By Asina Pornwasin
INTERNATIONAL organisations collaborated last week on an event in Bangkok aimed at getting Asia-Pacific youth involved in the discussion on how they can contribute to the delivery of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) Regional Hub in Bangkok and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), together with the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), organised Case4Space, to help the young share their thoughts and ideas both offline and online.
The C4S event was held in Bangkok from Wednesday to Friday.
Manisha Dogra, director for sustainability at the Telenor Group and a participant in the event, and Misako Ito, adviser on communication and information at Unesco, gave an interview with The Nation on the collaboration.
What is the exact cooperation between Telenor and Unesco?
Ito: For a UN agency like Unesco, because we are a unique agency having a mandate to promote freedom of expression, we promote this freedom of expression both online and offline.
When it comes to the Internet, we really recognise the very important role that the private sector has, what we call the Internet intermediaries like Internet service providers, social-media platforms, payment systems online – they have a key role. The way they operate can either promote freedom of expression or can restrict it. That’s why we feel it’s very important to work in partnership with the private sector, and that’s what prompted us to start discussions with Telenor.
Today users trust the private companies that are Internet providers more than the government to regulate the Internet and the global information flow. So it’s very important that we maintain the dialogue and collaboration with private companies.
Manisha: For us, Telenor’s vision is empowering societies. We know that youth are a big part of society, and especially in Asia-Pacific, where there are almost 900 million youth. Youth are also one of the biggest users of the Internet and most connected. So it makes perfect sense with the way that we work, always focusing on youth empowerment, to be part of this event.
At Telenor, we work also a lot towards online safety and for the safety of our users. We are providing online access for people to get on to the Internet, and it is also our responsibility to tell them how to stay safe online, how to use it in the best way possible.
How do you help to support building of laws/regulations in these countries in regards to freedom of expression?
Ito: We have to work for freedom of expression in three areas. One is law and policies, the role of the UN as an inter-government organisation, there [are] international laws and standards like the ICCPR [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights], so we are trying to encourage countries to ratify the convention.
And then we maintain a dialogue with countries whenever there is a possibility to either revise [their] constitution or to work on their role as a [provider of] laws aligned to international standards. There is an international standard, Article 19 [of the ICCPR], on freedom of expression and what kinds of exceptions can apply to that. So we are encouraging all governments to align these laws to international standards.
Then we also support social responses with civil society. For example, training and education so users also understand global telecommunications, and how they should best navigate this. If they know the whole system, that can contribute to knowing the risks, opportunities, challenges.
Finally we have a technological response. We try to engage through different forums, like the Internet governance forum, with the private sector to show how technology’s design has an impact on human rights. Either technology can foster human rights or restrict it. It’s a multi-stakeholder partnership to promote freedom of expression.
From your experience, what is your opinion of the trends of Asian youth when they write or interact online?
Manisha: Telenor focuses on online safety with our safe Internet programme where we focus on creating awareness in school-age children. We also do studies to analyse the online behaviours and Net safety awareness in the countries [where] we are present.
Earlier this year we did studies on safe Internet usage. With our first three markets included in our study – Malaysia, Bangladesh and Thailand – we wanted to see what the online behaviours of these users were. Our focus was schoolchildren, as we felt they were probably most vulnerable.
After the studies, we realised there are two or three aspects of this in Asia. First, depending on the country-specific cultural or social cues, some children already have good awareness built through society or agencies. Primarily we saw across these three countries that peer pressure and digital bullying were the two main areas that came out. A lot of respondents said that because their friends told them or pressured them to post something bad or nasty, they did it. Because they felt if they didn’t, they would get teased for being a chicken or [would] then get bullied themselves.
At the same time, the study asked that if they were bullied or had bad things said to them, what is their response? And we saw that in Malaysia, children were a lot more “digitally resilient”. They felt they had strong knowledge of how to navigate these issues, and if they couldn’t, they knew they could address this with either a teacher or parent. In Bangladesh, we saw the resilience as slightly lower.
We plan to do similar studies across all our markets, and this is where it ties up with civil society.
In both your minds, what kind of space do you imagine for youth to utilise online?
Manisha: We opened our ideas for them to give their opinion on where we should focus more. The inputs that we got, some of them were quite interesting. The youth had ideas on different apps that can be developed, ideas about new uses of technology that we can help implement. Almost all of them said that there was more need for creating awareness and capacity building on how to navigate the Internet. Whether it’s about online or offline space, they are literally asking for arenas [where] they can be engaged or collaborate more.
Ito: One of the spaces I really want to advocate is the creation of a press club that can be done by the students in schools or universities. It’s an area [where] young people can get together and use new media to create a newspaper or online magazine related to their schools. They can publish it easily online; with modern technology they can do interviews or videos to make it interactive.
When you start to engage as a medium, you get your voice heard outside the schools and institutions. Your voices and ideas can go to the government and general public, or higher levels of society.
This is an idea that we tested here. We created a newsroom for three days at this event, with journalism students or young reporters, who came together from the region to report on the event. They [interviewed] people, filming, making stories.
Creation of a media club like this in a school setting is very important. If it can even be started at the earliest time – even primary school – it will be very engaging for the young people to start to think about what are the issues that concern them the most. They will also enhance their writing and communications skills.
Can you compare the ways that young people can be safe online, between Asian youth compared with other parts of the world?
Ito: We don’t have a study exactly on this; however, there is a global trend of shrinking civic space. We have more and more restrictive laws online and the problem of Internet surveillance, content filtering. This isn’t specific to Asia, it’s a global trend, but Asia is part of that.
People are facing these restrictions and people can be harassed or their content removed because they express an opinion that is contrary to those that have the power in that nation. This is a worrying trend and is becoming more and more a concern of UN agencies.
I was talking to the representative from Google who is working on the policy level, for the mechanism of reporting. Google or Internet service-providing companies are receiving requests from the government or the user community, that certain content should be removed because it may be hate speech or against a certain position. But should they have the [responsibility] to do this? It’s a real question for which we need to find an answer.
And how do we define hate speech, for example? It very much depends on perceptions of each person or country. We have to discuss all these serious issues together so we know where the limits are, what [are] the limits of freedom of speech? That’s a real question that needs to be answered by government, the civil sector, private companies and the UN organisations.
Digital is a key factor to get youth to engage in the online and offline space, so what are the main challenges of digital literacy and the digital divide?
Manisha: Access to the Internet is the basic challenge for the digital divide. But for digital literacy, the first step, once we have access for “all”, which is something that we are focused on – giving Internet for all, not just the few. Once they get access, digital literacy is a factor. Giving that awareness, equipping people [with knowledge on how] to use it in the best manner. I see the divide is more because the access is not there. Then you need to build on top of that.
Ito: Giving basic access and the ability to use online tools and devices is very important. But after that point it’s important for young people to develop critical thinking.
With the digital world you can access any type of information. And even if you are not a reader of a specific medium or site, it comes to you. So youth need to understand in what context this information has been produced, in which country and how the media work there, to understand [whether] the source is biased or not.
Knowing the social and political context of the creation of news [is important] so young people can understand what is accurate or not. Online navigation is a key part of modern online literacy.