August 2022 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.
The Taliban’s extreme policies over the past year have severely undermined the rights of women in Afghanistan, the military continues to attack journalists in Pakistan, and a “significant milestone” in Singapore after the government announces it will repeal an archaic law criminalizing gay sex.
“The most serious women’s rights crisis in the world”
A year of Taliban rule in Afghanistan led to a drastic dismantling of civic space that has gravely affected journalists, women, and human rights defenders.
A survey by the Afghanistan Journalists Center (AFJC) shows that almost half of the media outlets in the country have stopped operating, and those that remain are struggling to survive. 600 media companies have closed down, putting 60 percent of journalists out of work. The situation is even worse for women journalists, almost 80 percent of whom are no longer working in the country. AFJC recorded 245 cases of violations against media freedom over the past year, including 130 cases of short-term detentions of journalists.
Hundreds of journalists were forced to flee the country as the Taliban imposed harsh restrictions on the media. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) assisted at least 202 Afghan journalists to escape danger and implemented measures to provide them with emergency administrative and financial assistance.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) produced special coverage on Afghanistan’s media crisis, which featured recommendations on upholding media freedom and highlighted the many ways local journalists are overcoming new challenges and greater difficulties in carrying out their work.
During its oral intervention at the 50th Session of the UN Human Rights Council, Human Rights Watch (HRW) described the situation in Afghanistan as “the most serious women’s rights crisis in the world.” After regaining power, the Taliban enforced a ban on secondary education for girls, in addition to reducing women’s access to employment and other services. Women also cannot leave their homes without a male family member chaperone [ mahram]. HRW summed up the rights denied to women in the country:
“…education is not the only right under attack. It’s access to employment, to health care, the right to live free from violence, to be represented politically, to protest, to raise your voice, to play sports or music. It’s the right to leave your home and move freely — a right without which other rights are hard to enjoy.”
Freedom House is concerned about the plight of human rights defenders who are either hiding in remote locations or unable to safely work in the country. Tens of thousands are still waiting for their special visas to be processed by international institutions. Meanwhile, the country’s independent human rights commission was dissolved, and offices of many NGOs are being subjected to arbitrary searches, threats, and retaliatory attacks.
The IFEX Twitter thread below provides an overview of Afghanistan’s situation under Taliban rule, and concrete steps the international community can take to protect the country’s vulnerable populations.
Pakistan: Continuing harassment and attacks against the media
The Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) continues to document disturbing incidents of harassment and state-directed attacks targeting journalists and the local media in the country.
- Photojournalist Faisal Khan was injured after he was assaulted by police during a protest of teachers and clerks in Rawalpindi on 4 August.
- Ammad Yousaf, the news director of ARY News, was arrested on 10 August. The popular channel was also suspended by the government for allegedly broadcasting seditious and illegal content.
- Newsone anchorperson Gharidah Farooqi became a target of a malicious misogynist viral hashtag on Twitter on 18 August. The attack is believed to have been instigated by supporters of the former ruling party, Pakistan Tehreek e-Insaf.
- Bol TV anchorperson Jameel Farooqi was arrested on 22 August for allegedly making a false report against the police.
- A blasphemy case was registered against Geo News correspondent Waqqar Satti on 27 August for allegedly attributing disrespectful statements to former Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Despite the pledge of the new government — led by Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz — to uphold press freedom, attacks against the media persist. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority continues to direct TV operators to stop broadcasts of programs it deems a threat to the government. For instance, the live speech of former Prime Minister Imran Khan was blocked on TV channels on 21 August. The speech was also suddenly inaccessible on YouTube. PPF characterized the disruption as digital censorship, which deprives the public of vital information.
Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, points to the role of the powerful military in orchestrating some of the attacks against critical reporters.
“Although the current government must be held responsible for the latest attacks against the media, it is the military that intervenes behind the scenes to bring Pakistan’s journalists to heel.”
Celebrating victories and advancing LGBTQI+ rights
Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced at a National Day Rally that his government will repeal Section 377A of the criminal code, a colonial-era law used to criminalize sex between men. LGBTQI+ groups in Singapore, which had been pushing for the repeal of this section in the penal code, described it as a “triumph of love over fear.” The groups added that it is a “significant milestone and a powerful statement that state-sanctioned discrimination has no place in Singapore.” However, they expressed disappointment that the government also intends to amend the Constitution in order to enshrine the definition of heterosexual marriage. They warned that this will “codify further discrimination into supreme law and tie the hands of future Parliaments.”
In Vietnam, the Health Ministry issued a directive to medical centres confirming that homosexuality, bisexuality, and being transgender should not be treated as mental health conditions that need to be cured or converted. It also instructed health facilities to ensure gender equality and to avoid discrimination against LGBTQI+ patients.
In Malaysia, a new report by HRW and Justice for Sisters, “ ‘I Don’t Want to Change Myself’: Anti-LGBT Conversion Practices, Discrimination, and Violence in Malaysia,” documents state-funded programs that seek to “rehabilitate” ( Mukhayyam) and “cure” LGBTQI+ individuals. The report urges lawmakers to “take steps to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, allow transgender people to update their identity documents, and address bullying against LGBT students and other vulnerable groups in schools.”
Noting the surge of online violence in Pakistan, Digital Rights Foundation condemns the harmful narratives that spread hate against the transgender community. Aside from calling the attention of authorities and tech platforms, it reiterated that its cyber helpline is open to trans people who encounter abuse in digital spaces.
New reports and initiatives on India
Digital Defenders Network. IFEX member SFLC.in has initiated the formation of Digital Defenders Network, an online network of lawyers, academicians, and policy experts committed to defending digital rights. The first group of defenders are 25 lawyers from across the country who will act as local points of contact for leading digital rights’ litigation. SFLC.in founder Mishi Choudhary explains the importance of this new network:
Unfreedom Monitor. In its Unfreedom Monitor Report, which looks into the various manifestations of digital authoritarianism, Global Voices Advox highlights the alarming slide of democracy in India. It summarizes the narratives used by the state to justify surveillance and censorship, the roll-out of vague laws and policies to block dissent, and the efforts of civil society groups to counter these repressive tools.
Pandemic of Control. A series of reports by EngageMedia released under the theme “Pandemic of Control” provides an overview of digital rights violations in the past two years in Asia. The India section was written by Preeti Raghunath, who notes that “the increase in data collection justified by the pandemic has led to a populist-protectionist form of digital authoritarianism.”