A surge in cross-border repression, Manipur’s internet shutdowns, Cambodia’s elections, and defying the Taliban
July 2023 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.
Journalists and activists from China and Pakistan targeted by transnational repression, prolonged internet shutdown in Manipur hides extent of communal violence, Cambodia blocked websites after disqualifying the opposition, and defiant Afghan women protested against repressive Taliban policies.
In Hong Kong, authorities issued arrest warrants and bounties for eight activists and pro-democracy leaders living in exile in the United Kingdom, United States, and Australia. The order confirms the extraterritorial reach of the Beijing-imposed National Security Legislation, which has been used over the past three years to suppress dissent and critical voices in the city.
Christopher Mung, a labor unionist, said in a press briefing in the UK that the warrant against him will not deter him from fighting for democracy. “They will never eliminate my voice, or the voice of Hongkongers. For the rest of my life, us Hongkongers will fight together.”
Ted Hui, a former lawmaker who is now in Australia, told the media that he will continue with his advocacy. “I will continue to live an ordinary, normal life while I continue my advocacy work for freedom and democracy in Hong Kong.”
Meanwhile, the family of exiled former lawmaker Nathan Law was briefly detained and interrogated by the police about his whereabouts. Several individuals were also arrested for allegedly raising funds for exiled activists.
IFEX member Index on Censorship warns that “authorities are trying to turn society against itself to isolate those who have spoken out against China’s attack on human rights.”
In Pakistan, police have filed criminal and terrorism charges against exiled journalists Wajahat Saeed Khan, Shaheen Sehbai, Sabir Shakir, and Moeed Pirzada for their critical comments about the military and the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan. Reporters Without Borders also obtained a confidential Interior Ministry memo dated 18 June, which named six journalists abroad accused of allegedly “participating in anti-Pakistan activities or producing anti-state content”. The memo directed “proper channels” to approach the journalists and stop their “rhetoric against Pakistan”.
These actions threaten the security and safety of exiled journalists and should not be treated lightly, considering that exiled former ARY News TV host Arshad Sharif was shot dead while traveling in a car in Kenya in 2022.
Several exiled dissidents in Southeast Asia have been either arrested or abducted and deported to countries where they face trumped up cases. Myanmar refugee activist Thuzar Maung and her family were abducted in Malaysia. Thuzar Maung is a critic of the junta and has been working closely with the opposition National Unity Government.
In Laos, former Radio Free Asia correspondent Qiao Xinxin was taken from his home by local and Chinese police officers. Qiao Xinxin fled China and became a founder of a global online campaign called “Ban Great Firewall”, which advocates against internet censorship.
Vietnamese journalist Duong Van Thai was charged with conducting anti-state propaganda three months after he was arrested in Thailand. Aside from being a member of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam, Thai has reported on corruption and internal power struggles in the ruling party.
Cambodian opposition member Thol Samnang escaped the country but was arrested in Thailand where he intended to apply for asylum. He was threatened with arrest for his social media posts criticizing Cambodia’s ruling party.
India: Manipur internet shutdown
Internet restrictions have been imposed in the Indian state of Manipur following the outbreak of ethnic clashes and communal violence between Kuki tribal groups and the majority Meitei community. The order took effect on 3 May and was only partially lifted after 83 days for broadband internet services. The prolonged shutdown has disrupted local businesses, schooling, and delivery of services. IFEX member SFLC.in described the situation in Manipur as a “textbook case as to how shutdowns only exacerbate harms.” It added that the partial lifting of the order only benefited a small number, since 96 percent of users rely on mobile internet.
A journalist told SFLC.in about how the internet blocking has undermined the work of media. “The primary concern that I faced as a journalist was the inability to do my job at all due to lack of access to the internet. While we could record videos and contact sources, the only way we could communicate this to our head office was through SMS. Since SMS has a short word limit, I had to sit and type multiple messages to send one single story.”
Another example of the harm caused by internet disruption was cutting off student access to financial apps for their living expenses.
Writing for The Print news website, legal scholars Mishi Choudhary and Eben Moglen challenged the government’s claim that blocking the internet is necessary to protect citizens. “Shutdowns don’t create the social and political will to safeguard our people, but rather a cloak for government to hide its shame.”
They are referring to the mob violence between the Christian-majority Kuki tribal group and the Hindu-majority Meitei community, which has already killed more than 100 people and displaced at least 40,000 villagers.
Crackdown and censorship ahead of Cambodian election
Cambodia held its election on 23 July amid accusations that it was not free and fair after the Hun Sen government, which has been in power for nearly four decades, disqualified the opposition from the contest and curtailed the work of independent media and civil society groups.
After canceling the registration of the opposition Candlelight Party on a mere issue of technicality, authorities filed various cases against its leaders, which led to arrests and raids. Some opposition figures were forced to flee the country. The government also vowed to block the candidacy of anyone who will call for a boycott of the elections.
News websites Cambodia Daily and Radio Free Asia, and a new platform (‘for the record’ in Cambodian) were also blocked days before the election. Kamnotra, a project of IFEX member Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM), compiles relevant government information and summarizes it for both local and international readers. In an interview with Global Voices, CCIM highlighted the importance of a platform like Kamnotra amid the forced closures of independent news websites.
“In a precarious media landscape where false narratives and propaganda are projected as fact and news, access to clear and accurate information is paramount. CCIM’s goal is to provide the Cambodian people with the information they need to make informed decisions.”
Barely a month into its operation, Kamnotra was blocked by the government.
Continuing resistance in Myanmar and Afghanistan
Activists in Myanmar and women in Afghanistan have organized protests in defiance of repressive policies. In Myanmar, youth activists and artists shared some of their guerrilla tactics in challenging the junta such as holding flash mobs and publicly displaying the longyi traditional attire with a printed message against the military dictatorship. They underscored the role of clandestine but creative protests in communities and aggressive online campaigns to sustain public support for the pro-democracy movement, which continues to face violent attacks from junta forces.
In Afghanistan, women protested the Taliban order banning beauty salons. This latest order will take away the jobs and livelihoods of women who face systematic discrimination under the Taliban regime. The protest was violently dispersed by the police.
In another display of peaceful dissent, female athletes asserted that “sport knows no gender” as they defended their right to train in an indoor protest that their male colleagues also participated in.
In brief: New publications and initiatives
A new report from IFEX member Bytes for All showed that Pakistan faced 24 network shutdowns in 2022, which is 58% higher than in 2021. Media Matters for Democracy published a study noting that the “lack of corporate accountability has affected online gender-based violence and misinformation-based hate campaigns” in different countries in Asia, including Pakistan. The latest edition of Digital Right Foundation’s feminist e-magazine 50.50 looks into the gig economy in Pakistan and its impact on women’s employment and also the problems they face in navigating the online space.
According to the latest survey conducted by the Hong Kong Journalists Association, the city’s press freedom index hit a new low in 2022. It warned that the “continuous attacks on journalists by the government show that Hong Kong no longer has space for critical voices.”
In partnership with several universities and civil society groups, IFEX member the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) announced the launch of a portal that will monitor hate speech during the upcoming Malaysian state elections. CIJ also enjoined the public to report instances of hate speech as it asked political parties to refrain from using “inflammatory tropes and rhetoric” against vulnerable segments of the population.