April in Asia: A roundup of key free expression news, based on IFEX member reports.
Sri Lanka’s media after the bombings
A series of bomb attacks that targeted crowded churches and hotels killed and injured hundreds in Sri Lanka on 21 April. It reflects the continuing communal violence a decade after the supposed end of the country’s civil war. The initial response of authorities was to impose a curfew and restrict social media access to curb the spread of disinformation; many cautioned against implementing measures that “create unnecessary stress on people and families as they try to contact and confirm the safety of their loved ones.” But the belief that social media companies are unable “to keep vulnerable users safe in a crisis situation” points to their failure to effectively manage threats and disinformation on their platforms. IFEX member Free Media Movement (FMM) emphasized that “engaging in accurate reporting is the key responsibility of the media, leaving zero space for hateful and enraging ideas.” It also urged the government to protect journalists who are threatened and harassed because of their reports about the bombings.
Massive Hong Kong protest
In Pictures: In Pictures: 130,000 protest looming China extradition law, say organisers, after Hong Kong jails Umbrella Movement leaders https://t.co/Zl3t8IB2Ed #occupyhk #umbrellamovement @creery_J pic.twitter.com/xjeoi3zbRT
— Hong Kong Free Press (@HongKongFP) April 28, 2019
An estimated 130,000 people rallied in the streets of Hong Kong against the proposal to amend the city’s extradition law which critics believe would allow the transfer of fugitives and even political dissidents to mainland China.
Various Hong Kong-based groups signed a statement describing the proposed legislation as “a sword hanging over the head of journalists which will muzzle both journalists and whistleblowers, dealing a further blow to the already limited freedom of speech that Hong Kong still enjoys.”
The government tried to appease the opposition by narrowing the coverage of extradition cases, but groups like Freedom House warned that the draft document still lacks human rights safeguards. It added that the Chinese government has been known to punish journalists and other activists based on trumped-up charges such as fraud.
The massive protest was the biggest mobilization in Hong Kong after the pro-democracy actions of the Umbrella movement in 2014. Incidentally, the protest was held days after eight leaders of the Umbrella movement were sentenced by a local court.
Singapore’s anti-fake news bill
Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill was submitted to the parliament in early April and was immediately criticized by media groups for posing a “clear and present danger to online press freedom.” The bill requires website administrators and internet service providers to immediately correct or remove content deemed by the government to be ‘fake news’.
But the bill’s definition of what counts as false is far too vague (article 2 of the bill states that “a statement is false when it is false or misleading”). The issuance of a ‘correction direction’ is mentioned in the bill as part of promoting public interest, ‘public tranquility’, and protecting Singapore’s ‘friendly relations’ with other countries. The bill imposes large fines, harsh prison terms, and other penalties like cutting off a website’s ‘ability to profit’. It seeks to prosecute violators who are not even living in Singapore.
Critics say this legislation will lead to self-censorship among netizens, bloggers and independent news websites, and further undermine media freedom in Singapore. Human Rights Watch (HRW) said “Singapore’s ministers should not have the power to singlehandedly decree what is true and what is false.” Reporters Without Borders (RSF) described the measure as an “Orwellian law (that) establishes nothing less than a ‘ministry of truth’ that would be free to silence independent voices and impose the ruling party’s line.”
Myanmar: Disappointing court decisions
Myanmar’s climate for free expression continues to deteriorate.
The military’s Yangon Region Command filed a criminal defamation complaint on 12 April against The Irrawaddy’s Burmese-language editor U Ye Ni over the ‘unfair’ coverage of the news website on the armed clashes between government forces and the insurgent Arakan Army in Rakhine State.
On 22 April, Yangon’s Mayangone Township Court ordered five members of the Peacock Generation Thangyat troupe to be detained without bail for their satirical performance mocking the army. They were sent to Insein prison to await trial on defamation charges filed by the army.
The next day, the Supreme Court upheld the seven-year imprisonment of Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo who were convicted of violating the colonial-era Official Secrets Act. The two reporters won this year’s Pulitzer prize for their investigative report on the alleged role of state forces in the massacre of Rohingya residents in a Rakhine community. Despite the global appeal for their release, the two reporters were not listed among the 9,500 prisoners who were pardoned by the government during the traditional New Year celebrations in April.
Insein Township Court denied the bail petition of filmmaker Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, who is accused by a military officer of posting defamatory Facebook posts. Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi is the founder of the Myanmar Human Rights Human Dignity Film Festival and a known critic of the military’s involvement in politics. His supporters are calling for his release on humanitarian grounds, since he has had half of his liver removed due to cancer and suffers from heart and kidney problems.
Southeast Asian Press Alliance aptly described Myanmar’s situation today: “The promise of democracy that was ushered in by the landmark elections in 2015 is now a meaningless memorial that is quickly falling apart.”
Special reports on media and women
RSF has released its 2019 World Press Freedom Index which shows the extreme challenges faced by media in the Asia-Pacific region. The report notes the high number of murdered journalists in Afghanistan, the growing problem of disinformation and the use of totalitarian propaganda, outright censorship, intimidation, and cyber-harassment against journalists. It also cited China’s anti-democratic model based on high-tech information surveillance and manipulation since the Beijing government is now promoting its adoption outside its borders.
Pakistan: @DigitalRightsPK report draws its findings from the experiences of 60 women who have witnessed and/or been affected by online abuse. https://t.co/Oxi1crnFsJ #IFEXgender Report also made policy recommendations on online safety and freedom of expression pic.twitter.com/kAwYN96Mxa
— IFEX (@IFEX) April 29, 2019
Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) has published two reports on the online violence experienced by Pakistani women. The first highlights gendered online harassment and its impact on the career of women journalists in new media. The second report probes the prevalence of online abuse – harassment, misogyny, stalking, surveillance – targeting not just women journalists but also information practitioners such as activists and human rights defenders.
Bytes for All has released its latest study on the Pakistan Internet Landscape. Its report revealed that in 2018 Pakistan “faced far greater control over free expression, increased censorship, secrecy of public policy decision-making, and violation of fundamental freedoms of citizens.” It concluded that the country remains “without a cohesive, progressive and all-encompassing approach to the internet and the implications of living in a digitized world.”
Brunei’s Sharia Law takes full effect
Regional human rights groups expressed their concern about the full implementation of Brunei’s Sharia Law. which imposes stoning to death, maiming, corporal punishment, and whipping for various crimes. Critics have cited how it violates several international human rights standards, discriminates against LGBTQI+ individuals, and threatens to incite more hatred against dissidents and those who don’t subscribe to the state’s narrow concept of morality.