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Workshop at HKU on Media Law and Policy in Asia brings together media professionals and defence lawyers for legal and practical training

By Tamsyn Burgmann, Master of Journalism 2016–17

Lawyers and journalists converged at The University of Hong Kong amid two typhoons to share strategies and develop solutions to the maelstrom of threats to press freedom swirling across Southeast Asia.

The Media Law and Policy Workshop 2016, held from 17 to 20 October at the Cheng Yu Tung Tower, was the first of its kind to bring together both media professionals and defence lawyers for legal and practical training.

22 lawyers and eight journalists from ten jurisdictions participated in sessions such as defamation, access to information and international laws protecting freedom of expression. They came from Nepal, Myanmar, Cambodia, Mongolia, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and Hong Kong.

Seated behind placards akin to a United Nations meeting, the participants networked and collaborated as Typhoon Sarika lashed the 11th-storey conference room and concluded as Typhoon Haima loomed.

Participant Joseph Alburo, a Philippines-based TV journalist for two decades, said the escalating political climate in his home country is rife with unrest, violations to civil liberties and threats to freedom of expression.

‘We really need all the help we can get,’ he said, noting he would be taking away new legal strategies to help him on a daily basis.

‘I need to feed my brain, my heart, my mind and soul so I can impart it to my countrymen, and especially, my students, who are trying to strengthen into more capable journalists who will be able to face the future of a very uncertain country.’

Ten trainers and two guest speakers guided participants through two binders of dense material, only pausing for buffet lunches and breaks for caffeine refueling.

‘[The workshop] enabled lawyers and journalists to come together, share stories, share ideas and share strategies,’ said H. R. Dipendra, a Malaysia-based lawyer specialising in dispute resolution. ‘And also to know they’re not alone.’

Dipendra taught a session on online speech and cybercrimes in which he urged participants to challenge the internet laws in their respective countries. He said most governments in Southeast Asia take a ‘very cautious’ approach to online publishing that effectively amounts to clamping down the internet.

He argued that many states rely on the excuse of needing to prevent cybercrime, fraud, hacking and warfare to justify heavy regulation.

Dipendra encouraged participants to stay in touch with each other to mount a united front.

‘The value lies beyond the workshop,’ he said.

The workshop was jointly organised by the Journalism and Media Studies Centre and Faculty of Law. It was co-chaired by the JMSC’s media law and ethics Prof. Doreen Weisenhaus and law faculty’s Associate Dean of Research Simon Young.

‘The fellows were chosen for their courageous work as lawyers and journalists in promoting press freedom in their respective countries,’ Weisenhaus said.

Participant George Hwang, an Intellectual Property and media lawyer from Singapore, said he attended to gain perspective and learn about improvements to freedom of expression directly, which would enable him to do his work better.

‘I like to find out from the horse’s mouth what’s happening in different countries, rather than from the media,’ he said. ‘First hand is better. It’s a good starting point.’

Highlights of the workshop included a candid lunchtime chat by retired Hong Kong Justice Michael Hartmann, and on another day, a mock court exercise.

A practice courtroom complete with bench, gallery and display of lawyers’ regalia was used by participants to play out an imaginary defamation lawsuit. The moot court scenario involved an independent publisher who wrote a story alleging bribery against a local politician. Participants were assigned roles of judge, applicant and state respondent, and they took turns giving lively submissions and rebuttal.

The Guardian's Gill Phillips speaking at the workshop

The Guardian’s Gill Phillips speaking at the workshop

A keynote speech was also given by Gillian Phillips, director of editorial legal services with the Guardian News & Media. Phillips described her role advising the outlet about the US National Security Agency leaks by Edward Snowden as a ‘James Bond affair,’ said Sharron Fast, a HKU lecturer with the law faculty and JMSC, who helped organise the workshop.

Fast said participants were riveted upon receiving tips from Phillips, who talked about taking a surreal walk around a Hong Kong park with journalist Glenn Greenwald.

‘Her speech was pragmatic and refreshing,’ Fast said.

As the workshop came to a close, trainer Gayathry Venkiteswaran, a former executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, reminded participants they must work together across borders to fight laws restricting press freedom.

‘It helps a lot when you have solidarity, when you have pressure even coming from the neighbours,’ she said.

It can be difficult, however, to persuade the press to write stories about itself, said trainer Nani Reventlow, a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.

‘But I actually think that’s one of the ways the press can support each other, to write about what’s happening to your colleagues around the world,’ she said in her closing remarks. ‘Also when the news is positive, not only the bad news.’

Media in some countries have further to go than others.

Participant Nyein Naing, the deputy chief editor at 7Day Daily and 7Day News Journal in Myanmar, said media training is critical for her country as it continues to open up.

‘When we talk about our neighbours, what I see is our future,’ she said after learning about media law practices developed elsewhere in the region.

‘There are not many case studies in our country. This was my first chance to sit with lawyers. Media law literacy is very weak in my country,’ she added.

‘This is the right time for me and us to push our boundaries.’

Visit the website for the workshop here.