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Defiant cartoonists, detained foreign journalists, and 'recalcitrant' activists: December in Asia-Pacific

December was a tough month for free speech advocates across the Asia-pacific region: Several cartoonists faced state persecution, two Vietnamese bloggers received harsh prison terms, foreign journalists were detained in Kashmir and Burma, China remains the ‘world’s worst abuser of internet freedom’, and Singapore detained a ‘recalcitrant’ activist.

Burmese journalist Aung Naing Soe (L) and driver Hla Tin look out from a prison transport vehicle after being sentenced in November
Burmese journalist Aung Naing Soe (L) and driver Hla Tin look out from a prison transport vehicle after being sentenced in November

AUNG HTET/AFP/Getty Images

Defiant cartoonists: Eaten Fish, Assem Trivedi, and Zunar

After four brutal years in detention at the Manus Island refugee center in Papua New Guinea, award-winning cartoonist Eaten Fish was released and is now settled in a safe haven as a resident of ICORN (International Cities of Refuge Network).

The refugee center was set up by the Australian government to process the asylum application of boat refugees. Eaten Fish, whose real name is Ali Durani, exposed the suffering of refugees at Manus Island through his art. His was one of the voices that called the attention of the world to the disregard for civil liberties inside the camp.

Various global groups and networks including Cartoonists Rights Network International tirelessly campaigned for the freedom of Eaten Fish and other inmates of Manus Island. The campaign also demanded accountability from the Australian government for its degrading treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.

From his new home in Europe, Eaten Fish said he hopes for the immediate release of the remaining refugees at Manus and other offshore camps of Australia.

Meanwhile, in Uttar Pradesh, India, Assem Trivedi learned that the police filed a charge sheet against him based on cartoons he drew in 2012. Trivedi is accused of 'insulting national symbols' and mocking the Constitution through his anti-corruption cartoons.

The case was first tabled in 2012 and Trivedi was arrested for this. He was released on bail and the sedition charge was supposedly withdrawn by authorities.

But on November 12, 2017, he received a notice from the police and learned that the sedition charge sheet was filed against him.

Another cartoonist facing state intimidation is Malaysian political cartoonist Zunar who is still barred from travelling outside his country.

Several of Zunar's books have been banned by the government. He was recently summoned by the police, his phone was confiscated, and is now being investigated for violating the Communications & Multimedia Act.

Zunar's cartoons often depict the state of corruption and other scandals involving the country's top leaders. His supporters believe the travel ban is meant to silence and stop Zunar from speaking out against the abuses of the government.

Vietnam: Harsh prison terms for video journalist and blogger

A Vietnamese court sentenced video journalist Nguyen Van Hoa to seven years in prison for reporting on environmental protests. Meanwhile, another court decision upheld the 10-year prison sentence of activist blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, widely known as Me Nam or Mother Mushroom.

Hoa's reports featured the use of drones that documented the protests of villagers against a company responsible for the massive fish kill in central Vietnam.

Like Me Nam who was detained for merely reporting about human rights issues as a citizen journalist, Hoa was charged with "conducting propaganda against the state" under the infamous Article 88 of Vietnam's Penal Code.

The court decisions upholding long prison terms reflected the intensified persecution of bloggers and activists in Vietnam. In the case of Me Nam, her lawyer's license was revoked days before the trial, which was seen as another act of harassment against those who support the activities of so-called 'enemies of the state.'

All in all it has been a challenging year for human rights advocates in Vietnam. More than 25 activists have been arrested, charged in the courts, and exiled since January 2017.

China: World's worst abuser of internet freedom

For the third consecutive year, and perhaps unsurprisingly, China was named the "world's worst abuser of internet freedom" in the 2017 Freedom on the Net report published by Freedom House.

The report cited the implementation of new internet guidelines that mandated the real name registration system, greater social media censorship, additional licensing requirements for digital news gathering and distribution, and persecution of activists based on their online interactions.

Internet controls were expanded in time for the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party which was held last October 2017.

A report by a state news agency confirmed that the government has closed down at least 13,000 websites since 2015. Furthermore, almost 10 million accounts had been removed from social media. No details were released about these numbers, but it is likely that the government targeted websites and accounts perceived to be undermining social harmony and national security. Critics have pointed out that the state's censorship and surveillance tools have been used to violate the human rights and basic freedoms of Chinese netizens.

Detained foreign journalists

Several foreign journalists were arrested and attacked across the Asia-Pacific region. These cases illustrate the challenges faced by both local and foreign journalists in countries where doing journalism is often constrained by repressive laws and regulations.

In India's Jammu and Kashmir state, police arrested French documentary filmmaker Comiti Paul Edwards, who was working on a documentary about people injured by pellet guns. According to a news report, scores of protesters have been killed and thousands injured by the increasing use of pellet guns by the police during rallies. The police claimed Edwards' business visa did not permit him to make a political documentary.

In Burma, the government used colonial-era laws to detain journalists it accused of undermining national security.

In one case, a team of journalists working on a project for Turkish national broadcaster TRT World was arrested last October for flying a drone near the parliament building. Journalists Lau Hon Meng from Singapore and Mok Choy Lin from Malaysia and their Burmese colleague Aung Naing Soe were arrested for violating the 1934 Aircraft Law. Their arrest was denounced by media groups as 'disproportionately harsh' and 'arbitrary' since the police could have simply confiscated the drone. Furthermore, TRT World said that Burmese authorities were informed that their crew would use a camera drone for their reporting.

After more than two months in jail, the detained journalists and their Burmese colleague working for TRT World were released.

In the case of Reuters journalists U Thet Oo Maung (Wa Lone) and Moe Aung (Kyaw Soe Oo), the two were detained in Burma for allegedly violating the 1923 Official Secrets Act. According to the Ministry of Information, the two "illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media." The police said they retrieved copies of military reports and maps of Rakhine State from the two reporters.

What the police failed to mention was that the two Reuters journalists were simply doing their job by reporting about the situation of Rohingya refugees displaced by conflict. Instead of facilitating access to information, Burmese authorities chose to detain journalists who were investigating the truth about the Rohingya crisis.

In China, two South Korean photojournalists, Koh Young-Kwon, from Hankook Ilbo, and Lee Chung-Woo from Maeli Business News, were attacked by security guards at the China National Convention Centre in Beijing during the state visit of South Korean President Moon Jae-In. The attack was condemned by media groups and the South Korean government. The incident also raised concerns about the safety of foreign journalists working in China.

Singapore detains 'recalcitrant' activist

Singaporean activist Jolovan Wham was briefly detained by the police for organizing 'illegal assemblies' last June and July 2017 and an indoor forum in November 2016. The police accused Wham of being a 'recalcitrant' who has "repeatedly shown blatant disregard for the law."

Wham's case is a troubling indicator of Singapore's apparent intolerance of peaceful activism. Aside from strictly regulating the media and intimidating bloggers critical of the government, protest actions in Singapore are only allowed in a small corner of a public park. Even a one-person protest is already considered an illegal assembly.

In an interview with IFEX, Wham called for the reform of vague laws that suppress free speech.

Various human rights groups from across the world urged the withdrawal of cases against Wham and the review of the Singapore government's hardline attitude with regard to contrarian perspectives. Singapore's ruling party has been in power since the 1960s.

Focus on gender: #ChangeTheClap for transgender rights

In Pakistan, the Asia-Pacific Transgender Network launched the #ChangeTheClap social media campaign, designed to stop transphobia, and change the public association with a distinctive transgender “clap” from one of ridicule, to one of applause. The campaign was endorsed by several Pakistani celebrities and quickly drew the support of netizens who have enthusiastically shared their videos expressing support to the transgender community.

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