IFEX’s Asia and Pacific Regional Editor showcases some of the exceptional and inspiring pushbacks against attempts to suppress freedom of expression, human rights and democracy that the region witnessed last year.
The continuing pandemic exacerbated the suffering of many in 2022, but we also witnessed how resistance emerged in a context of intensified political crisis and government repression across the region. Protesters demanding the ouster of corrupt regimes, journalists exposing abuse, women resisting tyranny, and civil society groups promoting solidarity — below, we share examples of defiance over the past year to inspire more people to speak out and stand up for freedom of expression, human rights and democracy in 2023.
Women spoke truth to power
Despite the numerous restrictions and challenges they faced, women journalists and human rights defenders stood their ground in 2022. An outstanding example is how women joined the frontlines of resistance after the 2021 coup in Myanmar and the return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, young women organized protests asserting their right to education and the freedom to access employment and other services. Students also protested the Taliban order banning female students from attending universities. This misogynistic policy worsens the current discriminatory system, which bans young girls from pursuing secondary education.
In Myanmar, women journalists continued their work despite threats to their safety. Some fled the country so they could effectively perform their duty of informing the public about the activities of the junta and the pro-democracy movement from abroad.
While the people of Myanmar and Afghanistan are actively fighting for democracy, sustained pressure from the international community is crucial in engaging the de facto officials of the two countries. This will become more urgent in 2023, which marks the second year of the coup in Myanmar and the reclaiming of power by the Taliban.
An important recent development was the adoption of the UN Security Council resolution on 21 December that expressed deep concern at the “ongoing state of emergency imposed by the military in Myanmar” and demanded an “end to all forms of violence throughout the country.” It’s the first UNSC resolution about Myanmar since 1948.
Meanwhile, women journalists such as Rana Ayyub in India, Rozina Islam in Bangladesh, and Maria Ressa in the Philippines have demonstrated the essential role of independent media in holding officials accountable. The support they received after being persecuted for their reporting underscores the power of solidarity to overcome relentless, state-backed attacks.
Her choice: hijab ban protest and #FreeHerFace
In February, women students in the southern Indian state of Karnataka protested the ban on the wearing of the hijab or headscarf in some state-run colleges. Authorities claimed this was enforced to maintain public safety, but protesters and human rights groups described the ban as an example of the ruling party’s discriminatory policies against Muslims. Women protesters were harassed by Hindu nationalist groups, but they fought back, filing a petition in the court.
In Afghanistan, the wearing of the hijab was made mandatory for women news presenters, which was seen as part of the Taliban’s systematic crackdown on women in society. But authorities didn’t anticipate the reaction of male newscasters, who wore face masks in solidarity with their female colleagues. A social media campaign with the hashtag #FreeHerFace was also launched to challenge the ban.
Media fought back… and won
China’s State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited several Pacific nations in May without allowing local journalists to raise their questions. But he was forced to face the press and answer impromptu questions in Timor-Leste after journalists asked newly elected President José Ramos-Horta, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, to uphold media freedom by allowing them to do their job without restrictions. The intervention worked, and local journalists fielded their questions directly to Wang Yi.
In the Philippines, authorities ordered the blocking of 26 websites that purportedly support terrorism, which included the online pages of media outlets and people’s organizations. Alternative news site Bulatlat challenged the order, and won a favorable decision from a local court that directed authorities to unblock the website.
Voices of dissent in China
A wave of unprecedented spontaneous protests erupted across China in November despite the prohibition on mass assemblies and threats of reprisal. Protesters articulated not just the popular demand to ease lockdown restrictions but also called for the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly to be respected.
Chinese citizens have been defying repressive regulations in order to express their views on various social concerns. In April, a popular six-minute video titled “Voices of April” — which featured the views of citizens exasperated with harsh lockdown measures — was censored by authorities. But censors were unable to stop netizens from embedding the video on various platforms and in multimedia content.
In October, a lone protester was able to unfurl protest banners on a bridge in Beijing ahead of the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.
According to Freedom House’s China Dissent Monitor, there have been 668 instances of dissent from June to September 2022, as people spoke out against stalled housing projects, labor rights violations, fraud, COVID-19 policies, and state violence.
So far, the protests have led to the gradual easing of some restrictions, but human rights groups are closely monitoring if a crackdown on dissent will be enforced that could lead to mass arrests in the next few months.
Sri Lanka uprising
In March, thousands in Sri Lanka took to the streets in the wake of worsening food and fuel shortages. It soon became a popular movement demanding the ouster of the Rajapaksa government for corruption and mismanagement of the economy. The government imposed emergency measures which included the blocking of social media networks. Thugs linked to state forces tried to disperse the main protest site at Galle Face, but it only provoked public outrage. Massive protests eventually forced Rajapaksa’s resignation. The uprising was covered in real time through the relevant reporting of citizen journalists and the mainstream media, despite constant harassment and attacks by police and security forces.
Building networks of solidarity and resistance
In 2022, IFEX member SFLC.in initiated the formation of a Digital Defenders Network, an online network of lawyers, academicians, and policy experts committed to defending digital rights. It “seeks to ensure that access to justice need not be undermined owing to logistical or geographical limitations.” At the first meeting in December, participants affirmed their commitment to fight back against tyranny.
Another important recent initiative was the gathering of Southeast Asia-based media groups to promote collaboration in the defense of press freedom in the region. This enhanced cooperation is timely, as governments are increasingly restricting civic space through the use of draconian laws and digital tools of surveillance that are undermining people’s civil liberties.
In the last month of 2022, Indonesia adopted a new criminal code that includes provisions that pose grave threats to civil liberties. Under the new law, insulting the president, vice president, and government institutions could lead to at least three years in prison. Sasmito, chair of IFEX member Aliansi Jurnalis Independen, has warned against its chilling impact on the press. “The media act as watchdogs criticizing government policies, including the president or his office if they harm public interest or uncover corruption. And critical journalists should not be targeted with criminal penalties as a result.” Another controversial provision is the criminalization of cohabitation and sex before marriage which could be used to target members of the LGBTQI+ community.
New & Noteworthy
Several IFEX members published their year-end reports about the state of freedom of expression in their respective countries. In Malaysia, the Centre for Independent Journalism highlighted that the media continued to experience restrictions as it urged the new government to commit to upholding the people’s fundamental and constitutional right to information. In Thailand, ARTICLE 19’s new report revealed that authorities have used the country’s Public Assembly Act and COVID-19 state of emergency regulations as pretexts to restrict and repress pro-democracy protests. In India, SFLC.in has recorded 75 incidents of internet shutdowns in 2022. In Afghanistan, the Afghanistan Journalists Center reported that over half of the country’s 600 active media outlets have ceased operations and hundreds of journalists and media workers have left the country since the Taliban took power. And finally, in Pakistan, the Pakistan Press Foundation noted that despite the change in government, “little improvement has been seen in the state of press freedom”.