Online activism is leading the fight against oppression – but at what cost?
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Online activism is leading the fight against oppression – but at what cost?

TOXIC political rhetoric is stirring up violence and dragging much of the world into a dark age of human rights, Amnesty International (AI) warned in its annual report released Wednesday.

And with the voice of the oppressed struggling to be heard, it is online activism and social media movements that are rising up to fight against the oppression.

But at what cost?

The report gives a fairly damning assessment of the state of human rights across the globe, stating that 2016 saw “the idea of human dignity and equality, the very notion of a human family, coming under vigorous and relentless assault from powerful narratives of blame, fear and scapegoating, propagated by those who sought to take or cling on to power at almost any cost.”

The report, which delivers the most comprehensive analysis of the state of human rights in 159 countries, shows how divisive fear-mongering is having an increasingly pervasive impact in societies. It also highlights how world leaders are “rolling back human rights protections and pursuing narrow self-interest”, replacing multilateralism with a more “aggressive, confrontational world order.”

SEE ALSO: Understanding Thailand’s revised Computer Crime Act

But it is not all bleak. AI also noted how fierce repression had inspired courage and resistance around the world, and Asia-Pacific specifically.

“Young people were increasingly determined to speak out for their and others’ rights. Online technologies and social media offered expanded opportunities to share information, expose injustices, to organise and advocate,” the report said.

With the proliferation of the Internet and social media throughout a lot of Asia, people have been provided a platform from which their voices can be heard and movements can be organised.

Asia Pacific has the world’s largest and fastest-growing internet user base.

“More than 40 percent of those who live in the region have access to the Internet – a number that has increased 12-fold since 2000,” Victoria Kwakwa, the World Bank’s vice president for the East Asia Pacific Region, said at an event in 2016.

The number of Internet users in Asia-Pacific rose by 15 percent between January 2016 and January this year, to 46 percent of the total population. Meanwhile, social media use grew a significant 25 percent over the same 12-month period.

Mobile subscriptions for the region total four billion, or 96 percent of the population.

Considering these statistics, it is no wonder how much easier it has become to organise mass social movements or to direct criticism to the eyes of those in power using web platforms. In fact, the use of social media has been a driving force in bringing people together and it is proving an incredibly powerful and effective tool in uncovering corruption and getting the message to the masses.

SEE ALSO: Burma: Fresh fears for freedom of speech under Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration

But it is not just the activists who have realised the powerful potential of this medium. Politicians too have recognised the ability of the social media tool to sow the seeds of discord among the people. Activists are paying a heavy price for this, AI observes.

“Many governments (in the Asia-Pacific region) displayed an appalling disregard for freedom, justice and dignity. They strove to muzzle opposing voices and suppress protest and activism, including online dissent, through crackdowns, by force or cynical deployment of old and new laws,” AI writes.

The report lists countless examples across Asia of activists, bloggers and commentators being incarcerated and silenced for expressing their political concerns.

In Burma, dozens of people have been investigated for “online defamation” under Article 66D of the 2013 Telecommunications Act, a vaguely worded law used increasingly to stifle peaceful criticism of the authorities.

Since Aung San Suu Kyi’s 2015 election victory, the controversial law has been used to jail at least 38 people.

In October, Hla Phone was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for “online defamation” and “incitement” for criticising the former government and the Burmese army on Facebook.

Ma Chaw Sandi Htun was sentenced to six months in prison under Article 66D for posting a satirical photo on Facebook of a military officer wearing women’s clothing.

Activist Patrick Kum Jaa Lee also served a six month sentence for sharing a defamatory post about Myanmar’s military chief.

Abuse of the law has gone so far as to include a member of the ruling party pressing charges against two villagers for insulting Suu Kyi during a night of drinking.

In Indonesia, the vague language in the 2008 Electronic Information and Transaction (ITE) Law allows for a wide interpretation of definitions of defamation and blasphemy, and the criminalisation of expression.

As a result, writers and activists are susceptible to prosecution for any articles deemed offensive to the government, as was seen in the case of Haris Azhar, Executive Coordinator of the human rights NGO KontraS.

Azhar was threatened by the police, the military and the National Anti-Narcotics Agency with defamation charges under the law for publishing an article on social media linking security and law enforcement officials to drug trafficking and corruption.

An activist in North Maluku, Indonesia was charged with “rebellion” simply for posting online a photo of a t-shirt with a caricature of the communist hammer and sickle symbol.

In Thailand, AI condemned a court’s decision to uphold a harsh sentence against social activist and former magazine editor Somyot Prueksakasemsuk. He was jailed in 2013 over two articles deemed offensive to the royal family. On Feb 23, the sentence was reduced from a 11 years to a 7 year sentence. Somyot has already served almost six years and will be released in 2018.

Audrey Gaughran, AI’s director of global issues and research, said the ruling “underscores the extent to which the Thai authorities are repeatedly violating their obligations below international law to uphold the right to freedom of expression, including through their relentless enforcement of the oppressive lese majeste law.”

In Malaysia, pro-democracy activist Maria Chin Abdullah was detained under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act, or SOSMA, after she organised a rally calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Razak.

SEE ALSO: Malaysia: Bersih 5 leader allegedly put in windowless cell, to be held 28 days

The governments’ “deepening intolerance towards criticism and open debate” across the region has given rise to a resurgence of state control and censorship, AI noted.

Dated and broad laws such as the Telecommunications Law in Burma, the Computer Crime Act in Thailand, SOSMA in Malaysia, the sedition law in India, ITE Law in Indonesia, and numerous others, are being used with increasing regularity against those who dare to raise their voice in protest.

But activists remain undeterred, constantly finding new and innovative ways to communicate their message to the masses using media and the internet.

AI highlights the case of four human rights defenders in China, a country that is notorious for “increasing and systematic intimidation and harassment of activists”, who were arrested for commemorating the anniversary of the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

The group posted an online advertisement for a popular alcohol with a label reading “Remember, Eight Liquor Six Four” – a play on words in Chinese echoing the date of the notorious event. The advert was soon censored.

2016 continued to see a rise in such forms of online activism, according to AI, as “loud and insistent demands for freedom of expression and justice, and activism and protests against violations grew.”

Despite the narrowing space for civil society to raise issues deemed contentious by the authorities, “people’s instincts for freedom and justice do not simply wither away,” AI states, championing the role that activists have played in 2016 as “courageous” and labelling them the “ordinary heroes” standing up against injustice and repression.

The rights group urges “ordinary” people to continue this resolve into 2017, encouraging people to “take a stand against dehumanisation” by acting locally to recognise the equal rights of all.

“Everyone can take a stand…to recognize the dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all, and thus lay the foundations of freedom and justice in the world. 2017 needs human rights heroes.”