There’s about 15 countries represented from around Asia – Southeast Asia plus Taiwan, Pakistan and Nepal – at the “Free Expression in Asian Cyberspace” conference, and about 60 people gathered in a conference room at the Asian Institute for Management in Manila. Our host, Roby Alampay (the executive director of SEAPA, a coalition of five Southeast Asian press freedom organizations), tells us that 30% of the audience has no idea what a blog is, though only 5% will admit this. He also notes that only 30% of the attendees are female (I count closer to 20%), but that at least 10% of the men appearing pretend to be women while online. It’s a good laugh line, but there’s a point to it as well – some people use a female identity online as a dissident as female voices online are viewed as less threatening than male voices, and are less likely – it’s believed – to spark a government crackdown.
Our keynote speaker is an Asian woman who certainly makes government censors nervous. Shelia Coronel is the executive director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, an organization that’s had a dramatic impact on journalism in the Phillipines, especially in the past year. She wonders whether the Internet will become a new revolutionary space for free expression, or whether the net will become TV – a space for distraction and moneymaking. “Can the net live to its potential to be a public sphere, or is it a place to look at J-Lo’s butt?”
Shelia’s experience growing up in the Philippines under Marcos gives her enthusiasm for the ability to speak and publish freely. She remembers that, during the Marcos regime, it was dangerous to use photocopiers to disseminate political materials. So dissidents published newspapers by typing stencils on manual typewriters, transferring these stencils to silk screens and hand-printing small runs of newspapers the way we might print t-shirts. How can 500 silkscreened newspapers bring down a dictatorship? It’s part of the set of tools that allows people to challenge authority, ask questions and raise doubts.
The problem in the Internet age is not the difficulty of printing and distributing, but the difficulty of being noticed above the ambient noise level of the Internet. That said, PCIJ hasn’t had much problem getting noticed the past few months – they launched a blog a year ago which has become critically important in Filipino politics. The blog posted three hours of audio recordings that implicate President Gloria Arroyo in a vote-fixing scandal. More than a million people have downloaded these audio files – and some have remixed them into cellphone ringtones! The popularity of the blog brought down the PCIJ site… and bloggers rescued the site, mirroring the key posts on their own blogs.
PCIJ’s actions weren’t without consequence. They’re the first blog in the Philippines to be sued for libel, and they’ve received a restraining issue from a trial court judge. Of the many charges they face, the most disturbing is “incitement to sedition”. The Philippines is far more open to free speech than some of the other countries represented here – China, Vietnam, Burma, for instance – but when blogs show their political power, they become a threat even in highly democratic nations.
Other posts from FEAC 2006: feac2006