September strikes: Climate actions, student protests, and landmark court rulings
September in Asia-Pacific: A roundup of key free expression news from Regional Editor Mong Palatino, based on IFEX member reports.
Young protesters in Hong Kong and Indonesia
Protest is both a right in itself, as a form of expression, and an essential tool in the defense of other rights. Young activists have been taking the lead in massive protests across the region.
Thousands of Indonesian students have been marching in the streets since 24 September to oppose the passage of a draft criminal code that threatens to undermine the civil liberties of minorities as well as the right to freedom of expression and association. What is highlighted in most media reports is the public outcry over proposals to criminalize sex outside marriage, penalising those who insult the president’s honor, and the revision of the governance structure of the Corruption Eradication Commission. But student groups have listed other demands such as banning military personnel from holding civilian posts, ending militarism in Papua, punishing corporations responsible for the burning of forests in Borneo and Sumatra, and addressing impunity by prosecuting human rights violators. The protests led to intense clashes with the police which injured journalists and killed two student activists. The parliament has agreed to delay the deliberation of the controversial criminal code while students have vowed to continue mobilising until their demands are met. Some observers have noted that the recent rallies were similar in size to the protests that toppled the dictator Suharto in 1998.
In Hong Kong, the start of a new school semester didn’t dampen student involvement in street protests. In fact, even high school students boycotted their classes and joined protests calling for the protection of democracy. The Hong Kong government has already announced the withdrawal of the extradition law amendments bill which sparked the protests in June but the demands now include universal suffrage and other political reforms. As the crisis continues to escalate, various groups have signed a statement calling on the government to probe the attacks mostly by the police against journalists who are covering the protests.
Several actions were organised across Asia-Pacific from 20 to 27 September in support of the Global Climate Strike. Like in other parts of the world, the climate strikes in the region featured the active participation and leadership of thousands of young people who linked pressing environmental issues in their respective countries such as haze pollution, dependence on fossil fuels, and watershed degradation caused by open-pit mining operations to the global warming crisis.
Focus on gender: Women in the frontlines of protest
Check out this Twitter thread which highlights the role of women in the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. “While HK govt’s depiction of women in the movement has reeked of misogyny — they can only be mothers, sluts or virgins — HK art shows a fuller spectrum of womanhood and what female righteous anger looks like.”
Landmark court decisions in Pakistan and India
A Kerala court in India has ruled that “the right to have access to the internet becomes part of the right to education as well as the right to privacy under Article 2l of the Constitution”. This refers to a petition filed by a student complaining about a college hostel banning the use of phones and the internet for several hours in the evening. Intervening in the case, IFEX member SFLC.in argued that the policy and the confiscation of phones hampered the students’ ability to access and use digital resources to learn and communicate. SFLC.in lauded the court decision which has a ‘significant bearing on promoting innovation and open access to knowledge and civil liberties for citizens in the digital world.’
The Islamabad High Court in Pakistan has ruled that the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) violated the Constitution when it blocked websites, social media platforms, and news channels “without following due process, the principles of transparency, and oversight”. The case was filed by IFEX member Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD) after PTA blocked the websites based on its interpretation of section 37 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act. MMfD has 11 more pending petitions, including one in the Supreme Court challenging network shutdowns and online defamation.
In Thailand, Bangkok’s Criminal Court has acquitted six pro-democracy activists who were charged with illegal assembly and sedition for protesting in 2018. Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the verdict is important for protecting free expression and can have a positive impact on similar cases involving other critics of the military-backed government.
In Nepal, the Kathmandu District Court has acquitted journalist Gaurav Khanal who was wrongly accused of publishing ‘fake news’ and charged under the Electronic Transaction Act. Khanal is the sub-editor of onlineaawaj.com.
Afghan journalist Abdulhamid Hotaki from Hiwad radio station was killed in an explosion near a presidential election campaign activity in Southern Kandahar city. Abdulhamid is the seventh journalist to be killed in 2019 in Afghanistan.
Mirza Waseem Baig, a reporter for the 92 News TV channel, was gunned down in the state of Punjab after publishing reports that exposed the criminal activities of a local gang. Another journalist in Punjab, Zafar Abbas, was found murdered at the bottom of a well on 11 September. RSF said at least three other journalists in eastern Pakistan have been murdered in connection with their work in 2019.
Arsonists attacked the printing press of Abante News Group, which publishes some of the leading daily tabloids in the Philippines. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said the arson attack was unprecedented in the country’s media history.
Meanwhile, a group affiliated with state forces burned copies of Pinoy Weekly, an alternative print magazine that focuses on community issues in the Philippines. The incident is decried as a press freedom violation and another example of how red-baiting heightens the risk for local journalists.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is suing The Online Citizen over an article that tackled the leader’s public feud with his siblings. Critics say this is another example of the government’s harsh treatment of dissenters and independent media.
Bangladesh authorities responded to the large protest of Rohingya refugees by cutting off communications, increasing military presence, and restricting the movement of individuals in the camps. This has affected the delivery of relief and heightened tension in the refugee centers.
The Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation has been placed under the control of the Defence Ministry. Media groups said this action by the country’s president threatens the independence of the state-run TV broadcaster ahead of the coming elections.
With support from media groups and IFEX member Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, the National Aboriginal Press Club was launched in Australia. Senator Patrick Dodson gave the inaugural address: “Mainstream media really need to come to a better understanding of indigenous cultures and their rich histories. They need to appreciate that indigenous voices are valid and alternative.”
New and noteworthy
Freedom Forum has a new media mission report focusing on the situation of Karnali Province in Nepal. The report noted the trend of “self-censorship, misuse of political power to sway media and the spread of misinformation”.
The MMfD has launched a guidebook to help journalists in Pakistan attain a basic understanding of the laws that criminalize and regulate expression.
And finally, read the IFEX series on regional experiences with the global problem of information disorder, and what people are doing to counter it. Our Asia-Pacific article considers the effectiveness and unintended consequences of the most popular responses to the problem of disinformation in the region.
Originally published at https://ifex.org on October 1, 2019.