January 2020 in Asia-Pacific: A roundup of key free expression news, based on IFEX member reports.
Myanmar ordered to stop genocide
On 23 January 2020, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) unanimously ruled that Myanmar needs to implement provisional measures to stop acts of genocide against the Rohingya ethnic minority. The government has four months to report its compliance with the resolution. The United Nations Security Council can now use the ICJ ruling as a basis to pass additional measures aimed at preventing genocide.
The genocide case was filed by The Gambia last November with the backing of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. It refers to the persecution of the Rohingya who are considered illegal immigrants by the Myanmar government. Since 2017, around 700,000 Rohingya fled their homes in the northwest Rakhine state following clashes between government troops and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.
Human rights groups welcomed the ICJ ruling and urged Myanmar authorities to direct all its armed forces to prevent acts of genocide against the Rohingya.
This response by Mayyu Ali, a poet who fled Myanmar and is now in a refugee camp in Bangladesh, reflects the sentiment of many displaced Rohingya:
India: Supreme Court ruling on internet shutdowns
On 10 January, India’s Supreme Court ruled the right to freedom of speech and expression and the right to carry on any trade or business using the medium of internet is constitutionally protected. The ruling is based on a petition pertaining to the long-running internet shutdown in Kashmir and Jammu regions.
The court prescribed certain guidelines that IFEX member SFLC.in said would make it easier to challenge shutdown orders in the future. For example, it ruled that shutdown orders must consider proportionality, reasonableness, and transparency. They should be published by the government, and subject to review after seven days. However, SFLC.in noted in its legal analysis that reviewing the shutdown orders could be futile, since the process will be done by members of the executive.
Internet was partially restored in Kashmir after the release of the Supreme Court ruling. But as of 28 January, the Kashmir Press Club reported that media organizations still lacked broadband internet access.
India’s court ruling could set a legal precedent in other countries like Indonesia whose government is facing a case filed by several media groups in relation to the internet shutdown in West Papua.
Massive protests in Thailand, Cambodia, and India
On 12 January, an estimated 13,000 people joined the ‘Run Against Dictatorship’ in Bangkok, Thailand, despite threats of arrest and police intimidation. Several fun run events with the same theme were also held in other provinces. It was the biggest protest against the government since the army grabbed power in 2014. Themed ‘Wing Lai Lung’ – which means ‘Run to Oust the Uncle’ – it refers to the Prayuth government, accused of restricting the civil liberties of citizens despite the supposed end of military rule. Organizers say their members have been harassed by authorities across the country since December, when the event was launched.
The two-day strike of Naga World hotel and casino workers in Phnom Penh, Cambodia ended peacefully and successfully on 11 January after management agreed to raise wages and reinstate the union’s leader. Naga, owned by a Hong Kong company, operates the biggest casino center in Phnom Penh. Despite a court decision declaring the strike illegal, more than 1,000 workers proceeded with their plan to hold a protest outside the hotel. Around 23 civil society organizations signed a statement urging the government to respect labor rights and the decision of the casino workers to stage a protest.
A 620-kilometer human chain from the north to the south of Kerala, India was organized on 26 January to demand the withdrawal of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act. Millions joined the protest against the amended law, which was passed in December 2019 amid criticism that it discriminates against Muslims. The law offers citizenship to migrants fleeing religious persecution, but excludes Muslims.
Focus on gender
Several journalists were attacked while covering student protests against the Citizenship Amendment Law in Delhi and in other cities. Women journalists like Rana Ayyub were targeted for their work documenting police violence. Women lawyers and activists including Gayatri Khandhadai, a staff member of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), suffered harassment and arbitrary arrests. In the case of Khandhadai, it was the police commissioner of Chennai who doxxed the activist and spread rumours about her advocacy work.
In Australia, the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA) welcomed the decision of the Federal Court to protect confidential journalist sources based on a case filed by a former soldier against The Age and Sydney Morning Herald newspapers. MEAA said the decision is a victory for public interest journalism. But MEAA also deplored the increasing use of secret Journalist Information Warrants by the police to access journalists’ telecommunications data.
After three years in prison, Vietnamese blogger Tran Thi Nga was released and sent to the United States where she was granted asylum. She was arrested for writing about the situation of migrant workers, and convicted during a one-day trial for posting ‘anti-state propaganda’.
Philip Jacobson, editor of conservation and environmental science news platform Mongabay, was arrested in Indonesia on 21 January for an alleged visa violation. He was released after four days and eventually deported on 31 January. Media groups believe his arrest is related to his work with indigenous farmers.
Bangladeshi police arrested Shariat Sarkar on 11 January for allegedly making comments that hurt the religious sentiments of Muslims. Shariat, a famous Baul (Sufi folk) artist, was charged after he reportedly criticized Muslim clerics who oppose singing. His continuing detention reinforces earlier criticism about the draconian features of the Digital Security Act.
Media groups condemned threats made against seven Tamil journalists in eastern Sri Lanka. Leaflets threatening to kill them were sent to the Batticaloa Press Club. The leaflet contains a photo of the seven journalists attending a memorial of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the Sunday Leader editor whose 2009 murder remains unresolved.
In Nepal, press freedom may be undermined by laws proposed by the government. Media groups rejected the Advertisement Regulation Bill, the IT Bill, the Nepal Media Council Bill, and the Public Service Broadcasting Bill for threatening media freedom. “The biggest problems about the proposed bills are the high fines and long prison terms facing anyone who can be seen as saying something against the government,” said Hiranya Joshi of the Federation of Nepali Journalists.
New and noteworthy
Media Matters for Democracy has published an overview of the major issues in digital rights and internet governance in Pakistan. The report highlights the need for stronger data protection systems and privacy legislations.
The 2019 media monitoring of Nepal’s Freedom Forum recorded 111 press freedom violations, the highest in seven years. The report also cites harassment cases filed against poets, singers, rappers, and other artists.
Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2020 featured several countries in Asia-Pacific. It describes how Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act has further restricted free speech, and reports that at least 30 activists and dissidents were sentenced to prison in Vietnam in 2019, simply for exercising their fundamental rights to freedom of expression, association, and religion. In Afghanistan, it notes that airstrikes by the Afghan government and the United States military and attacks by the Taliban have caused more civilian deaths. South Korea is urged to reverse discrimination and abuses against women, sexual minorities, refugees, and other at-risk groups. And finally, in Thailand, it notes that the 2019 election failed to address the “repressive legacy of military rule,” as rights abuses continue to silence critics of the government.
If you enjoyed this, check out all the January regional roundups!