August 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.
Taliban marks its second year in power amid worsening repression targeting women and media, Pakistan adopts several laws designed to enable broader censorship and social media control, and an Australian journalist pens a ‘love letter’ from a Chinese prison.
Two years of Taliban rule
August marked two years since the Taliban regained power in Afghanistan. In that time, half of the country’s media outlets have ceased operating, and women faced increased systematic discrimination.
On 15 August, the anniversary of the takeover, IFEX member Afghanistan Journalists Center (AFJC) released a report that documented 366 incidents of press freedom violations during that time. In an interview with the IFEX Secretariat, AFJC shared some of the impacts on journalists.
“Journalists have adjusted their reporting style, using more cautious language and adopting subtle forms of criticism or indirect storytelling to convey important information while avoiding overt confrontation with the authorities. Some journalists have chosen to continue reporting clandestinely by operating underground or from exile.”
Several IFEX members marked the anniversary by highlighting the humanitarian crisis in the country and the role of the international community in demanding accountability from the Taliban.
- Human Rights Watch researcher Fereshta Abbasi denounced the misogynist policies of the Taliban. “Their policies and restrictions not only harm Afghan women who are activists and rights defenders but ordinary women seeking to live a normal life.”
- The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called for stronger political pressure. “The global community and international organizations should use political and diplomatic influence — including travel bans and targeted sanctions — to pressure the Taliban to end their media repression and allow journalists to freely report without fear of reprisal.”
- Reporters Without Borders (RSF) endorsed the work of exiled Afghan media, especially women journalists who continue to report on the situation in their communities. “A media born from almost nothing, from the refusal of a handful of Afghan women to let their thoughts be dictated, who wanted to tell the world what is really going on… And who have succeeded, despite two years of repression, in making journalism the most effective weapon against censorship and obscurantism.”
- In a joint statement, several civil society groups urged the International Criminal Court to “address all patterns of underlying criminality by all parties to armed conflicts in Afghanistan, including crimes allegedly committed by the Taliban against women and children, in line with the court’s Policy on the Crime of Gender Persecution and Policy on Children.”
- Global Voices interviewed an Afghan musician about the impact of the Taliban’s restriction on music. “They transformed it into a quiet, dumb country. Music and art are in an extremely terrible condition. It is very difficult to live in Afghanistan as a musician right now since the Taliban transformed the country into a prison for musicians.”
- Index on Censorship reported that more than 3,000 artists have sought assistance to be relocated. “In these testing times, the international community must not forget Afghan musicians and artists. While providing humanitarian aid and evacuation to all vulnerable populations, there is a dire need to extend support to the artistic community as well.”
Pakistan: Groups win some concessions, but new laws threaten free speech
The Pakistan parliament was dissolved in August, but not before it managed to pass several bills, which could be used to harass the media and opposition ahead of the coming crucial election. Various stakeholders pointed out that the government failed to adequately consult the public in drafting these bills.
The new measures included the following:
• The Pakistan Army Act (Amendment) Bill, which could criminalize the sharing of information deemed detrimental to national security;
• Amendments to Official Secrets Act (1923), which gives broad powers to intelligence agencies;
• Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill 2023;
• Amendment to Section 298-A of the Pakistan Penal Code, which broadens the penalty for blasphemy; and
• Amendments to the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) Act.
IFEX member Pakistan Press Foundation argued that the PEMRA amendment contains provisions criminalising the broadcast of disinformation that are dangerous to press freedom. It insisted that “the media should be given room for self-regulation rather than imposing more state-mandated guidelines.” The subsequent withdrawal of the amendment was welcomed, but a few days later it was passed by parliament. The new law contains amendments intended to ensure protection of media workers, but overall it could still intensify censorship.
In July, Pakistan’s Cabinet adopted the E-Safety Bill 2023 and the Personal Data Protection Bill 2023. IFEX member Digital Rights Foundation noted that the data protection bill “raises questions regarding data localisation requirements and the independence of the proposed Commission”.
IFEX member Bytes for All warned that the E-Safety bill could enable draconian state control of social media.
“Rather than solely protecting the fundamental rights and interests of users, the Bill empowers the State to gain control over the social media networks and exercise rigorous regulation. The purported protection of fundamental rights is a mere facade, serving as a pretext for the State to control social media platforms.”
Letter from a Chinese prison
Australian journalist Cheng Lei penned a “love letter” addressed to fellow Aussies as she marked her third year in detention in a Chinese prison. The former news anchor of the state-run China Global Television Network is facing espionage charges. She wrote about her prison conditions.
“I miss the sun. In my cell, the sunlight shines through the window but I can stand in it for only 10 hours a year.
“Every year the bedding is taken into the sun for two hours to air. When it came back last time, I wrapped myself in the doona and pretended I was being hugged by my family under the sun.”
RSF noted that three other foreign media personnel are detained in China: Swedish publisher Gui Minhai, Taiwanese publisher and radio host Li Yanhe, and British media publisher Jimmy Lai.
Blocked news websites
Malaysian news portals UtusanTV and MalaysiaNow were blocked by authorities ahead of state elections on 12 August. Authorities did not confirm the blocking, but the UtusanTV website displayed this notification: “This website is not available in Malaysia as it violates the National Law”. Civil society network Bersih warned against the negative repercussions of silencing voices during a divisive electoral race. “If the crackdown is deemed driven by partisan calculation, the suppressed voices will only grow stronger in under-currents, posing a greater danger to inclusion and stability.”
India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology blocked the website and social media accounts of the Kashmir Walla. This is the latest attack against the independent media outlet whose founding editor has been in detention over the past 18 months on terrorism charges. The Kashmir Walla described the government’s actions as “opaque censorship” and “gut-wrenching.”
Indian authorities also blocked the website of Gaon Savera, another independent news publication, which has been covering the ongoing farmers’ protests in Punjab and Haryana. CPJ said that the arbitrary banning of independent news sites “marks a disturbing new trend of censorship in India.”
In Myanmar, detained former leader Aung San Suu Kyi was given a partial pardon by the military regime in a move widely seen as an attempt to ease international pressure and divide the opposition. The pardon was an empty gesture, since Suu Kyi continues to face numerous cases aside from being convicted on trumped up charges.
In Hong Kong, seven pro-democracy activists, including media publisher Jimmy Lai, were cleared by a court of organising a massive protest in 2019. However, their previous conviction regarding their participation in the protest was affirmed. In the case of Lai, he remains in detention pending the resolution of his sedition trial and other national security charges.
In Bangladesh, the government announced that it will replace the Digital Security Act (DSA) with a cyber security law. The DSA is often used by authorities to intimidate the press and state critics. Despite the commitment to replace the DSA, authorities recently used it to conduct a probe on journalist Adhora Yeasmean. In a letter sent to the Bangladesh government, IFEX joined several groups in urging the dismissal of the investigation against the journalist; and stressed instead, that authorities should work with local stakeholders in drafting legislation that aligns with international human rights standards.