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Media murders, illegal anonymity & toxic politics: September in Asia/Pacific

September was a gloomy month for free expression in the region, which saw a surge in media killings in India, the banning of anonymous online comments and chats in China, the closure of a newspaper and dozens of critical radio stations in Cambodia, and the filing of criminal cases against internet users in several countries for 'insulting' top government leaders.

Wanita Ungu Malaysia @wanitaungu

First, some inspiration.


Women protest toxic politics, sexism, and police violence, and a government policy of gender discrimination is removed

On September 10, 2017, about a thousand women from all walks of life gathered in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur to take a stand against what they called the rising tide of toxic politics in the country.

The women held a "purple march" to denounce sexism, corruption, election fraud, racism, and violence against women. Speakers during the rally highlighted the low representation of women in politics, the failure of parliament to reform or repeal laws that discriminate against women such as the child marriage law, and online harassment of women.

The hashtag #WanitaBantahPolitikToksik (Women Against Toxic Politics) was used to promote the action and to unite Malaysians in resisting toxic politics. Another protest in the Asia-Pacific that united women was the #IStandWithBHU issue, which involved students of Banaras Hindu University in India denouncing the inaction of school officials to a sexual molestation complaint. The protest of young women was violently dispersed by the police, which led to bigger protests inside as well as outside the campus. Various groups across India expressed solidarity with the women activists who organized a two-day protest against sexism and police violence. A welcome news for the LGBTQI+ community is the decision of the Indonesia's Attorney General's office to withdraw a job notice that barred LGBTQI+ applicants and even suggested that homosexuality is a 'mental illness.' It may be a minor reform, but it marks the first time a government office in Indonesia has made a decisive action to remove a policy that discriminates against LGBTQI+ people.


India: Horrific attacks, impunity and internet shutdowns

Attacks against members of the media in India worsened in September, which culminated in the killing of three journalists. Senior journalist KJ Singh was murdered on September 23 inside his home, Dinraat news channel reporter Shantanu Bhowmik was beaten to death by a mob on September 20, and Lankesh Patrike editor Gauri Lankesh was murdered on September 5 in Bangalore. So far, six journalists have been killed with impunity this year in India.

Gauri's death generated widespread outrage over the silencing of an outspoken critic of Hindu nationalism, caste-based discrimination, and communalism. Almost 15,000 people joined a rally in Bangalore to condemn the killing of Gauri.

Aside from the killings, there were also several cases of harassment, police intimidation, and other attacks which targeted the media across India.

Meanwhile, the government has been shutting down the internet in some conflict areas supposedly to restore order but this only led to the disruption of the lives of ordinary people.

The communication ministry has issued a new ruling that empowers the government to temporarily shut down internet and telecommunications services in the event of "a public emergency or public safety [issue]." This new regulation, which was criticized by human rights groups as vague, was used to enforce a five-day internet blackout for mobile service providers in the northern Punjab and Haryana ostensibly to contain unrest.

But restricting internet access has inconvenienced many and even affected the delivery of some social services.

In Darjeeling, West Bengal, where the internet has been blocked for three months, a study conducted by the Software Freedom Law Centre revealed that it is ordinary citizens such as students, small entrepreneurs, and workers who suffer more from cutting off internet access.

A tracking site has monitored at least 42 cases where the government has ordered the blocking of the internet in India in 2017 alone.


Cambodia media crackdown

After 24 years, the Cambodia Daily was forced to close operations when the government slapped it with a $6.3 million tax bill. Aside from the newspaper, 32 radio stations that broadcast programs of the political opposition in 19 provinces have stopped operating due to alleged licensing violations.

Media groups believe that the tax and licensing cases are part of a government plan to silence and remove institutions, which include independent media and non-government organizations that have been criticizing the ruling party ahead of the 2018 general elections. The deteriorating political climate in Cambodia has also forced the U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Asia to close its office in the country.

The Cambodian Centre for Independent Media and the Cambodian Center for Human Rights have recently released separate reports about the challenges facing the media and the state of free expression in the country.


China bans anonymous online comments and chats

On August 25, the Cyberspace Administration of China announced that internet users can no longer post comments without verifying their identities. On September 7, the agency made another announcement requiring chat users to register their real names. These new regulations are expected to further restrict free speech in China.

The ban on anonymous online comments could hurt small website owners who lack the means to verify and track all commenters. One option for them is to remove the interactive features on websites, which would reduce the available space where internet users can share their sentiments.

Meanwhile, the new rules on chat groups oblige website administrators to police internet content. Starting October 8, chat group owners are now responsible for chat messages containing illegal content. The Public Security Bureau has identified nine types of content that should not be posted on chat groups which include sensitive political content, rumors, internal documents of the Chinese Communist Party and government units, content that is vulgar, pornographic, violent or shows drug-related criminal acts, news from Hong Kong and Macau that has not been reported by official media outlets, military information, state secrets, videos from anonymous sources that insult or destroy police's reputation, and other illegal information. They are also mandated to store chat messages for at least six months and report content that violates the country's laws. Those who fail to remove outlawed content on chat groups can face criminal prosecution.


Charged for 'insulting' leaders

A disturbing trend in recent months is the filing of criminal cases against individuals accused of insulting top government leaders.

In Indonesia, a veteran journalist is being investigated for allegedly defaming the leader of the country's ruling party. The Facebook post of veteran journalist and documentary filmmaker Dandhy Dwi Laksono comparing former President Megawati Sukarnoputri to Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi was deemed insulting by the youth arm of the ruling party.

In Cambodia, a 20-year old fruit vendor was arrested for calling the prime minister a traitor and murderer on Facebook.

And finally, in Malaysia, three Facebook users were charged for defaming Prime Minister Najib Razak. One of them allegedly called the prime minister a robber and an embezzler. Najib is accused of pocketing more than $600 million through anomalous transactions involving a state-owned investment firm.

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