Terror, cyber libel, and resisting internet shutdowns from Rakhine to Papua
June in Asia-Pacific: A free expression roundup produced by IFEX’s regional editor Mong Palatino, based on IFEX member reports and news from the region.
Myanmar continues to restrict the internet in Rakhine and Chin States amid growing civil society opposition. Meanwhile, an Indonesian court has declared the internet throttling in West Papua as unlawful. The Philippines clamps down on free speech after it convicted journalist Maria Ressa for cyber libel, while the government is readying the passage of a draconian Terror Law.
Myanmar’s longest internet shutdown enters second year
One year has passed but mobile internet networks are still restricted in at least eight townships in Myanmar’s Rakhine and Chin States. An estimated 1.4 million people are cut-off from the internet which means they are unable to access vital information about the escalating conflict in the region and the coronavirus pandemic.
The government insisted that blocking the internet is necessary to prevent armed groups from launching attacks in the area. It added that the internet ban will stay until 1 August.
But human rights groups said that the unprecedented internet shutdown has adversely affected the lives of residents and undermined efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19. It could also have a bearing on the November elections by depriving voters of the opportunity to engage in a meaningful exchange of political views.
Civil society groups marked the first year of the internet shutdown by unveiling banners, holding protests, and organizing webinars. The police have filed a case against 6 individuals who joined the protest in Yangon.
Cyber libel and Terror Bill in the Philippines
The cyber libel conviction of Rappler news website CEO Maria Ressa and researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr signified the further deterioration of press freedom in the Philippines under the government of Rodrigo Duterte. The guilty verdict was handed out a month after the shutdown of ABS-CBN, a major TV and radio broadcaster. Since coming to power in 2016, Duterte has been consistent in attacking Rappler and ABS-CBN.
Rappler said “the decision marks not the rule of law, but the rule of law twisted to suit the interests of those in power.”
Several IFEX members have issued statements deploring the verdict.
Rachael Jolley, editor-in-chief of Index on Censorship, linked Rappler’s case to a disturbing trend in many countries where the work of media is increasingly being stifled by intolerant regimes.
“This is not just about one journalist in one place, this has significance for journalism everywhere as part of a trend where we see reporters put under enormous pressures to stop covering stories.”
Another major threat to free speech is the looming passage of an Anti-Terror Law which is widely criticized for containing provisions that could be easily used to silence dissenting voices. Media groups and several journalists have signed a statement opposing the bill.
“It is a law so draconian and prone to abuse it could cancel out not just press freedom and freedom of expression, but practically all the protections our Bill of Rights guarantees us. Under this law, we all face the risk of being tagged terrorists for simply exercising our rights and speaking out against wrong.”
Indian journalists charged for COVID-19 reporting
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) recorded 15 cases of police and judicial harassment of Indian journalists in the month of May in connection with their coverage of COVID-19 and the government’s response to the public health crisis.
Since the lockdown imposition in March, a New Delhi based independent think-tank documented 22 First Information Reports (FIR) filed against media workers.
A recent case involved Supriya Sharma, executive editor of the Scroll.in news website, who was charged for alleged defamation and negligence that could spread the coronavirus.
The complaint was filed after she wrote about the impact of the lockdown on the poor in the adopted constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Scroll.in described the case as an attempt to “intimidate and silence independent journalism.”
Papua and West Papua internet throttling declared illegal
The Jakarta State Administrative Court ruled in early June that the internet throttling enforced by the Indonesia government in Papua and West Papua provinces from 21 August to 4 September in 2019 was illegal.
The restriction was imposed during the rise of anti-racism protests which was ignited by the arrest and alleged discrimination against Papuan students in east Java. The government said it was forced to curb internet connections to preserve law and order.
A Press Freedom Defender Team, which includes IFEX member Aliansi Jurnalis Independen (AJI), filed a case against the internet throttling in November 2019.
The court ruled that the government failed to establish that a state of emergency existed which would require the disruption of the internet. It also mentioned that the Electronic Information and Transactions Law “only applies to electronic information and or electronic documents with unlawful content and does not warrant termination of internet access.”
AJI and other petitioners welcomed the ruling and emphasized its importance as a reference to challenge future actions of the government related to internet shutdowns.
Malaysia: ‘100 days of intensified silencing’
Media and human rights groups have expressed alarm over the surge in cases filed against journalists, bloggers, civil society leaders and critics of Malaysia’s new government.
After it took power in March, the government of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has been accused of using laws such as the Communications and Multimedia Act and other repressive sections of the Penal code to harass the media, intimidate opposition, and silence online critics.
39 civil society groups signed a statement condemning ‘100 days of intensified silencing’ under the new government. They made this urgent appeal:
“End and refrain from the continued use of these intimidating measures and repressive laws to threaten and silence those exercising their fundamental human rights and speaking on behalf of the public and those marginalised in these very trying times and halt all ongoing investigations.”
Globe International Center has released its latest state of media freedom report in Mongolia. Based on its survey, it recorded a total of 274 violations of the professional rights of journalists.
Media and civil society leaders in Timor-Leste have expressed concern about the possible reintroduction of a criminal defamation law in the country. Timor-Leste Press Union accused the government of trying to silence critics:
The government is trying to use a national emergency opportunity to endorse this bill with the aim of punishing those who berate leaders and politicians, but in our opinion this is to criminalize journalists and all citizens (who) criticize the government.
Journalists wrote a letter to the Afghanistan government about their objections to the proposed amendment in the media law which expands the list of items prohibited from publication, in addition to removing a provision that allows journalists to avoid disclosing information about their sources.
Journalists were barred from entering the main campus of the University of the South Pacific in Fiji where protests have been organized against alleged financial irregularities. Pacific Freedom Forum Polynesia co-chair Monica Miller asked why a university with a journalism school showed it cannot handle journalistic scrutiny.
The Pacific Islands News Association wrote a letter urging Cook Islands authorities not to ban journalist Rashneel Kumar from covering the parliament after his report on travel perks was criticized by Members of Parliament.
Focus on gender
The Cambodian Center for Independent Media presented the winning entries in the short video competition themed “Gender Equality for the Next Generation”. It is part of the group’s advocacy action to fight against the stereotypes that disempower women in Cambodian society.
Pakistan’s Digital Rights Foundation has released the first edition of its feminist e-magazine Digital5050. It contains stories about the impact of COVID-19 on women and girls. Noteworthy to mention are the articles about women journalists and freelancers coping with the pandemic and the frontline workers addressing mental health issues.