Repression and resistance in Asia: ‘Freedom will always win’

IFEX
7 min readJul 3, 2023

June 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.

Wall Street Journal reporter Sabrina Siddiqui asks a question to U.S. President Joe Biden during a joint press conference alongside Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the White House in Washington, DC., 22 June 2023. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Repressive laws and policies target journalists, poets, rappers, and comedians across Asia. The decline of media freedom in India was highlighted during the United States visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. There were several legal victories in Hong Kong and Australia while local protests erupted in China. New platforms promoting the right to information were launched in Southeast Asia.

Spotlight on India: Internet shutdowns, trolling, and digital rights

Human Rights Watch and the Internet Freedom Foundation have released a report detailing the extent and impact of internet shutdowns across India. It identifies 127 shutdown events over the past three years, including the blocking of 4G mobile internet access in Jammu and Kashmir for 550 days.

Authorities say that the intention is to quell violent protests, prevent cheating in school examinations, curb communal violence, and address law and order concerns, but the report reveals that restricting the internet has proven to be ineffective in times of political unrest, while depriving millions of access to vital online services.

A 35-year-old Dalit woman is quoted in the report, speaking about the difficulties she faced during internet disruptions.

“When the internet is shut down, I have no work, do not get paid, cannot withdraw any money from my account, and cannot even get food rations.”

Media groups highlighted the decline of press freedom in India during the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the United States. CPJ summarized the threats faced by journalists in India:

  • The ongoing detention of six journalists
  • The harassment of the domestic and foreign media
  • The media crackdown in Kashmir
  • Ongoing impunity in cases of killed journalists
  • Digital media restrictions

After asking Modi about human rights concerns during a press conference at the White House, journalist Sabrina Siddiqui was trolled and harassed by government supporters — confirming the growing intolerance for critical and independent reporting in India that media watchdogs are calling out.

In a series of analytical pieces, IFEX member SFLC.in has reviewed recent court rulings and government policies on freedom of speech, data protection, the linking of the Aadhaar biometric data with voter ID, consumer rights, and the rampant misuse of Rule 16 of the IT Rules 2021 which empower authorities to restrict online content.

Censorship and crackdown in Macau and Hong Kong

Macau’s expanded national security law, which covers “any individual” — regardless of nationality — suspected of undermining China’s national security, is now in effect.

The crimes of “subversion” and “secession” now include non-violent acts, “sedition” includes “acts that incite participation in riots”, and “theft of state secrets” has become “violation of state secrets”. Reporters Without Borders say that the expansion of its scope “makes it the perfect tool for the government to intimidate, and possibly detain, the journalists they dislike.”

The concern has basis, especially after the passage of similar legislation led to the dismantling of civic space in Hong Kong over the past three years. This is reflected in the intensified crackdown and harassment ahead of the anniversary of the 4 June 1989 Tiananmen massacre. Veteran journalist Mak Yin-ting, the former chair of IFEX member Hong Kong Journalists Association, was briefly detained in police custody while reporting on the anniversary.

Even the unofficial pro-democracy protest anthem “Glory to Hong Kong” has disappeared from multiple streaming platforms after the government petitioned the court to ban the distribution of the melody, lyrics, and any adaptations of the song. In response, around 24 global civil society groups have sent a letter to tech companies urging them to “take a collective stance against Hong Kong’s censorship.” The groups warned that the ban “would have a disastrous impact on the rights to freedom of expression and access to information not only in Hong Kong, but globally.”

‘Freedom will always win’

Despite China’s sustained and systematic suppression, June saw legal pushbacks and acts of solidarity in defense of the public’s freedom of expression.

Hong Kong’s highest court overturned the conviction of journalist Choy Yuk-ling, also known as Bao Choy, on charges of giving false statements while researching the public registry of vehicles during the 2020 protests. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) welcomed the ruling as it asserted that “no journalists should be criminally charged, let alone convicted, for their reporting.”

Bao Choy was subdued in celebrating her legal victory:

“I won in the sense of social justice. Yet we’re very clear that even with the top court’s ruling, the government can do anything to change the game. It is not a long-lasting victory.”

In mainland China, citizens were able to organize protests based on the latest report of the China Dissent Monitor, a project of IFEX member Freedom House. The report recorded 2,230 instances of protest between June 2022 and April 2023, mostly about labor and housing issues. In an interview with Global Voices, Kevin Slaten, who is a program manager for Asia at Freedom House, highlighted the decentralized character of the protests. “We notice the occurrence of non-centralized movements. Here symbolism plays a key role: people connect mostly simply by observing and modelling, without necessarily having direct communication. Borrowing slogans and expressing solidarity is often enough to inspire dissent.”

Meanwhile, the European Parliament has approved a resolution urging the Hong Kong government to release Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai, who is in detention and facing several cases related to National Security Laws. The resolution also called on authorities “to stop impeding the work of all journalists,” as well as to repeal the National Security Law.

In Poland, the Chinese Embassy tried to cancel an exhibition of the work of dissident Chinese-Australian artist Badiucao, arguing that it is “an attack against the image of China and Chinese leaders” and hurtful to “Chinese people’s feelings.” Titled “Tell China’s Story Well”, the exhibition makes reference to the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, the forced cultural assimilation of the Uyghurs, and the crackdown on protest in Hong Kong. Michael Caster of ARTICLE 19 Asia Programme said that “Chinese officials are trying to suppress Badiucao because they fear the power of truth in his art.” Badiucao tweeted that “freedom will always win.”

A win for Aussie media

An Australian court has dismissed the defamation case filed by former soldier Ben Roberts-Smith against three newspapers that reported on alleged war crimes committed by Australian forces in Afghanistan. The ruling pointed out that the newspapers “established substantial or contextual truth of allegations of murders of unarmed civilians in Afghanistan”.

IFEX member Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance said the verdict in favour of journalists “is an important affirmation of the role of journalism to investigate and report on serious matters of public interest.” But it also noted how the country’s defamation law “has inherent deficiencies” which undermine the work of investigative journalism.

Artists under attack

In Afghanistan, poet and artist Haseeb Ahrari, known for his poems on freedom and patriotism, was arrested in Kabul after his arrival from Iran. This follows the recent detention of journalists, academics, and educators accused of defying Taliban’s restrictive policies. Ma Thida, chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, has condemned the arrest of Ahrari. “In a country with such a rich literary tradition, where poets are cherished by Afghans of all ages, Ahrari’s arrest is a tragic example of how the Taliban’s rule by repression threatens to undermine Afghanistan’s cultural heritage.”

Popular Myanmar rapper and hip-hop artist Byu Har was arrested after posting a video on Facebook complaining against frequent power blackouts while pointing out that the civilian government ousted by the junta was more efficient in delivering services. Mizzima News quoted a fan of the singer who lamented that “in our country people are not allowed to speak the truth.”

In Sri Lanka, stand-up comedian and youth activist Nathasha Edirisooriya was arrested based on incitement allegations about her remarks on the Lord Buddha and Buddhist Girl’s Schools during a comedy show. Human rights advocates criticized authorities for criminalizing a joke that didn’t propagate any religious hatred, and pointed out how the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Act has been repeatedly misused to silence activists.

New and noteworthy

Cambodia: The Cambodian Center for Independent Media has launched a website called Kamnotra (The Record) which consolidates public data to be more accessible, summarizes government orders, and documents land disputes. The initiative addresses the public need for reliable information after the recent forced closure of independent news outlets and the attack on civic spaces in the country.

Mongolia: Globe International Center has released a survey about journalist safety and challenges faced by the media. Respondents shared the difficulty of obtaining information and the psychological pressure they experience while doing their work. With regard to policy reforms, the survey result cited the need to improve the country’s legal environment and provide wage increase for media workers.

Southeast Asia: Free Press Unlimited has partnered with seven media groups in Southeast Asia in launching a joint platform to monitor attacks on press freedom in the region. Annelies Langelaar explained the importance of this collaboration. “This platform is a great tool for documenting the current situation regarding violence against journalists in Southeast Asia, and can be used to advocate for change and also to hopefully prevent extreme cases such as killings.”

Originally published at https://ifex.org on July 3, 2023.

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