Digital rights in South-East Asia: a few trends, briefly

In digital dictatorships, lack of transparency and grim climates reign.
(Analogue accident, Copenhagen, June 2022)

Cyberspace – and the digital realm more specifically – is emerging as one of the key spaces in which human rights are at jeopardy globally (Manushya Foundation, 2022). Southeast-Asia makes no exception to the rule. Digital rights, far from being fulfilled in the region, can be considered as facing severe threats. With rising levels of authoritarianism and autocratization comes growing digital repression. Digital technologies have been mobilized to stifle dissent and crackdown on opposition, despite hopes that they would contribute to expanding the public sphere.

Such trends have been further amplified with the covid19 pandemic. The global health crisis further provided pretexts to increase the surveillance apparatus as technology was mobilized to combat the virus. What is more, public health surveillance has been securitized, reframed as law and order issues (Sombatpoonsiri & Mahapatra, 2021). Similarly, laws aimed at countering harmful information online have further been instrumentalized against Human Rights Defenders, civil society activists and journalists. The latter are being increasingly exposing to harassment, criminalization and even attacks due to their activities. Freedom of expression online is thus far from being guaranteed, in a region where the media landscape is often strictly controlled by the government.

In addition, digital rights are poorly recognized and protected in existent legal and institutional frameworks. State surveillance and infringement of online privacy are common issues traversing Southeast Asian countries. Internet users may also encounter several interferences in accessing the web, with internet shutdowns and the blockage of certain websites. The example of post-coup Myanmar is particularly telling in that respect. Measures adopted by the military junta indeed illustrate well how certain Southeast Asian countries are moving towards states of digital dictatorship. It is finally important to bear in mind that the above-mentioned trends are emerging in a broader context of shrinking civic space across the region.

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