Pakistan’s crisis, Hong Kong’s library purge, Chinese censorship (no laughing matter) and some good news
May 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.
Pakistan’s political crisis has turned violent as authorities blocked internet services, China’s crackdown on dissent targeted commentators and comedians, Hong Kong has purged libraries of books written by pro-democracy advocates, and several court decisions affirmed the legality of same-sex marriages.
Pakistan: Political crisis leads to violence and internet restrictions
The arrest of Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan on 9 May triggered widespread protests, which led to violent clashes with the police across several cities. Several journalists were attacked and arrested while covering the protests.
To quell the upheaval, authorities blocked mobile internet services — and IFEX members responded. Media Matters for Democracy said that the restrictions affected nearly 125 million people and caused massive economic losses for local livelihoods. Pak Voices, a community media project of Bytes For All, called the internet disruption an “unwarranted and excessive response to socio-political problems.” Pakistan Press Foundation asserted that this “is not only an infringement on citizens’ right to access information and free expression but also counterproductive in terms of public safety.”
Journalists and some media offices were also targeted by protesters and supporters of Khan. PPF reminded the opposition that attacks on the media during protests are unjustifiable, especially at a time when the country is facing political uncertainty and the public needs the verified information which journalists can provide.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch expressed concern over the arrest of more than 4,000 people in the wake of protests. It noted that the crackdown and arbitrary arrests included opposition leaders, as it called for “restraint and respect for human rights and the rule of law.”
Not funny: China silences commentators, journalists… and comedians
Over the past month, China has censored commentators, journalists, and even comedians accused of harming the security of the state.
Chinese political commentator and human rights lawyer Guo Feixiong was sentenced to eight years in prison on the charge of “incitement to subvert state power”. He has already served over twelve years in the past for publishing a book about government corruption. Reporters without Broders (RSF) has already sounded the alarm over the increasing number of prosecutions involving political commentators.
Journalist Shangguan Yunkai was arrested after publishing an article about police beating a plaintiff in an Ezhou courtroom in 2021. Another journalist, Dong Yuyu, was detained on charges of espionage a year after having a lunch meeting with a Japanese diplomat.
Even comedy is not spared from Beijing’s censorship. The Chinese social media accounts of British-Malaysian comedian Nigel Ng’s have been suspended a few days after he posted content that alluded to China’s authoritarian government. Earlier, Chinese comedian Li Haoshi was arrested after he made a joke comparing his dogs to a slogan of the People’s Liberation Army. The company that hosted the comedian’s show was slapped with a $2 million fine.
Political cartoons and “bad ideologies”: Hong Kong’s purge
Hong Kong media outlet Mingpao said it will no longer publish the political cartoons of veteran artist Zunzi, whose works have appeared in the local paper since 1983. Zunzi’s cartoons have been criticized six times over the past year by authorities for allegedly distorting the truth. In a media interview, Zunzi said that “losing the newspaper’s column is not such a big deal compared to losing two years of freedom” referring to the curtailment of critical voices after the 2020 passage of the Beijing-backed national security law.
After this, Zunzi learned that his books have been removed from public libraries.
Media also reported that most books and video documentaries about the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown have been removed from the library bookshelves. Even non-political books by activists and critical academics were purged. In response, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee said the government is duty-bound to identify books with “bad ideologies.”
IFEX member Hong Kong Journalists Association warned that the silencing of a prominent cartoonist could lead other artists and writers to self-censor.
Solidarity with Jimmy Lai
116 media leaders from 42 countries signed a statement calling for the immediate release of Apple Daily founder and publisher Jimmy Lai in Hong Kong. Among the signatories were publishers, editors-in-chief, and senior editors, including two Nobel Peace Prize laureates. Lai is charged under the national security legislation for allegedly “colluding with foreign forces”. Lai’s trial will proceed despite his plea to appoint a lawyer of his choice.
Hong Kong authorities have denied that press freedom is under attack in the city.
RSF said the campaign for the release of Lai and other detained journalists will continue.
An unhealthy trend: Southeast Asia’s shrinking civic space
Attacks against human rights defenders and journalists, harsh prison terms for dissidents, and legal harassment of opposition parties across Southeast Asia reflect the diminishing space for civic freedom in the region, and underscore the fundamental connections between the right to freedom of expression and a robust civic space.
In Laos, youth activist Anousa “Jack” Luangsouphom survived two gunshots at a café in Vientiane and is now recuperating in another country. He is an administrator of the Facebook page “Kub Kluen Duay Keyboard” (Power of the Keyboard), which has published posts criticizing authorities and the destructive impact of Chinese investments in Laos. The attempted murder drew widespread concern in Laos because of the brazen attack, which was recorded by CCTV cameras.
Jack was fortunate in surviving his attack, but this was not the case for Laotian refugee Bounsuan Kitiyano, who was killed by unknown assailants in Thailand. The 56-year-old human rights defender was a member of Thailand-based “Free Lao”, a network of Lao migrant workers and rights advocates. Global civil society groups have condemned the attack and demanded an independent probe of the latest incident of transnational repression targeting exiled Lao activists.
In Cambodia, the opposition Candlelight Party was disqualified from participating in the July election for its alleged failure to present proper registration documents. This was clearly intended to prevent the main opposition party from fielding candidates who may challenge the “autocracy” of the ruling party led by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
In Vietnam, activist Bui Tuan Lam was sentenced to five years and six months in prison and four years of probation after his release for posting content on social media that “affected the confidence of the people about the state’s leadership.” The indictment could be in retaliation for his viral comedic video, in which he parodied a global celebrity chef (known as Salt Bae) who had earlier served Vietnam’s public security minister with a gold encrusted steak. The video earned him the moniker “Green Onion Bae”, for using green onions and noodle soup instead of an expensive steak as was offered to the Vietnamese minister.
In Myanmar, PEN member Wai Moe Naing was convicted of high treason for his role as a protest leader and sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment. He is already serving a 34-year prison sentence following several convictions for his anti-coup activities. Ma Thida, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, reacted to the 54-year prison sentence for the young writer.
“It is a cruel injustice that Wai Moe Naing has been convicted of high treason by the same regime that has so brutally betrayed the people of Myanmar.”
In the Philippines, radio broadcaster Cresenciano “Cris” Bunduquin was shot dead in the Philippines. He was known as a hard-hitting commentator who recently tackled the local impact of a massive oil spill, mining, and illegal gambling in Mindoro province. He is the third journalist killed under the Marcos government, which assumed power in June 2022. The killing of Bunduquin showed the continuing impunity in the country and the failure to reverse the attacks on the media despite the change in government.
Pride victories and other positive news
- Impact! In Nepal, Freedom Forum shared that its 2018 recommendation to teach the safe use of computers and the internet has been adopted and is now part of the school curriculum. Some of the new topics that students in grades 6, 7, 8 will learn include the safe use of social media, the right to information and information technology.
- Another positive piece of news from Nepal is the landmark decision of the Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage, making it the first South Asian country to adopt this legal reform.
- An important decision was also made by the Nagoya District Court in Japan, which ruled that the ban on same sex marriage is unconstitutional. This is the second court in at least four cases that ruled in favour of LGBTQI+ rights. Human rights advocates are hoping that this latest court order will persuade policymakers to adopt marriage equality laws at the national level.
- Filipino-American journalist and Nobel laureate Maria Ressa scored another legal victory after the Philippine Court of Tax Appeals affirmed its decision acquitting the Rappler news founder of tax evasion. Despite this, Ressa continues to face several pending cases, including her appeal for her cyber libel conviction. The cases against Ressa and Rappler were all filed by the previous government of Rodrigo Duterte.