The Senior Campaigns Coordinator of APCOM is one of the 25 LGBTI human rights defender who joined a training around digital security conducted by ILGA in Bangkok in July 2017 with the support of ProtectDefenders.eu. We met him to learn more about his work
Internet has always been a place where LGBTI persons can come together, even when they don't find a safe space for themselves in the real world. However, there's also an unfortunate side to such an extraordinary coin: wider online spaces mean more visibility, and with visibility comes a concrete risk for rainbow communities to be targeted.
Watching one’s digital steps and protecting each other’s work is crucial especially for human rights defenders, whose work to protect vulnerable communities often makes them even more exposed to threats.
“Digital security is extremely relevant, especially when it comes to sensitive data”, explains Safir Soeparna, who serves as the Senior Campaigns Coordinator of APCOM, a Thailand-based coalition of human rights defenders and HIV activists working for the wellbeing of men who have sex with men and trans persons in Asia and the Pacific. “Many of us work in vulnerable and hostile environments, and having such data could lead to prosecution or social ‘punishment’.”
Safir is one of the 25 LGBTI human rights defenders who joined a training around digital security, conducted by ILGA in Bangkok in July 2017 with the support of ProtectDefenders.eu. For three days, activists from nine countries across Asia gathered together to improve their digital security practices, learn how to make informed decisions when communicating online, and safely exercise their rights without falling prey to preventable digital threats.
Back from the training, he told us more about his work and his plan to share newly-acquired skills on digital security to build other human rights defenders’ capacities.
How did you become involved in the defense of human rights?
Back in my high school years, I always wanted to be ‘the activist’, to feel important. I started as part of an environmental club, and I joined a high school cabinet, but it wasn’t until I joined a debating club that I actually knew what I wanted to do.
Part of being in the debating club was facing motions on whether you do or do not support LGBT rights, or on whether you agree with marriage equality being legalized. I realized that, being a part of the community, I would have faced such a debate for the rest of my life, knowing that I grew up in a conservative environment such as Indonesia. That’s when I understood that I wanted to work on these issues – issues that affect my own people.
One of the campaigns that you coordinate at APCOM is TestXXX. Can you explain a bit more what it is about?
TestXXX is our regional city-based HIV testing campaign targeting young gay men in cities with a high prevalence of HIV. It started in Bangkok in 2014, and it was later extended to Manila, Saigon, Jakarta and Hong Kong.
The idea of TestXXX is to fill in the absence of online HIV prevention initiatives towards young gay men. Nowadays, you live in a digital environment: a lot of young gay men start their interactions and encounters with other men through social media or dating apps.
While our outreach team did a lot of offline interventions - going to saunas or clubs to give out leaflets or any knowledge products related to HIV prevention – we realized back then that there wasn’t anything like that on online platforms.
We first created a website, where people could find information on where to get tested, or what you need to know when you get tested. We also launched an online booking platform for HIV-testing in our gay-friendly clinics. And, on top of that, we created a webseries, a YouTube campaign that is funny and witty but also gives the idea of how important HIV testing is, and more initiatives that worked as a pathway towards our website, where people could learn more about our HIV testing interventions and find more sexual health information.
Safir Soeparna, senior campaigns coordinator of APCOM
You mentioned the importance of the online environment to educate people, and for our communities to get together. Do you think that becoming more aware about digital security is particularly relevant for the LGBTI community?
It is indeed relevant, especially when it comes to sensitive data. A lot of human rights defenders and LGBTI activists work in vulnerable, hostile environments, where having such data could lead to prosecution or to social ‘punishment’ from non-agreeing communities.
How did you learn about our digital security training, and what memories do you hold from these days?
I first came across ProtectDefenders.eu through a leaflet that I discovered at the 2016 ILGA World Conference in Bangkok, and then I joined this digital security training as the Digital Communications Officer of APCOM, as everything related to digital online communications was inherently my responsibility.
I think I came out of the workshop knowing that there were a lot of things that I didn’t know, and that I really didn’t prioritize in my online activities. A lot of learning bits made me realize that I needed to improve my sense of security within digital platforms – starting from ensuring that my privacy, sensitive and financial data is protected, using encryptions and applications that are trusted by a lot of people in human rights defenders’ communities, knowing my digital rights as a citizen and a human being.
I came to understand that the Internet world is not as safe as we thought. I had always thought that all these things that happen online – whether it’s phishing, or other kind of information theft – would not happen to me. But the workshop made me realize that it can happen to anyone, at any time, including to me. I loved learning about message encryption, and how to prevent that messages and data are dealt maliciously by harmful people. Coming back to work, I started familiarizing myself even more with encryption, and started rolling an initiative within APCOM to turn on the encryption feature within our mailing services.
How do you plan to build other human rights defenders’ capacity with this information?
Within many of our projects at APCOM, we carry a mandate to build the capacity of our national community partners, as well as of their community building officers at the local level.
Obviously, now that we have seen how important digital security is, we plan to ensure that we can transfer this knowledge towards our national or local partners.
Many of our national partners within our Multi Country South Asia Global Fund HIV (MSA) Programme, for example, are working in vulnerable and hostile environments: we would like to equip them with the knowledge on how to encrypt their messages, especially if they’re working specifically on LGBTI issues, and to make sure they know what kind of rights they can exercise if the government or anyone in their country decide to harm them.
Another example that I could think of is working with our partners within the TestXXX campaign, who always do many online transactions to pay for ads. It is important to let them know how they can protect their digital finance components from phishing or getting hacked and to make sure that their online payments are always safe.
Read more about the ILGA digital security training for LGBTI human rights defenders in Asia here.
ProtectDefenders.eu is the European Union Human Rights Defenders mechanism, established to protect defenders at high risk and facing the most difficult situations worldwide. ILGA is part of the Consortium of 12 NGOs leading the initiative.
If you are a human rights defender facing immediate threats, you can call the 24/7 hotline: +353 (0)1 21 00 489 The emergency helpline works at any hour, every day. LGBTI-friendly operators speak Arabic, English, French, Russian and Spanish. Rapid international support will be mobilised. ProtectDefenders.eu can also be contacted via Skype, secure web form and encrypted email.
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