Lawyers from five countries in Southeast Asia have met in an historic conference in Cebu, Philippines to form a common front against the repression of freedom of expression in the region.
One of their key proposals is to engage together and hold accountable regional institutions like the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights – an organization, they say, remains unresponsive to human rights violations in member countries.
More than 30 lawyers, representing 10 civil society organizations from Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia and the Philippines established Sunday the Advocates for Freedom of Expression Coalition-Southeast Asia (AFEC-SEA) and vowed to “raise a Southeast Asian voice that will champion freedom of expression in our region in accordance with international human rights norms as exercised by journalists, bloggers, netizens, citizens and human rights defenders, in whatever medium, form, or frontier, whether traditional or emerging.”
“A violation of the right to freedom of expression in one Southeast Asian nation is a matter of grave concern to the whole region,” they said in a document signed over the weekend during the four-day conference in Mactan, Cebu. “The protection of freedom of expression is an obligation of the whole region under international law.”
Most of the signatories are trial lawyers who have handled cases against freedom of expression and Internet freedom. Some – including senior lawyers from Myanmar – had been jailed for fighting against human rights violations or for advocating freedom of expression.
“Recent events have posed and continue to pose serious threats to freedom of expression in Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand, and the rest of Southeast Asia,” the declaration said, signed by the Center for International Law Philippines (CenterLaw), Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (EMPOWER), Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (ICJR), iLaw, The Legal Aid Center for the Press (LBH Pers), Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism & Human Rights (MCCHR), Myanmar Lawyers’ Network (MLN), Myanmar Media Lawyers’ Network (MMLN), Philippine Internet Freedom Alliance (PIFA), and the Thai Lawyers For Human Rights (TLHR).
The conference was organized by Centerlaw with the support of the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative Internet Freedom program.
“(I)n establishing this freedom of expression collation, our vision is to achieve a Southeast Asia that upholds and protects freedom of expression, and the rule of law, serving as a beacon of free speech to the world,” the declaration added.
“It is an opportune time for us to issue this declaration given the escalating repression of expression in the region, including restrictions on the use of the Internet,” said Romel Bagares, CenterLaw executive director.
He said the lawyers realize that for the most part, they are fighting an uphill battle in countries like Thailand, Myanmar and even Malaysia. “But it is important that cases are filed to have an historical record of wrongs brought to court.”
Among the projects coalition members will undertake is a campaign against the use of a single gateway for the Internet in Thailand, legal challenges against the use of the 1948 Sedition Act in Malaysia to repress protests against the government, and the filing of cases in the Philippines against recently-issued government regulations on the Cybercrime Act, according to Gilbert Andres, a Centerlaw senior litigator who played a key role in bringing the lawyers together to the conference.
“The lawyers have also agreed that the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights needs to be challenged and engaged to play an active role in the promotion and protection of free expression,” said Andres.
Delegates from Myanmar also highlighted their “Yellow Ribbon campaign” for judicial independence in their country in the wake of the appointment by the government of senior military officials to their Supreme Court. “Free expression is stifled when the courts are filled with generals who repress dissent the first time they see it,” said Aung Soe, a veteran lawyer who represented the Myanmar Media Lawyers Network and the Myanmar Lawyers Network, two largest lawyers’ groups in his country .
Click here for a copy of the Cebu Declaration.