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Asia-Pacific welcomes the new year – with declining freedom

A disturbing regional trend in 2017 is still evident in the first month of the new year, which featured a threat to close down Rappler news website in the Philippines, the revival of criminal libel law in Samoa, and the filing of a draconian espionage bill in Australia.

Activists join journalists in a protest against the Security and Commission's move to revoke Rappler's license
Activists join journalists in a protest against the Security and Commission's move to revoke Rappler's license

Bernice Beltran/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Reporting on 2017

Several IFEX members have published comprehensive and compelling reports about the state of freedom and democracy across the Asia-Pacific region.

Bytes for All identified emerging threats in Pakistan's internet landscape which include “arbitrary administrative shutdowns, misplaced judicial activism against internet freedoms, the rise of cyber armies, enforced disappearances of activists and abuse of cyber-crime laws.”

In Sri Lanka, the Committee to Protect Journalists noted that “impunity for crimes against journalists remains a front-line issue” despite the election of a new government. It added that, for many years, Sri Lankan authorities “have not secured a single conviction in the cases of 10 local journalists murdered in retaliation for their work since 1992.”

Human Rights Watch published its World Report 2018, which featured some of the problems facing the region, including the impact of Afghanistan's armed conflict on the civilian population due to deadly suicide attacks by insurgents in key urban areas.

The report puts the Bangladesh government to task for its failure “to respond to repeated and serious allegations of secret detentions, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings, denying the abuses instead of holding perpetrators accountable.”

It also notes how Vietnam has intensified its crackdown on dissident bloggers and peaceful activists, by handing out harsh prison sentences to individuals accused of conducting anti-state propaganda.

An overview of the threats against online expression in South Asia was the topic of a Global Voices report, which provided context for cases of internet shutdowns, censored news sites, tweets, threats against bloggers and media workers, and even cinema censorship.

Nepal's election year led to an increase in press freedom violations in the country. Freedom Forum recorded a total of 66 cases of media attacks in 2017, which was higher compared to 25 monitored incidents in 2016. It added that a total of 230 media persons were directly affected by these attacks.

The Thai Journalists Association said 2017 in Thailand “was marked by the aggravated media censorship and attack on free expression imposed under the military government, and a hard struggle of the media industry.” It cited the filing of Lese Majeste (anti-Royal Insult law) cases against some journalists who were critical of the government; and the closing down of printed publications that resulted in the loss of jobs of hundreds of media workers.

The Southeast Asian Press Alliance conducted a mission in Cambodia, and expressed concern about the threat of seizure of assets or immediate shutdown of media companies suspected of violating some licensing rules. It urged the government to conduct its probe “in a transparent, fair, and consistent manner so that these do not appear as directed attacks on selected media outlets.”

It was a busy year for the members of Australia's Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance, which initiated several campaigns on themes such as media reform legislation, the release of Manus Island detainees, and working towards zero tolerance for sexual harassment in the media workplace.

Asia-Pacific: Rise of anti-democratic forces

Through its annual report on the state of freedom in the world, Freedom House warned about the consolidation of power of several repressive regimes across Asia-Pacific. It featured the persecution of the opposition in Cambodia, the growing influence of China's Communist Party leadership in Hong Kong, the brutal displacement of the Rohingya minority in Burma, and the killing of a prominent blogger in Maldives.

#StandWithRappler: Media freedom under attack in the Philippines

Philippine-based news website Rappler was ordered to cease operations by the country's Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for allegedly violating laws restricting foreign ownership and control of the media sector. The order is unprecedented, since the Philippines boasts of having a 'robust' freedom of the press. Indeed, the country has no censorship board and the media is not strictly regulated. But the rise to power of President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016 has in turn raised concerns about his combative statements against the press, whom he often accused of spreading 'fake news'. In fact, he mentioned Rappler during his 2017 State of the Nation address and accused it of being owned by Americans.

Rappler has maintained that it remains a Filipino-owned startup, despite receiving funds from foreign sources. Some believe that the real problem is not its financial records, but rather its persistence, like other independent media outlets, in exposing human rights abuses of the Duterte government.

The state-backed harassment didn't end with the 'kill order' issued by SEC. It was reported that a state agency has received a cyber libel case against some of Rappler's officials based on a news report published in 2012.

Rappler's case highlights the worsening political situation in the Philippines as the government seems intent on silencing voices which are seen as a threat to the plan of the ruling party to amend the constitution in order to consolidate its power. In fact, a ranking member of the House of Representatives has proposed the revision of the constitutional provision on free speech by inserting the phrase 'responsible exercise' of freedom of speech. Media groups were quick to point out that this is a dangerous proposal that would “enshrine prior restraint as part of the basic law of the land.”

Beyond Rappler, it is also important to emphasize that the Philippines is consistently ranked among the most dangerous countries for journalists.

Repressive laws and rulings

In Nepal, Freedom Forum warned that a recent high court ruling that allows the police to enjoin the media to 'cooperate' in an investigation could be used to force journalists in the future to disclose their confidential news sources.

In Thailand, a court in southern Thailand has sentenced a blind woman to almost two years in prison for 'insulting' the monarchy on Facebook. According to the charge sheet, the blind woman shared an article deemed insulting to the monarchy.

In Samoa, the Pacific Freedom Forum is urging the government to reconsider its decision to revive the criminal libel law. The government claimed the law is intended to stop anonymous bloggers from criticizing authorities without presenting evidence. Media groups suggested a public consultation instead of bringing back a colonial-era law which was already repealed in 2013.

In Malaysia, the Court of Appeal has reversed an earlier ruling dismissing a defamation suit filed by a mining company against independent news website Malaysiakini. The suit was about Malaysiakini's coverage of the health concerns of local residents against a mining operation. The case is still pending but Malaysiakini was able to crowdsource funds for its legal battle.

In Macau, the new Cybersecurity Law was passed based on a purported public consultation last December 2017 and intended to protect the rights of citizens. But critics are worried that it provides a "legal framework for mass surveillance." It requires the adoption of the 'real name' registration system and it empowers cybersecurity officers to enter the offices of internet service providers.

In Australia, Reporters Without Borders joined local media groups in reminding the government that the proposed national security law threatens the work of journalists. The proposed expanded definition of espionage would criminalize the mere act of receiving and possessing classified information. The bill also broadly defines classified information as information that could "cause harm to Australia's interests."

Focus on gender

Freedom Forum's 11-month monitoring of nine major dailies in Nepal revealed that fewer than 6% of bylines among the total of 3,965 during the reviewed period were women, and women were quoted as sources in only 9.25% of the news sections.

Australia's Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance's survey of workers in theater companies found that 40% had experienced sexual harassment and 14% had been sexually assaulted. It also revealed that about 53% of victims had not reported the crime, and 47% of those who did make a report, felt their case was not resolved properly.

And finally, in Malaysia, the president of the National Union of Journalists Peninsular Malaysia caused an uproar when he told female journalists not to dress in an "overtly sexy outfit", after he was asked to comment about the issue of sexual harassment. The group later issued a statement assuring the public that it does not endorse a viewpoint that blames victims.

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