August in Asia-Pacific: A free expression roundup produced by IFEX's regional editor Mong Palatino, based on IFEX member reports and news from the region.
The democratic space continues to shrink in Hong Kong, Kashmir marks a year of losing its special autonomy status while internet connections are still restricted, India bans Chinese apps including TikTok, Thailand has started arresting student activists, and Pakistani women journalists push back against online violence.
‘We stand with the people of Hong Kong’
Hong Kong is still reeling from China’s imposition of the National Security Legislation. Elections have been postponed, Democrats have been disqualified, activists have been arrested, protest slogans have been criminalized, resistance songs have been banned in schools, and working visas of several journalists have been revoked.
The arrest of prominent media owner Jimmy Lai sent a chilling effect after this was followed by a police raid targeting pro-democracy media outlet Apple Daily.
Beijing imposed sanctions on several US individuals and institutions, including IFEX members Freedom House and Human Rights Watch.
Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, affirmed their commitment to support the people of Hong Kong. “I am grateful for the work Freedom House and others named in this announcement have done to stand with the people of Hong Kong. We are very proud to be named with other strong defenders of freedom.”
IFEX joined other civil society groups in expressing concern about the troubling situation.
“As a coalition of press freedom and human rights organisations, we strongly condemn the arrest, harassment and intimidation of journalists and activists in Hong Kong. We stand with the people of Hong Kong in demanding the protection of democratic and media freedoms.”
One year without internet in Jammu and Kashmir
A year has passed since Indian authorities revoked the special autonomy status of Jammu and Kashmir and communication networks were restricted in the region.
A letter signed by 27 civil society groups, including IFEX members, bemoaned the “immense damage” caused by the internet shutdown in the territory.
“Students have lost many hours of their education, people have lost their livelihoods, the media has been severely crippled, the economy has suffered immensely and businesses have collapsed in the absence of a stable internet connection. Moreover, people of the region have suffered significant emotional trauma because of the communication clampdown and the inability to reach out to loved ones.”
This cartoon strip by Suhail Naqshbandi depicts the impact of Kashmir’s autonomy loss and internet shutdown on many families.
ICYMI @hailsuhail’s cartoon strip for today’s anniversary of #Article370’s revocation & the end special autonomous status in #India’s #Jammu & #Kashmir region. The full comic can be downloaded from our website as a pdf. #KashmirWantsFreedom #RedForKashmir https://t.co/vVVW0N4L0V pic.twitter.com/AdNuU0x5Jz
— CRNI (@CRNetInt) August 5, 2020
Last month also marked the second year in detention of Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan, who was arrested for interviewing alleged militants. A letter calling for his immediate release collected close to 40 signatures from writers, academics, and civil society members. They asserted that journalists should not face retaliation for having sources who are critical of the government.
TikTok and scores of Chinese apps banned in India
On 29 June, India banned 59 Chinese apps, including the popular social media platform TikTok, because of national security and privacy concerns. In July, 47 more apps were banned. The US government cited the India ban on 6 August when it outlawed transactions involving TikTok.
Authorities said blocking these Chinese apps was necessary to protect the country’s security and the data of citizens. However, this also undermines freedom of expression. Human rights advocates urged the Indian government to “enhance privacy protections rather than restrict access to online content.
Mishi Choudhary, the founder of IFEX member the Software Freedom Law Centre (India), described the ban as a “stopgap, short-term step, but without long-term thinking, we will continue to play the game of tic-tac-toe with a different player each time.” She suggested the enactment of a “people’s protection legislation” that will safeguard Indians from potential technology abuses no matter the nationality of the company.
Crackdown on activists in Southeast Asia
Several human rights activists across Southeast Asia have been arrested and experienced harassment which reflect the surge in state-backed attacks on freedom of expression.
In Thailand, Student Union of Thailand president Jutatip Sirikhan was arrested on 1 September for her role in the 18 July youth-led protest. Students across Thailand have been organizing massive protests demanding “an end to the authorities’ harassment of citizens, the drafting of a new constitution, and the dissolution of parliament.”
The biggest rally to date took place on 16 August, when more than 20,000 people assembled at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok, in defiance of government restrictions. Jutatip was the 14th activist to be arrested after the police issued summons against 15 student leaders.
A bird-eye view of the protest.
— Prachatai English (@prachatai_en) August 16, 2020
In Cambodia, 79 civil society groups signed a statement decrying the use of violence against peaceful demonstrators and the recent arrests of more than a dozen activists. They were referring to the “brutal crackdown” on peaceful protests that began after the arrest and imprisonment of union leader Rong Chhun, who was charged with incitement for speaking out on a land dispute issue at the Vietnam-Cambodia border.
“It is not a crime to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with people in your community and demand justice. All Cambodians have the right to peacefully protest without being shoved, beaten or dragged off by police.”
On 27 August, 62 human rights groups sent a letter asking the UN Human Rights Council to establish an independent international investigation on extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations in the Philippines. They noted that the recent killing of two activists in the country signaled the worsening impunity under the government of Rodrigo Duterte.
Pakistani women journalists: #AttacksWontSilenceUs
On 12 August, more than 70 Pakistani women journalists released a statement condemning the online violence instigated by ruling party officials and their supporters.
“Women in the media are not only targeted for their work, but also their gender. Our social media timelines are then barraged with gender-based slurs, threats of sexual and physical violence. These have the potential to incite violence and lead to hate crimes, putting our physical safety at risk.”
They called on authorities to immediately restrain members and supporters of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf from repeatedly targeting women in the media and hold all individuals who are attacking women journalists accountable and take action against them.
A new report published by the Pacific Journalism Review highlights threats against media freedom in the Melanesia region, particularly in Vanuatu, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and West Papua. The report was removed from Facebook for alleged violation of community standards since it contained ‘nudity’. But Pacific Media Centre insisted there was no nudity in the post and it only featured people in traditional highland costume.
Pacific Freedom Forum (PFF) said the eight new media regulations issued by Tonga’s Ministry of Communications undermine the Constitutional provision guaranteeing press freedom. “This strategic move by the government is an excuse to clamp down on independent reporting while flying the fake news flag,” said PFF Melanesia co-chair Ofani Eremae.
In Australia, Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) welcomed the announcement of the Council of Attorneys-General in July about the proposed reforms to the uniform defamation regime. MEAA said the current defamation laws are used to threaten journalists in order to avoid legitimate scrutiny.
But in August, the Right to Know campaign suffered a setback after a parliamentary committee recommended the rejection of the proposal of exemptions for journalists from laws that would put them in jail, including security laws enacted over the last seven years.
“MEAA has never said that journalists are above the law; rather that bad laws must be reformed. There can be no press freedom when journalists can be criminalised for doing their job.”
Ten civil society groups, which included IFEX members, urged the Sri Lankan government “to end all forms of harassment, threats, and abuse of legal processes and police powers against lawyers, human rights defenders and journalists. They noted the escalation of attacks since the presidential election in 2019.
And finally, in Bangladesh, IFEX joined civil society defenders of free expression from all over the world in calling for the immediate release of journalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol and accountability for his mistreatment. He disappeared on 10 March, then he was ‘found’ blindfolded after 53 days, after which he was charged with trespassing, in addition to several other charges under the draconian Digital Security Act.
An oral history of COVID-19
How is the pandemic affecting the lives and work of IFEX members?
We reached out to members in the region earlier this summer, asking if they would like to share their experiences. The Cambodian Center for Human Rights, Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, Digital Rights Foundation, Free Media Movement, Freedom Forum, Globe International Center, Pacific Freedom Forum, and the Pakistan Press Foundation have sent us their reflections.
We are planning ways to share these responses more broadly this fall. Meanwhile, here are two examples.
“My most unexpected psychological challenge was my mother’s care. I couldn’t visit her. To solve that issue I asked a friend to visit and talk to her. In the pandemic background, I have learned that the most valuable thing is love among others.” (Lasantha De Silva, Free Media Movement in Sri Lanka)
“It is not just our own mental health we need to look after, but also the mental health of our colleagues and our community. This can be difficult to do via distance, but we need to learn how to be there for each other and prioritize it. We need to ensure we are supporting each other to be healthy and happy, and then we can be productive in our work.” (Sopheap Chak, Cambodian Center for Human Rights)