Borders for East Asia

•   What would effective self-regulation look like in the context of the Mekong region? by Dr. Pirongrong Ramasoota, Chulalongkorn University

Moderator: Mr. Laurent Meillan, Deputy Head Office, Regional Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Bangkok

12.20     End of the programme and reception

 

Background:

Online freedom of expression in Mekong countries

A 2014 Internews baseline study, “Freedom of expression and right to information in ASEAN countries”, notes how “new laws and enforcement of existing regulations specifically controlling online activity are being used across the region to target journalists and human rights defenders who post news and information deemed critical of government.”

Likewise, Freedom House notes the decline of internet freedoms in the Mekong region from 2014-2017 in its “Freedom of the Net Report”. In 2017, most countries were described as either “not free” (Myanmar, Thailand, Viet Nam) or only “partly free” (Cambodia) based on challenges and restrictions in access, content and user rights. Online freedom in Lao PDR is also described as limited with a cybercrime law adopted by the government in 2014  In Thailand, many expression online advocates, including media organizations, bloggers, human rights lawyers as well as business and civil society groups from across Thai society, been closely monitoring the situation around internet freedoms since 2014.

The organization “Article 19” a similar trend across Asia-Pacific, where “threats to free expression, particularly online expression, are on the increase”. Article 19 notes: “Laws criminalizing defamation, prohibiting criticism of the monarchy or state, and restricting media freedom are continually used against members of the public, journalists and human rights defenders. As Internet access has spread across the region, so too have efforts to restrict people’s use of the Internet as a platform for expression and discussion of ideas.’ 

Better self-regulation – Internet universality and UNESCO’s ROAM Principles

Governments’ responses to digital dangers, either real or perceived, are often disproportionate and reflexively seek to stifle online freedom of speech. Large internet companies also play a pivotal role here. Under-resourced self-regulatory systems have fueled the growth of laws and regulations that often fail to distinguish the liability of media that publish or broadcast content and internet platforms that mainly host third-party content. As a result, many providers often will simply remove contested content and/or hand over user data without due process. Legitimate expression can easily fall victim to what is, in effect, the privatization of censorship.

UNESCO champions a different vision of the internet and one that can provide a framework for effective and equitable self-regulation online. In 2015, after an extensive consultation with stakeholders from across the world, UNESCO endorsed the concept of internet universality and based on the so-called “ROAM” principles: R – human rights, O – openness, A – accessibility and M – multistakeholder participation.

UNESCO has developed internationally comparable indicators that can be used to assess the extent to which countries embrace the concept of internet universality and the associated principles. For policy-makers, internet service providers and content creators navigating the myriad complexities of the digital age, the ROAM principles provide a needed guide to realizing the internet’s potential as a tool to advance equitable sustainable development.