December in Asia-Pacific: A roundup of key free expression news, based on IFEX member reports.
Citizenship law protests in India
The passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act in India has sparked massive protests across the country. The law grants citizenship rights to non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. It is criticized for its prejudice against Muslims. Human Rights Watch warned that “the Indian government is creating legal grounds to strip millions of Muslims of the fundamental right of equal access to citizenship.”
Protests first erupted in the northeastern states of the country, before spreading to Delhi. Student-led protests were peacefully organized in the capital, but reports of a violent incident at Jamia Millia Islamia University led to a police crackdown. Even some journalists were attacked while covering the protests. Solidarity protests were soon held in other parts of India to condemn police brutality.
In Utter Pradesh, pro-government forces were accused of instigating violence against the protesters. The police was also criticized for attacking schools and shops.
As the protests intensified, the government used colonial-era laws to silence critics and imposed internet shutdowns which affected many parts of the country.
‘White Christmas’ in Hong Kong
At least 30,000 Christmas cards were distributed by volunteers around the world to explain the Hong Kong protest movement. Protests continued during the Christmas holiday season with flash mob actions in shopping malls. Themed ‘shop with you’ or ‘be water shopping’, activists went inside malls chanting slogans and singing protest songs. A few pro-Beijing shops were damaged by masked individuals; this was used by the police as justification for targeting peaceful flash mob actions. Tear gas was deployed to violently disperse the protesters, leading some to comment that it’s a ‘white Christmas’ in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong authorities accused protesters of ruining the Christmas celebration in the city; but activists continued to press their demands for an independent probe of police brutality, the release of arrested individuals, and the granting of universal suffrage.
A New Year protest brought together at least a million people, but it was cut short after a clash between some police officers and protesters.
Student solidarity march in Pakistan
Student Solidarity Marches were held across Pakistan on 29 November, calling for the restoration of student unions in schools. The students also demanded the reduction of fee hikes, the stopping of surveillance targeting campus organizations, the ending of the harassment of students, and the allocation of funds to provide better education facilities. But a day after the marches, some leaders and participants were arrested and charged with sedition.
Focus on gender: Promoting women rights at work
As part of the “16 Days Campaign of Activism Against Gender-based Violence’, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) renewed its demands that the government promote women’s rights in the workplace. Some of these demands include the establishment of nurseries in offices and community-based kindergartens in every commune/Sangkat, implementing a one-stop service centre for victims of domestic violence, setting a minimum wage, strengthening protection mechanisms for domestic workers, and providing social protection for street vendors and workers in the informal economy.
‘Feminism in the digital space.’ Nighat Dad of Digital Rights Foundation and Sadaf Khan of Media Matters for Democracy joined a panel at the Women of the World (WOW) Karachi Festival in Pakistan where they discussed how traditional notions of feminism are being challenged in digital platforms.
Guilty verdict for Ampatuan Massacre. Members of the Ampatuan family and accomplices were sentenced to up to 40 years in jail for the killing of 58 individuals, 32 of whom were journalists, in 2009. The massacre in Maguindanao, located in the southern part of the Philippines, was the deadliest attack on the press and the worst election-related violence in the country’s history. IFEX member Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), which has campaigned for justice over the past decade, welcomed the verdict and reminded fellow advocates that the fight against impunity is far from over:
“Ending impunity demands the dismantling of the structures of control imposed by ruling clans and political dynasties…Reforms for the long term include the strengthening of the justice system so it can be a separate and independent third branch of government, enabling justice officials to effectively prosecute wrongdoers.”
Check out this IFEX Twitter thread to learn more about the case:
Appeal of two Cambodian journalists rejected. A court upheld the government’s decision to investigate two former reporters of Radio Free Asia, Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, for pornography. The two are also facing espionage charges. CCHR called for the dropping of the charges and to cease the intimidation and discrimination against the independent media.
Thai journalist convicted for 2017 tweet. Suchanee (Cloitre) Rungmuenporn, a former reporter for Voice TV in Thailand, was sentenced to two years in prison for a 2017 tweet that allegedly defamed the Thammakaset poultry company. Suchanee merely retweeted a post that accused the company of labor exploitation. The International Federation of Journalists condemned the “bullying and use of legal action” to silence critical reporting.
Laotian blogger Houayheuang Xayabouly, known as Muay Littlepig, was sentenced to five years in prison for posting Facebook videos criticizing the government’s poor response to a flooding disaster in south Laos.
It only took a few days for the newly elected Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency in Sri Lanka to start having an alarming impact on press freedom. The office of Newshub.lk was raided while some critical journalists were interrogated by security forces.
Civil society groups in Myanmar condemned the continuing internet shutdown in four Rakhine towns, first imposed on 21 June. They describe it as one of the longest shutdowns in the world. They called for the restoration of internet services and a review of the law which empowers the state to arbitrarily order the blocking of communication networks.
In China, the directive of the Ministry of Education to remove books deemed illegal or improper led to a book burning activity organized by library officials of Zhenyuan county in Gansu province. The incident alarmed PEN International which described it as a ‘manifestation of the Chinese government’s dystopian political agenda.’
The Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance Guideline (MEAA) of Australia warned that the decision of the government to axe the Department of the Arts could lead to more funding cuts for the arts. “Artists and arts organisations and of all sizes are struggling in the wake of the 2015 Australia Council cuts, and there is widespread concern that this decision will foreshadow further cuts to arts funding next year.”
For the third time since 2018, United States-based online news magazine slate.com was blocked in Pakistan in December. Slate said Pakistani authorities have not given any official reason or notice about the blocking of the website. It reflects the increasing online censorship which free speech advocates say is linked to the ‘larger attempt to control and stifle dissent in Pakistan.’
New and noteworthy
A special report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) features China’s systematic and aggressive push to influence and undermine the media in Hong Kong and Taiwan. But the report also explores how this is being resisted by journalists and civil society groups.
“Hong Kong civil society is strongly resisting China’s increasing efforts to impose control. Taiwan may offer lessons on how democratic societies can cope.”
IFEX profiled a campaign aimed at countering disinformation in Indonesia. In it, Wahyu Dhyatmika of Tempo.co and the Alliance of Independent Journalists shared some of the lessons they learned in sustaining CekFakta, a network of fact-checkers that was mobilized during the 2019 presidential elections in the country.
And finally, MEAA has developed editorial guidelines for Australian journalists reporting on hate speech and extremism. The guidelines include sections on ethical journalism; and general guidance for reporting on race, religion, culture and ethnicity.
If you enjoyed this, check out all the December regional roundups!