Protecting journalists in Afghanistan, #Lawan protest in Malaysia, and shrinking civic space in Hong Kong

August 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.

Kabul, Afghanistan, 31 August 2021. Taliban special force fighters (R) and a journalist get up after falling from a vehicle at the airport, after the withdrawal of US troops from the country, WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

Groups called for the protection of journalists and citizens at risk in Afghanistan, participants of #Lawan protests were summoned by the police in Malaysia, threats forced Hong Kong’s largest teachers’ union and pro-democracy coalition to disband, regulations against disinformation were introduced in Thailand and South Korea, and women journalists Rozina Islam, Maria Ressa, and Cheng Lei remained defiant despite facing persecution:

Protecting journalists and citizens at risk in Afghanistan

The fall of the Afghan government and the rapid rise to power of the Taliban has raised alarm over the situation of citizens who face the risk of being targeted by authorities because of their work, affiliation, religion, and gender.

IFEX joined other civil society groups in signing a statement addressed to G7 countries to make a “clear and explicit commitment to taking journalists and media workers as an urgent and immediate priority.” The statement recommended the easing of visa restrictions for journalists and their families seeking asylum and that priority should be given to female journalists and those from ethnic and religious minorities who are at heightened risk.

IFEX members were among those who issued separate statements asking governments to extend assistance to Afghan media workers who need a safe exit.

IFEX also signed a statement with 50 other groups and individuals urging international institutions to take immediate action to restrict and secure biometric and other digital identity databases in Afghanistan, and ensure that these will not enable harm on Afghan citizens. Digital biometric systems containing highly sensitive information about citizens are now in the hands of the new government; that is why it is so essential that international actors and private vendors previously providing assistance to Afghan institutions should implement urgent measures to prevent the misuse of data.

#Lawan protests in Malaysia

Police summoned activists who organized the 31 July #Lawan (#Fight) protest in Malaysia. The peaceful protest called for the resignation of the prime minister who was criticized for using the pandemic state of emergency to stay in power and undermine opposition forces. The harassment of #Lawan activists highlighted the intensifying crackdown on free expression under the government of Muhyiddin Yassin.

Muhyiddin resigned on 16 August. Human rights groups are urging the new government to reform repressive laws and uphold the people’s freedom of assembly and expression.

Threats force disbanding of teachers’ union and pro-democracy coalition

Hong Kong’s civic space continues to shrink with the disbandment of the city’s largest teachers’ union and pro-democracy coalition.

After 48 years of serving the public, the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union (HKPTU) announced its disbandment on 10 August. Chinese state media outlets have been accusing HKPTU of radicalizing students and inflaming anti-China sentiment. Some Hong Kong authorities even threatened to probe the activities of HKPTU that allegedly endanger national security.

Five days later, the pro-democracy citizen coalition Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF) announced its disbandment after it was labeled as an illegal organization by the government. Since 2002, CHRF has been organizing protests in coordination with the police. It mobilized at least two million people in 2019 against the proposed amendment to the extradition law. The passage of China’s National Security Law in June 2020 has made it difficult for CHRF to maintain its work. Its activities have been prohibited and some of its leaders were detained for organizing pro-democracy protests.

After the dissolution of HKPTU and CHRF, many are worried that other professional groups such as lawyers and journalists will be targeted as well.

‘Fake news’ regulations in Thailand and South Korea

South Korea’s ruling party has introduced an amendment to the Press Arbitration Act that would penalize the spread of disinformation. The bill defines ‘false or manipulated reporting’ as ‘the act of reporting or mediating false information or information manipulated to be believed as facts.’ Critics said the vague meaning could be used to stifle free speech. In addition, media outlets accused of posting ‘false reporting’ have to prove that this was unintentional. The penalty for violating the law is also five times greater than the actual damage. Media groups said this could force journalists to self-censor and affect coverage of next year’s election.

Bombarded with criticisms about its handling of the pandemic, the Thailand government issued a regulation banning the spread of disinformation that could cause a misunderstanding during an emergency. This was immediately condemned as an act intended to silence critics of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former army chief who grabbed power through a coup in 2014. Six media groups, including IFEX member the Thai Journalists Association, issued a statement expressing concern about the new measure.

“The rights to information and expression cannot be infringed, especially during the ongoing crisis of the pandemic.”

A Thai court ordered the suspension of the regulation on 6 August for breaching individual rights and freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution. On 9 August, the Prayuth government revoked the law in response to the court order.

Women journalists facing persecution: Rozina Islam, Maria Ressa, Cheng Lei

On 17 May, a journalist who wrote investigative pieces on the pandemic response of Bangladesh was arrested on espionage charges filed by the health ministry. Rozina Islam was released on bail, but authorities continued to harass her by confiscating her press card and passport. It was reported this month that the Bangladesh Financial Intelligence Unit has asked local banks to provide detailed statements of all her transactions. Media groups say this is another form of intimidation against the journalist.

Another cyber libel charge against Filipino-American journalist Maria Ressa was dismissed after the complainant withdrew his case. But Ressa continues to face six other charges, all filed under the Philippine government of President Rodrigo Duterte.

The #HoldTheLine Coalition, of which IFEX is a member, has released a statement regarding this update:

“We call for the remaining charges against Ressa and Rappler to be dropped without further delay, and other forms of pressure against them immediately ceased.”

At least 50 journalists and media groups in Australia have signed a letter urging the Chinese government to release Australian journalist Cheng Lei. She was arrested on 13 August 2020 in China on the “suspicion of illegally supplying state secrets overseas.” After a year of detaining Cheng Lei, Chinese authorities have yet to present evidence against the journalist. This prompted former colleagues of the journalist in Australia to draft an open letter to Beijing calling for her release.

New and noteworthy

The passage of the Sindh Protection of Journalists and Other Media Practitioners Act 2021 is a landmark piece of legislation in Pakistan. For the latest in IFEX’s series of Campaign Snapshots, we talked to Owais Aslam Ali, secretary general of IFEX member the Pakistan Press Foundation, who shared lessons from their legislative campaign.

“The main takeaway from the process has been to remain focused on the goal and working with as many partners as needed to ensure that such drafts turn into actual law. The recommendations put forth by other stakeholders are what resulted in a much improved bill for the provincial level. It was by lobbying with government members that the idea of a Sindh level bill came about.”

In a statement published in August, Mizzima founder and editor-in-chief Soe Myint looks back at the past 23 years and the impact of the February 2021 coup on their role as journalists working for an independent media in Myanmar.

“Free media and democracy always go together, just like the ‘head and tail’ of a coin. Free media and democracy are codependent on each other… [T]he lack of free media in Myanmar is a challenge for its democratic pathway, and the lack of democracy is a challenge for us as media people.”

The Centre for Independent Journalism’s 2020 report, now out, provides an overview of the challenges it faced promoting free expression during a tumultuous year that saw the rise of a new government in Malaysia and the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Globe International Center has also released its 2020 media freedom report, which notes that “legal changes made in light of the pandemic are being misused against citizens” in Mongolia. The organization monitored around 80 violations of civil and political rights between 25 November 2020 and 25 February 2021. It also reported that more than half of the 300 journalists who participated in a survey believe that media freedom has deteriorated in the country.

And lastly, the Maldives Journalists Association and the International Federation of Journalists have prepared a report entitled Chasing Justice”, which looks into violence and threats faced by Maldivian journalists and the persistence of impunity.

Originally published at https://ifex.org on August 31, 2021.

IFEX is a global network of organisations that defend and promote the right to freedom of expression and information. Email: info@ifex.org

IFEX is a global network of organisations that defend and promote the right to freedom of expression and information. Email: info@ifex.org