Hong Kong’s bleak scenario, court convictions, and a Nobel call to action
December 2021 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.
Publisher Jimmy Lai received another prison sentence in Hong Kong, pro-democracy news websites were forced to shut down in the aftermath of police raids, alarming court convictions in Myanmar and Vietnam, and a powerful Nobel lecture by Maria Ressa:
The closing of civic space in Hong Kong
The month of December saw the further dismantling of civic space in Hong Kong as reflected in the sentencing of media publisher Jimmy Lai, threats of arrests ahead of the Legislative Council (Legco) elections, police raids that targeted the Stand News office and the houses of its staff and former editors, the removal of a Tiananmen Massacre monument in a university, and the forced closure of independent newspapers.
Jimmy Lai, the founder of the Next Digital media company and the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, is already in detention for his participation during the anti-extradition law amendment protests in 2019. Last month, he received another prison sentence for his role in a 2020 vigil marking the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. He could face life in prison as he continues to face other charges related to sedition and the National Security Law.
The media crackdown didn’t end with Jimmy Lai and Apple Daily. On 29 December, more than 200 police officers raided the office of Stand News, Hong Kong’s most popular pro-democracy online news outlet. Six staff members, including current and former directors, were summoned on suspicion of conspiring to publish seditious material based on a British colonial-era law. Media groups were quick to condemn the raid:
“The Hong Kong Journalists Association is deeply concerned that the police have repeatedly arrested senior members of the media and searched the offices of news organizations containing large quantities of journalistic materials, within a year. HKJA urges the government to protect press freedom in accordance with the Basic Law.”
Days after the raid, independent news outlet Citizen News announced that it will also cease operating “because of the sea change in the society over the past two years and the deteriorating media environment.”
The restriction of media freedom in Hong Kong is discussed in the latest report of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) about the situation of journalists in China. Christophe Deloire, the secretary-general of RSF, paints a bleak scenario for the future.
“In its frenzy of control, the regime is even considering banning private media in the near future. It is a nightmare. The repression no longer spares Hong Kong, once a champion of press freedom, where a growing number of arrests are now conducted in the name of national security.”
Aside from silencing the press, authorities also attempted to curtail other forms of free expression. For example, individuals who campaigned for ‘blank voting’ during the Legco elections were threatened with arrests. The voting took place on 19 December but it was marred by the lowest voter turnout since 1991.
Authorities at the University of Hong Kong also ordered the removal of the Pillar of Shame, an 8-meter high concrete sculpture unveiled in 1996 to commemorate the Tiananmen Massacre. Its sudden removal before dawn on 23 December revealed the Hong Kong government’s growing intolerance for dissent in politics and art.
Maria Ressa’s Nobel lecture
Filipino-American journalist Maria Ressa was permitted by Philippine authorities to travel to accept her Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, although a new libel charge was filed against her and several journalists by the country’s Energy secretary for their news coverage of a controversial gas deal.
During her Nobel lecture, Ressa explained how the undermining of facts can erode trust in society.
“Without facts, you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without trust, we have no shared reality, no democracy, and it becomes impossible to deal with our world’s existential problems: climate, coronavirus, the battle for truth.”
She also underscored the need to defend press freedom. “We need to help independent journalism survive, first by giving greater protection to journalists and standing up against States which target journalists.”
Listen to and watch her full lecture through this video:
Focus on gender
In the Philippines, media groups have launched the Digital Safehouse and Collaborative Platform, a space for women journalists to report their accounts of abuse, gender-based harassment, and other forms of media suppression. The new website also offers information and other resources for women journalists in need of legal and medical aid.
In Cambodia, a roundtable dialogue was held between the government and civil society groups about the campaign for legal marriage equality. This was followed by the launching of the “ខ# $ំទទួលយក — I Accept” campaign which promotes the acceptance and right to marry of LGBTQI+ couples.
And last but definitely not least — check out this amazing comic book featuring the life story and the advocacies of Nighat Dad, the founder of IFEX member Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) in Pakistan.
In brief: Court convictions and an acquittal
Detained Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi was sentenced to four years in prison (subsequently reduced to two years) after she was found guilty of incitement and breaking COVID-19 regulations during the 2020 election campaign. She had been arrested after the military grabbed power in February 2021. She is facing ten more politically motivated charges under the junta-led government. Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), reacted to the conviction. “The junta is using this sham court proceeding to wipe out all opposition to military dictatorship. Yet since the coup and Suu Kyi’s arrest, millions have taken to the streets to protest for freedom and democracy.”
Vietnam’s sentencing of activists and bloggers Pham Doan Trang, Trinh Ba Phuong, and Nguyen Thi Tam was assailed by human rights groups. Artist and author Pham Doan Trang, who had been in detention since October 2020, was sentenced to nine years in prison for violating Article 88 of the 1999 Penal Code which criminalizes the ‘making, storing, distributing or disseminating information, documents and items against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.’ Ma Thida, chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, criticized the guilty verdict. “This is a reprehensible outcome in a reprehensible case. An act of retaliation aimed at silencing Pham Doan Trang, and at punishing her for the work she has been doing in the name of human rights and freedom of expression, and for speaking uncomfortable truths.” On 15 December, the Hanoi People’s Court also sentenced Trinh Ba Phuong and Nguyen Thi for publishing alleged anti-state propaganda. The two are citizen journalists who reported on land rights issues and disputes. Matthew Bugher, ARTICLE 19’s head of Asia Programme, said “these three convictions are unacceptable acts of reprisal against courageous rights defenders and part of a nefarious campaign to silence and intimidate anyone who speaks out against government abuse.”
Media groups welcomed a local court decision in Nepal to convict those who kidnapped and killed journalist Dekendra Thapa, 17 years after the crime was committed. Freedom Forum executive chief Taranath Dahal noted that “though it is late, the court verdict has addressed long-entrenched impunity for crimes against journalists and provided justice to the victim families.”
In Sri Lanka, politician Azath Salley was acquitted eight months after he was arrested and detained without bail under the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act. The Free Media Movement (FMM) said that the arrest of Azath Salley in March 2021 for making statements that allegedly harm ethnic and religious harmony during a media briefing “highlights the attempt by the political forces to abuse the legal process.”
New and noteworthy: 2021 Reports from IFEX members
In Malaysia, the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) has monitored an increased use of repressive laws to silence legitimate dissent. “Throughout 2021, CIJ observed and monitored a sharp increase in the usage of oppressive legislation such as the Sedition Act (19 cases) and Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) (140 cases) to silence dissenting opinions and expressions.”
In Nepal, Freedom Forum recorded a total of 59 incidents related to press freedom violations in 2021, which directly affected 83 members of the media.
Global Voices’ 2021 retrospective illuminates the state of the internet and press freedom, freedom of speech, censorship, the safety of journalists, and digital rights in South Asia.
Two new reports summed up the reversal of democratic transition in Myanmar after the coup. First, the PROTECT consortium commissioned a report which looked into the impact of the coup on freedom of expression and civic space in Myanmar. It features 45 interviews with civil society leaders. Second, PEN America’s report explores the creative response to the coup and the brutal retaliation of the military. It identified at least 45 creative artists who have been detained since the coup started.
“Creative artists have used their work and influence to further the movement to resist military dictatorship, creating and disseminating art both on and offline.” — Stolen Freedoms: Creative Expression, Historic Resistance and the Myanmar Coup
Originally published at https://ifex.org on January 4, 2022.