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Cheers and jeers: Tainted elections, Liu Xia's release, and court rulings in the Asia-Pacific

Pakistanis and Cambodians vote amid claims of irregularities; Chinese poet Liu Xia is free; Malaysia withdraws sedition cases against cartoonist Zunar; disappointing court rulings in Burma and Indonesia; and Singapore holds its 10th Pink Dot LGBTQI+ event.

A motorcyclist rides past a billboard featuring an image of Pakistan's cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan, head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) party, a day after the general election in Islamabad, 26 July 2018
A motorcyclist rides past a billboard featuring an image of Pakistan's cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan, head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) party, a day after the general election in Islamabad, 26 July 2018


Elections in Pakistan and Cambodia: Violence, crackdowns and irregularities

On 25 July, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, headed by former national cricket captain Imran Khan, secured the largest number of seats in the general election. But Pakistan's other major parties said the results were rigged, and accused the military of meddling in the electoral process.

Aside from the delay in the announcement of the results, the media faced obstructions in the lead-up to Pakistan's elections.

Some journalists were attacked by supporters of political parties during the campaign period. A local correspondent has been missing since 13 July in the southwestern province of Balochistan. Distribution of the Dawn newspaper has been disrupted across the country. And many journalists said they were prevented from accessing polling stations on election day.

Some believe that the silence of the judiciary and inaction of the government to stop the attacks against the media led to an increase in self-censorship.

Of course, pre-poll violence has affected more than just the media. It claimed the lives of more than 150 people, including some prominent local candidates. Bomb attacks targeted several election rallies, including an assembly of the Balochistan Awami Party on 13 July where 129 people were killed and dozens injured. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the bombing –the country's worst attack since 2014.

In response, there were strong calls from local groups for the peaceful conduct of elections. A media monitoring mechanism was established by Pakistan Press Foundation and its partners to track and document threats against journalists covering the election. Meanwhile, Bytes for All initiated an online campaign, enjoining citizens to take a pledge for peace.

And in Cambodia, as expected, the ruling Cambodian People's Party dominated the general election on 29 July – after it successfully petitioned the dissolution of the main opposition in 2017. Leaders of the opposition were also detained and barred from holding public office for five years after they were accused by the Hun Sen government of fomenting a 'color revolution' in the country.

Aside from removing the opposition, the government also suppressed critical voices ahead of the elections. Dozens of independent radio stations were ordered to shut down on alleged licensing violations, the Cambodia Daily stopped operating after it was slapped with a hefty tax fine, two election reporters of Radio Free Asia were charged with espionage, and the government issued a restrictive code of conduct for media and stricter social media regulation.

Two days before the election, 17 media websites were blocked which included the Voice of Democracy, Voice of America, and the Phnom Penh Post newspaper. The Cambodian Center for Independent Media described the blocking of news websites as "politically-motivated and counterproductive given the critical circumstance that the people of Cambodia are badly in need of full access of independent media."

IFEX was among those urging the government to uphold democracy and reverse policies that curtail human rights, in a statement that condemned "the (government's) silencing of critical voices, which has deprived this election of any credibility, and call for the full restoration of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cambodia."

You can read more about the pre-election context here.

Amid these challenges, local civil society groups continue to campaign for reforms in governance by fighting impunity, defending the rights of ordinary citizens to organize and express dissent, and asserting the importance of having an independent media and freedom of speech.

China: Liu Xia is free, but dozens are still detained

After almost eight years of being under an unofficial house arrest, poet Liu Xia was finally allowed to leave China and seek medical treatment in Germany. Liu Xia had been prevented by authorities from leaving her house after her husband, writer and activist Liu Xiaobo, won the Nobel peace prize in 2010. There was no case filed against her.

Human rights groups accused the Chinese government of failing to give proper medical attention to Liu Xiaobo, who had been in detention since 2008 before he died in a hospital in 2017.

After his death, the global campaign calling for the release of Liu Xia gained strength and support, and the sustained pressure eventually led Chinese officials to release of the 57-year old poet.

But while we celebrate Liu Xia's freedom, more than 50 defenders of the freedom to inform are still detained across China. And the number continues to rise.

On 13 July, a Sichuan province court reportedly conducted a secret trial and sentenced political cartoonist Jiang Yefei to prison for six years and six months on charges of "inciting subversion of state power". A similar charge led to the conviction of veteran democracy activist Qin Yongmin, who was sentenced to 13 years in jail. Qin, 64, had already spent 22 years in prison for advocating the adoption of constitutional democracy in China.

Malaysia (finally!) drops sedition cases against Zunar

Political cartoonist Zunar said the nine sedition cases filed against him by the previous Malaysian government have been dropped. He confirmed this via Twitter:

He is now focused on retrieving his books and artworks confiscated by the police.

Earlier, the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) warned that freedom of expression violations continue to undermine the media reforms promised by the new government, which came to power last May.

The developments in Zunar's case has slightly raised hopes that the government is still committed to repealing laws that violate the people's civil liberties.

Deeply disturbing: Recent court decisions in Burma and Indonesia

The Yangon court has decided to formally charge Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who exposed a massacre of Rohingya civilians in the Rakhine State, for violating the Official Secrets Act. The two had been in pre-trial detention since December 2017. If found guilty, they could be imprisoned for 14 years for doing their work as investigative journalists.

An Indonesian court has dismissed a petition seeking the revocation of the country's blasphemy law. Petitioners said the law has been used to persecute religious minorities. This is reportedly the third attempt since 2010 to repeal the law. Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population and it claims to promote religious harmony and tolerance. But in recent years, extremist groups and hardline clerics have been aggressive in persuading authorities to enforce a strict interpretation of Islamic teachings in governance.

Focus on gender: Hamara Internet and Pink Dot

The Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) has launched the Hamara Internet, which aims to "empower women and girls to thrive in digital space and learn to defend themselves in an increasingly Internet-connected world." One of its components is building a Network of Women Journalists for Digital Rights, which plans to equip women journalists to counter online violence and raise awareness of its gendered nature.

Meanwhile, new research by Media Matters for Democracy maps the trend of self-censorship among women journalists in Pakistan. Based on a survey carried out with 54 women journalists across the country, the report addresses key gaps in understanding censorship through a gendered lens.

And finally, in Singapore, thousands of Singaporeans joined the 21 July Pink Dot event, an annual celebration of the LGBTQI+ community. It's the tenth Pink Dot in a country where the LGBTQ community continue to face discrimination and prejudice. Unlike in previous years, however, foreigners and foreign sponsors were prohibited by the government from joining the event.

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