February in Asia-Pacific: A round up of key free expression news by Regional Editor Mong Palatino, based on IFEX member reports and news from the region.
Coronavirus and censorship in China
China’s notorious censorship regime is blamed for the delayed reporting about the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan City. The country’s strict control of information initially prevented health workers from speaking out about the impact of Covid-19. Citizen journalists like Chen Qiushi and Fang Bin, who documented the spread of Covid-19 in Chinese hospitals, funeral parlors, and other places under lockdown, were disappeared and reportedly put under forced quarantine.
Other citizens reporting about Covid-19 and complaining about the government’s slow response were charged with either spreading rumors or inciting social disturbance. But the death of Li Wenliang, the doctor who was interrogated by authorities for informing his friends and family about Covid-19, sparked outrage over the government’s suppression of information.
Before his death, he told a news outlet about the importance of upholding free speech. “What is more important is that people know the truth, compared to my own vindication. A healthy society should have more than one voice.”
Beijing authorities blamed Wuhan local officials for the handling of the crisis, but the latter hinted that their actions were restricted by a policy that requires getting prior authorization from the central government before releasing information.
Censors became more active in blocking news articles and websites, and deleting social media accounts that criticized officials. The press credentials of three reporters at the Wall Street Journal were revoked because of an opinion piece that described China as “the real sick man of Asia.”
But this has failed to stop the spread of fear, anger, and dissatisfaction as more people continued to demand uncensored updates and reports about Covid-19. Internet users pressed for a free media and the dropping of charges against whistleblowers accused of spreading misinformation.
Pakistan’s ‘dictatorial’ new rules on web TV and social media
The Pakistan government has released two sets of online regulations, which civil society groups have immediately rejected for being “dictatorial”. First, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) has issued new rules regulating web TV and Over The Top TV (OTT) content services. Then, the government presented its “Citizen Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020”.
Civil society groups were quick to denounce PEMRA for expanding its mandate “with the thinly disguised aim to regulate online content.” They added that these rules pose a threat to the country’s growing digital economy and the livelihood of digital content creators and influencers. Fortunately, the Senate Committee on Human Rights also rejected PEMRA’s proposed regulation.
Civil society groups also criticized the “Citizen Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020” for containing provisions that could undermine free speech. In particular, the proposed creation of an office for a National Coordinator could further lead to the “centralization of power to exercise strict controls over digital and online narratives.” The rules also state that social media companies are directed to submit “user information or data in a decrypted, readable and comprehensible format, including private data shared through messaging applications like WhatsApp.”
Various groups said that this is an “attempt to silence critics (that) will only lead to the digital isolation of the local Internet users, creating irreparable harm to the political, democratic and economic development of the country.”
Conviction, arrest, release, and internet shutdown in Myanmar
Filmmaker Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi — who was convicted in August 2019 for Facebook posts that criticized the military — was released from Insein prison. Ko Ko Gyi said that he wrote two screenplays during his detention. He called for penal code reform after his release.
During the same week, the Botataung Township court sentenced three members of the Peacock Generation Thangyat theater group to six months in prison for a satirical performance that allegedly defamed the military. Four members were acquitted, but they all still face pending cases filed by the military in other courts’ jurisdictions.
Meanwhile, authorities revived their order blocking the Internet in five townships in the northwestern Rakhine and Chin States. Four other Rakhine townships have been cut off from the internet since June 2019. An estimated one million people are affected by the government’s decision to restrict the internet supposedly to protect the security in the region against armed groups. Nine students, who joined a protest in Yangon demanding the restoration of the internet in Rakhine, were arrested by the police.
Philippine government threatens closure of TV network
ABS-CBN, the Philippines’ leading broadcaster, faces closure if Congress fails to renew its franchise this month. The threat to shut down the TV network is led by none other than President Rodrigo Duterte, who has consistently criticized the company and its owners. Another legal challenge is the petition filed by the government’s solicitor general asking the Supreme Court to forfeit the franchise of the network.
IFEX member Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) sees the suit against ABS-CBN as a “dangerous attempt to control and silence the free press.” The Freedom for Media, Freedom for All, a national coalition of media-oriented organizations, which also includes CMFR, deplored that the “government has marshalled its tremendous forces against news organizations and individual journalists who have dared to question and criticize” several policies of the Duterte government.
Originally published at https://ifex.org on March 3, 2020.