‘The only way to deal with this challenge of authoritarian regimes that are coming up in the region is movement building’ – Interview with Gayatri Khandhadai, Asia Policy Regional Coordinator of the Association for Progressive Communications
13 July 2018 3:44 pm

For this month’s e-newsletter, FORUM-ASIA talked to Gayatri Khandhadai, Asia Policy Regional Coordinator of the Association for Progressive Communications. In this interview, Gayatri Khandhadai shared with us about her experience working in the field of digital rights, challenges in the Asian region, and the importance of movement building through alternative ways.

How did you become involved with human rights?

I have been working on freedom of expression, assembly and association issues since I was in college. As a student activist, as a lawyer, and when I did my Master in human rights. This led me to doing research on freedom of expression and religion with Bytes for All, Pakistan. I found the workextremely inspiring, and from there I got to know the Association for Progressive Communication (APC). Freedom of expression remains one of my most guarded rights and values for it truly is an enabling right for all other.

That is how I got to work on digital spaces. But I do not think the nature and composition of the digital rights movement is so different from the human rights movement. The principles and the sentiments are the same. However, it is the platform and the technicality of the platform that are different. Another difference between the digital rights movement and the human rights movement is the demography. People working on the digital rights are much younger and more progressive, in my view, that is.

I find the digital spaces are less patriarchal, and there are more spaces for different voices, the young as much as the older generation, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex (LGBTI) groups and definitely a lot more spaces for women. So it gives you lots of spaces to feel inspired and to speak your mind. The idea is that you connect with like-minded people, as it is about the issues that matter to you.

What motivated you to become involved? And has that motivation changed over the years?

What motivates me to specifically work exclusively on the digital rights sector is definitely APC. The organisation is predominately led by women, which makes a difference in the way it functions, collaborates, and how it makes space for each other’s opinions.

My area of interest has always been regional work and I enjoy working in Asia. Digital rights and digital issues in Asia are a big question mark. In a lot of ways we are ahead of other regions, but in other ways we are regressing when it comes to digital spaces.

Take Taiwan for example, it is much more progressive in many ways, but it has its own challenges. We could say that many Western countries are not yet where Taiwan is in terms of inclusion and using digital platform for inclusion, so I think all of that is inspiring.

I think more than anything else, I truly believe that my driving force for working on the digital rights issues is that whether we like it or not, whether we accept it or not, this is where the conversation is happening. Everybody is able to say what they want to say, and you cannot shut anyone down, because they will find another space to say what they want to say online. Therefore unless you make the space democratic, you are going to have the same issues as we had in the pre-digital era.

But it is not to say that people who are excluded in off-line spaces are automatically included in on-line spaces. Women and LGBTI have always found it tough to speak their mind in off-line spaces, but in on-line spaces they found their voices. It is not the same for indigenous people or for people who do not necessarily have the same education or access to the Internet. Access to the Internet is still an area where we need to continue to work, otherwise people who were marginalised before will be further marginalised now.

Please tell us one of the most inspiring moments for you in your work in the past?

 There are so many inspiring moments in different phases of life, when I was a student, a lawyer, a Human Right Defender, and when I went back home to India. So much is changing and all of that gives us either a reason to rejoice or to fight back. Today, for instance, the most inspiring moment is Malaysia’s official statement to the UN, saying that the Malaysia Government will take steps to repeal the Anti-Fake News Law. So many people worked on that together, and knowing that if people come together, change will happen, is in itself very inspiring.

What do you experience as the main challenges as someone working on human rights? And how do you deal with such obstacles in your work?  

In the work of digital rights, the most challenging aspect is the attitude of the States. Needing to go through the decision makers is very hard.

Take India for example, we have many problems, but seldom does the Government hear the voices of the people. It also happens in the Philippines, where it is difficult to go through the Government and tell them to stop. The greatest challenge is the authoritarian regimes that are coming up in the region, which is very problematic. Another issue in digital spaces is the amount of hate that Human rights Defenders face. Anyone can say anything, which is great, but not so great at times when violent threats and abuses come our way.

I think the only way to deal with this challenge is movement building. The recent elections in Malaysia are such an inspiring example, though the outcome is not exactly what people expected and many problems remain. It is a great example of people’s power and the power of social media, because most of the people who gathered around the elections were online-based. It was impossible for them to put out the messages through newspaper because the Government had control over it. It is about social movement building: talking to people who do not share your opinion; being able to tolerate and beyond that, accept; and starting a conversation.

If you could give a message to people working on human rights or development, what would it be?

There is definitely a shared sentiment within the digital rights movement which is for us to be different, and for us not fall into the same pattern of patriarchy and oppression that at times is even seen within the human rights movement. It is really for us to create a new world that is inclusive, and accepting of everything and everyone. The key for the digital rights movement is for us to face these challenges together and show that an alternative way is possible.