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Insights from the UN Regional Workshop on Freedom of Expression, Access to Information and Safety of Journalists in South-East Asia

Jointly organized by UNESCO and the United Nations System Staff College (UNSSC), the regional workshop stimulated lively discussion from diverse perspectives, fostered interagency understanding, and provided participants with actionable insights.


By Chairat Chongvattanakij

17 July 2023


"Freedom of information is a fundamental human right and is the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated."

- United Nations General Assembly, Inaugural Session (1946–1947), Resolution 59(I)

"Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

- Article 19, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)


Safeguarding information as a public good

‘Freedom of expression’ is not just ‘freedom of speech’. As broadly defined in Article 19 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), freedom of expression also implies unfettered access to information, which refers to the less often discussed but equally essential right of citizens to seek and receive reliable information without hindrance. Freedom of expression is crucial to journalism’s producing verifiable information in the public interest, as well as its potential for holding power to account and serving as a bulwark of democracy. The United Nations recognizes that, despite their potentially raising issues of political sensitivity in certain regional or national contexts, freedom of expression, access to information, and the safety of journalists are prerequisites for peace and the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the UN 2030 Agenda. Together, these collective, societal values constitute a critically important constellation that requires interagency collaboration and tactful multistakeholder engagement.

In this light, and in the interest of synergizing their respective areas of expertise, UNESCO and UNSSC joined forces in December 2021 to organize regional workshops and webinars in an effort to advance UN-wide understanding of these issues. The first regional workshop for the Latin America and Caribbean region was organized on the sidelines of the Global Conference for World Press Freedom Day, in May 2022. The South-East Asia workshop, conducted at the UNESCO Bangkok Office in March 2023, was attended by senior UN staff, regional media professionals, and representatives from civil society organizations and academia.

During the workshop, Mr Guilherme Canela, UNESCO’s Chief of Section for Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists, identified three key components of the framework of information as a public good: 1) the demand for access to reliable information; 2) the supply of such information; and 3) the transmission chain. Challenges to a healthy information ecosystem, as well as ways to effectively address them, can be broadly categorized and discussed accordingly.


The demand: access to reliable information

As Mr Canela explained, it is inherently difficult for any government to be transparent by default, owing to its concern for maintaining national security and respecting the sensitivity of diplomatic relations. For instance, in a case study pertaining to Malaysia, Ms Watshlah Naidu, Executive Director of the Centre for Independent Journalism, discussed how Malaysia’s legal framework, especially the Official Secrets Act 1972, apparently revolves around maintaining secrecy rather than transparency. This is partly owing to the fact that in the geopolitical context of South-East Asia, current laws may still reflect colonial or monarchic legacy. According to Mr Canela, even in countries where legal guarantees for access to information exist, poor records management often affects the quality of the information available and can even constitute the principal reason for the outright denial of requests for information.

In Thailand, where the Official Information Act guaranteeing the public’s right to governmental information was adopted in 1997, Ms Patchar Duangklad, co-founder of the data-and-tech organizations PunchUp and WeVis explained that it remains difficult to obtain, process and verify the integrity of public data. Nevertheless, through the efforts of volunteers and the use of open-source software such as that developed by WeVis, Ms Duangklad maintained that it is possible to visualize data in an engaging and impactful way and, moreover, to equip citizens with a user-friendly tool in an attempt to ‘reclaim an active role in political life.’

It should be noted, however, that access to information is not simply about holding those in power to account and exposing corruption. Mr Canela shared the story about the Brazilian Air Force transporting human organs, which illustrated that access to information in that case enabled journalists to uncover previously unnoticed inefficiencies—and ultimately save lives.


The supply: safety of journalists and the legitimate limits to freedom of expression

To ensure the supply of reliable information as a public good, journalists must be able to carry out their work in safety, which encompasses physical, mental, digital, and even legal dimensions. Despite the decline in the number of killed journalists worldwide in the past five years—see UNESCO’s own 'Observatory of Killed Journalists' for pertinent data points going back 30 years—Mr Canela pointed out that the number of imprisoned journalists has reached a record high since 2018. Among the nuances of regional regression in the public’s enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression observed in recent years, Ms Cynthia Veliko, Regional Representative of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in South-East Asia, noted the increasing revocation of licenses of independent media, the routine use of strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs), and the employment by regional governments of vaguely defined laws that enable them to arbitrarily detain journalists, many of whom have received lengthy, disproportionate sentences for so-called crimes against national security.

Ms Hathairat Phaholtap, Editor-in-Chief at Thailand’s Isaan Record, recounted for workshop participants her experiences as a journalist in the field, delivering a poignant first-person account of the kinds of threats and harassment that journalists—particularly women journalists— continue to face. Mr John Nery, a columnist and editorial consultant at the Filipino online news site Rappler, shared the insight that a restrictive state could prosecute media outlets as business entities, thereby disguising its real intent on undermining press freedom as a pillar of democracy. Nonetheless, Mr Yan Naung Oak, managing director of the online data and design company Thibi, believes that media organizations must find a viable business model in order to avoid being co-opted by powerful oligarchs allied to the state.

Within the framework of the ‘UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity’, UNESCO guidelines and professional toolkits have been used since 2013 to train over 25,500 judicial actors, and 11,600 law enforcement and security officials worldwide on international and regional standards for freedom of expression and the safety of journalists. In an intriguing reflection of different national contexts within the region, however, Ms Watshlah Naidu said that constitutional rights can serve as common ground in cultivating dialogue between journalists and members of the police, while Mr Akarachai Chaimaneekarakate, of Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, criticized constitutional reforms as a source of democratic erosion.

Of course, freedom of expression can be abused, contaminating the supply of reliable information with disinformation and hate speech. But this problem should not be exploited as justification to completely stifle freedom of expression. Rather, Mr Canela recommended the application of the ‘three-part test’ – which draws directly on terminology from Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, 1966) – as a tool that can assist judicial actors worldwide in determining the validity of restrictions on freedom of expression. In alleged cases of hate speech, the three-part test can be supplemented with the six-part Rabat threshold test to assess the severity and prioritize civil sanctions whenever possible.


The transmission chain: regulation of digital platforms

To be sure, misleading and harmful content has always been around. But what is new in today’s world, as noted by Mr Canela, is the ‘volume, velocity and virality’ of the proliferation of such content in the digital environment, which has led to increased polarization and self-censorship throughout global society. To achieve the delicate balance required in regulating digital platforms in such a way as to preserve their value for freedom of expression will be one of the biggest challenges of the next 20 years, Mr Canela predicted. Recognizing the significance of the issue, UNESCO hosted the 'Internet for Trust' conference in February 2023, which engaged over 4,300 participants in discussing a set of draft global guidelines for regulating digital platforms. According to Dr. Tawfik Jelassi, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information, ‘It’s only by taking the full measure of this technological revolution that we can ensure it does not sacrifice human rights, human dignity, freedom of expression and democracy as a whole.’

Broadening the perspective, Mr Ramon Guillermo R. Tuazon, Media Development Specialist at the UNESCO Myanmar Office, advocated a ‘whole-of-society approach’ in countering the ‘disinformation industry’, one driven largely by political and economic interests. He emphasized moving away from isolated fact-checking towards the ecosystem of ‘media information literacy’ (MIL) as the first line of defence against disinformation. In particular, MIL should be an integral part of teachers’ pre-service and in-service training, and it should be delivered to preschool children to ‘inoculate’ them against biases and intolerance, which are the triggers for disinformation.


Lessons learned

This regional workshop deliberately featured diverse viewpoints (including topics like election disinformation and trauma reporting) in order to sensitize participants to wider possibilities for engagement with various stakeholders. The workshop underscored the role of UN Resident Coordinators in identifying interagency synergies and enhancing collaboration within the UN system to tackle issues related to freedom of expression, access to information and the safety of journalists with a positive agenda. As Thailand UN Resident Coordinator Gita Sabharwal observed, ‘Workshops like this provide us with an excellent opportunity to learn from each other and to see how we can create new entry points in different country contexts for taking this agenda forward.’

The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) was highlighted as one of the few truly multistakeholder mechanisms available for deepening dialogues with governments in the region. Despite its advantages, Professor Emeritus Vitit Muntarbhorn, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, cautioned against placing too much trust in such mechanisms, citing how careful monitoring is necessary to ensure that a government’s acceptance of a recommendation translates into implementation.

In the spirit of freedom of expression, several workshop participants also raised the need for the UN to critically engage in self-scrutiny so as to realize greater transparency, integration and accessibility throughout the organization. After all, UN staff should abide by the very values they seek to promote. But above all, as Ms Marte Hellema, Media Freedom and Safety of Journalists Consultant at the OHCHR Regional Office for South-East Asia, reminded everyone present in the room, ‘Behind all the hard work and intimidating challenges that we need to face within this enormously wide topic, just remember that there are very real people that we can really help.’

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