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Journalists face growing persecution, an impunity win in Indonesia, and much more...

Maria Ressa's arrest in the Philippines signaled the escalation of government persecution against critical journalists, the Japanese government is accused of restricting the work of reporters, and a Samoan blogger was arrested for defaming the prime minister. But there were also some stories to celebrate such as a significant impunity win in Indonesia, a campaign by sports bodies for the freedom of a Bahraini refugee, and a successful challenge of a suspension order by Thailand's Voice TV..

Philippine journalist Maria Ressa (C) gives a statement after posting bail at a regional trial court in Manila, 14 February 2019
Philippine journalist Maria Ressa (C) gives a statement after posting bail at a regional trial court in Manila, 14 February 2019

NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images


Silencing the Philippine press

The arrest of Rappler CEO Maria Ressa on 13 February was widely condemned by various groups across the world as an attack on the Philippine press. Several IFEX members signed a statement expressing solidarity with Ressa and Rappler, arguing that "The news website, and its journalists, do not deserve to be persecuted. On the contrary, they must be lauded and allowed an enabling environment in which to carry out their work."

(Read more: Global solidarity for Rappler and Maria Ressa who vow to fight for a free press)

Ressa was charged with cyber libel for a story that was published in 2012. During that time, the Philippines' Cybercrime Prevention Act was still under deliberation in Congress.

Ressa was released the following day, but she continues to face five more cases which reflect intensifying government intimidation against her, Rappler, and Philippine media.

The chilling effect of Ressa's arrest was probably behind the sudden decision of the Philippine Star, a major English language daily, to take down a 2002 article which mentioned the person who would later file a cyber libel case against Rappler.

Several alternative media groups which are critical of the government also faced a challenging month. Their websites were subjected to continuous cyber attacks which they suspect were carried out by a team of well-funded hackers.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines also denounced the red-tagging of its members, which could potentially put them at risk in light of the government's policy of destroying the so-called 'legal fronts' of the Communist Party.


Media censorship in Japan?

A news report on 1 February published a letter by Japan's Cabinet Office directing the press club responsible for covering the office to "restrict" a "certain reporter" who had asked "inappropriate questions" that would supposedly "spread misinformation" to both members of the press club and to the general public.

The letter could be referring to Mochizuki Isoko, a journalist with the Tokyo Shimbun daily newspaper, who asked hard questions during a government news conference last 26 December about the environmental impact of a US naval base construction in Okinawa.

The Cabinet Office denied that it issued a directive and insisted that the work of reporters will not be restricted. But the issue triggered a firestorm on social media with many internet users criticizing the attempt to undermine the people's right to know. The Federation of Japanese Newspaper Unions (Shimbun Roren) lodged a complaint against the Cabinet Office on 5 February.

Another recent incident which hampered the work of journalists in Japan was the confiscation of freelance reporter Kosuke Tsuneoka's passport. He was also prevented by airport immigration authorities from boarding a flight to Yemen on 2 February. He was supposed to do a story about the impact of food shortages after four years of war in Yemen.

Media groups said the decision of the Japanese government is an interference in the work of the free press. Reporters Without Borders reminded the government that "without the courage of journalists such as Kosuke Tsuneoka, the Japanese public would have to rely on the inevitably biased information provided by belligerents or other parties to the conflicts in war zones."


In brief: Bloggers, journalists, and activists under attack

Vietnamese blogger Truong Duy Nhat went missing in Bangkok a day after applying for asylum with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on 25 January. According to Radio Free Asia, some suspect his disappearance is related to his knowledge of the "infighting within the Vietnamese Communist Party."

Samoan police arrested Australia-based blogger Malele Paulo on 8 February as he was visiting the country to attend his mother's funeral. Malele is a known critic of the government who writes under the pen name King Faipopo. He was arrested based on a defamation complaint filed by Prime Minister Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi against him last August. He was released on bail the following day to attend his mother's funeral.

Singapore's State Court sentenced activist Jolovan Wham to 16 days in prison or to paying a fine of S$3,200 (US$2,367) for "organising a public assembly without a permit." The case was about an indoor forum on 26 November 2016 which featured a Skype talk by Hong Kong youth activist Joshua Wong. Several civil society groups, including IFEX members, said the criminal punishment is "clearly meant to deter others in the country from sharing differing views or criticising the government."

In Pakistan, senior Lahore-based journalist Rizwan Razi, an anchor of the Dada Pota program on Din News channel, was arrested and detained for one day by the cybercrime wing of the Federal Investigation Agency after criticizing officials of the judiciary and the military on Twitter.


Good news

Impunity win: The International Federation of Journalists described the reversal of the granting of remission to convicted journalist killer I Nyoman Susrama as a win against impunity in Indonesia.

President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) withdrew his earlier pardon after a public outcry led by IFEX member Aliansi Jurnalis Independen (AJI) which organized protests across the country to demand justice for the killer of Radar Bali journalist Anak Agung Gde Bagus Narendra Prabangsa.

Abdul Manan, chairman of AJI, welcomed Jokowi's decision and urged the resolution of other cases. "We hope the decision can be a good momentum for the country to resolve eight cases of journalists [being killed]. AJI hopes the level of violence against journalists in Indonesia will decline in the future."

Sports for human rights: Another victory for human rights was clinched after global sports bodies and civil society groups worked together to persuade Thai officials to allow Bahraini refugee footballer Hakeem al-Araibi to leave for Australia.

Al-Araibi was a former member of Bahrain's national football team who fled the country after criticizing authorities and was given refugee status in Australia. He was detained in Thailand on November 2018 during a honeymoon vacation after Bahrain sought his extradition.

Global sports groups campaigned on behalf of Al-Araibi and they were joined by human rights groups also demanding Al-Araibi's freedom. Thai authorities finally released Al-Araibi on 11 February. Voice TV back on air: On 12 February, Thailand's National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) ordered the 15-day suspension of Voice TV for airing programs with 'provocative content'.

Three media organizations, including IFEX member the Thai Journalists Association, were quick to issue a joint statement the following day supporting Voice TV.

Voice TV obtained a temporary injunction on 15 February allowing it to resume its broadcast operations. The Central Administrative Court of Thailand issued a ruling on 27 February which called the NBTC order unlawful. The Southeast Asian Press Alliance testified in court about how the suspension of Voice TV is a violation of press freedom.

The court ruling is significant since it allowed Voice TV to continue providing the public with diverse views and information which are crucial in the run-up to the nation's 24 March elections. Since 2014, Thailand has been ruled by a military-backed government which imposed several restrictions on media reporting.


Focus on gender

Pakistan's Digital Rights Foundation has launched a pro bono online portal for women, 'Ab Aur Nahin', which connects victims and survivors of gender-based violence to helpful resources and experienced pro bono lawyers so they receive "all the help they need to combat the cycle of violence and abuse."

In Bangladesh, transgender candidates who identify as women can now run for the 50 seats reserved for women in elections for the Jatiya Sansad or National Parliament. In Thailand, Palinee "Pauline" Ngarmpring was nominated as one of the Mahachon Party's three candidates for prime minister. This is the first time in Thai history that a transgender person is running for the position of prime minister.

If you enjoyed this, check out all the February regional roundups!

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