July 2022 in Asia-Pacific: A free expression round up produced by IFEX's regional editor Mong Palatino, based on IFEX member reports and news from the region.
Attacks against the media did not stop even after a change in government in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and the Philippines. Meanwhile, the junta in Myanmar has resorted to executing anti-coup activists.
Genocide, executions, protests in Myanmar
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) rejected the objections raised by Myanmar against the Genocide case filed by The Gambia in relation to the systematic persecution of the Rohingya. The welcome ICJ decision would pave the way for the continuation of the trial which seeks accountability for the repression of the Rohingya ethnic minority by Myanmar’s security forces.
Elaine Pearson, acting Asia director at Human Rights Watch, noted that ICJ can also look into the atrocities committed by the junta against civilians opposed to military rule: “By holding the military to account for its atrocities against the Rohingya, the World Court could provide the impetus for greater international action toward justice for all victims of the Myanmar security forces’ crimes.”
As the junta faces continuing global scrutiny for its brutal crackdown on the opposition, it carried out death sentences against four anti-coup activists despite appeals and concerns about the fairness of the verdict. Authorities cited the counterterrorism law in convicting Phyo Zeya Thaw, Kyaw Min Yu (Ko Jimmy), Hla Myo Aung, and Aung Thura Zaw. PEN Centres across the world condemned the judicial executions since they are a “cynical attempt to cloak the abhorrent use of lethal force behind a veil of legality.”
“By carrying out these executions, the military junta has once again displayed its murderous intent towards its own citizens, and the open contempt it holds towards its international human rights obligations,” the PEN statement added.
Meanwhile, resistance against the junta continues to gather support as conditions worsen in the country. This month alone saw student protests marking the anniversary of a university massacre, a strike by around 2,000 garment workers demanding better treatment, and a rare protest by food delivery riders against unfair labor practices.
Filipino journalists challenge censorship
Several independent media groups in the Philippines have filed a court petition challenging the government’s order to block their websites because of their alleged support for terrorism. IFEX member the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) issued a statement condemning the order as it “effectively removed from the public sphere alternative news and views so necessary in a democracy.”
“This branding of alternative media and critical journalism as terrorist betrays the government’s lack of understanding of the media’s role, and translates to its fear of being held to account.”
Media censorship escalated in the last 30 days of the Duterte presidency, and this disturbing trend continued under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. whose government was inaugurated on 30 June. In June, the Securities and Exchange Commission revoked the papers of news website Rappler. In early July, the Court of Appeals affirmed the cyber libel conviction against Rappler editor and Nobel laureate Maria Ressa and former Rappler researcher Rey Santos Jr.
The Hold the Line Coalition Steering Committee said the court decision “is bitterly disappointing and it sends a disturbing signal about the direction of justice under the new administration.”
Ressa and Rappler have stated that they will appeal the shutdown order and the court conviction in the Supreme Court.
Repressive new laws
Several IFEX members have signed statements opposing the implementation of repressive new media and IT laws in Indonesia, Maldives, and India.
In Indonesia, the Minister of Communication and Information has been urged to repeal Ministerial Regulation Number 5 Year 2020 (MR5) and its amendment, Ministerial Regulation Number 10 Year 2021 (MR10) for containing provisions that undermine freedom of expression. Both regulations seek an “authoritarian enforcement” of mandatory registration of private Electronic System Operators (ESO) aside from authorizing law enforcement authorities to access their electronic systems and data.
Critics believe this “could erase key channels for individuals to exercise their online freedoms”. In addition, ESOs are obliged to comply with content moderation and removal orders within short timelines.
In the Maldives, the president has ratified the Evidence Act – despite opposition from local and global media groups. The law allows the court to compel journalists to reveal their sources, especially on matters dealing with terrorism and national security. Civil society groups warn about how it could significantly affect the work of the media:
“It will have a dramatic impact on the work of journalists, including the loss of access to important sources who might refuse to talk to journalists out of fear of being exposed in a court of law.”
In India, various groups are seeking the review and repeal of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 (IT Rules 2021), and the suspension of the draft amendments proposed by the government. The rules have “draconian” provisions on mandatory data retention and traceability requirements, which could overturn end-to-end encryption. Meanwhile, Twitter has filed a lawsuit questioning the orders of the government that invoke the IT Rules to censor political speech.
Protesters and media attacked under Sri Lanka’s new government
The massive 9 July protest in Sri Lanka forced the country’s president to flee from his official residence and eventually led to his resignation. For several weeks now, thousands of people have been protesting the shortage of fuel, food, and medical supplies, which many blame on government corruption and mismanagement of the economy.
During the upheaval, IFEX member Free Media Movement called out the police for attacking journalists who were covering the protests. Several media groups also raised concern over the actions of some protesters who briefly occupied state-run TV networks.
Despite the change in government, the military violently dispersed protesters at Galle Face, the main protest site and symbol of the resistance. Journalists were among those who were injured during the attack.
Pakistan: Journalists arrested after criticizing the military
Reporters Without Borders has documented nine cases of intimidation against journalists since Shehbaz Sharif became Pakistan’s prime minister. The situation has intensified over the past month – several prominent journalists were either attacked or arrested on defamation charges.
- On 9 July, BOL News anchor Sami Ibrahim was attacked by three people outside the TV channel’s studios in Islamabad.
- On 5 July, Express News TV anchor Imran Riaz Khan was arrested by a dozen policemen accompanied by members of a Punjab special elite force after he was slapped with a slew of charges which include “hurting the sentiments of the Pakistani people” and “treason.”
- On 30 June, Dunya News TV journalist Ayaz Amir was dragged from his car and beaten as he was returning home in Lahore.
- On 24 June, independent reporter Arsalan Khan, who previously worked for Geo News TV, was kidnapped from his home in Karachi.
- On 13 June, Aaj News TV journalist Naeem Nazim was also kidnapped in Karachi by men in civilian dress aboard a truck.
All of these journalists have been critical of the role of the military in Pakistani politics.
The Pakistan Press Foundation has called for an investigation. “To make any journalist the target of criminal proceedings and to arrest them is a form of harassment used to silence the journalist and send a message to others in the media fraternity.”
In brief: Spotlight on Afghanistan
Displaced media workers. The Afghanistan Journalists Center reiterated its call to the international community to support the safe resettlement of at-risk Afghan journalists and media workers after a group of journalists who had fled to Pakistan reported that they have yet to receive assistance from international institutions.
Woman human rights defender speaks out. In an interview with Freedom House, a woman human rights defender shares the drastic changes in society under Taliban rule: “I feel that day by day my identity has changed from an active agent of change to a passive and submissive person, with my energy focused on how to survive under this dark, illegitimate government…. Women are suddenly not active in the public sphere; government offices are filled with people who see the role of women as limited to the domestic sphere.”
A cartoonist talks about freedom of expression. At the Hague Talks, cartoonist Hossein Rezaye, who escaped Kabul after the Taliban takeover in 2021, discussed how drawing cartoons can illuminate the problems in his country, and the need to protect freedom of expression.