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Protests and a court victory amid state of emergency, constitutional amendments and media attacks: Asia-Pacific in February

Pakistan celebrates a court ruling which declared mobile service suspension as illegal, Cambodia’s constitutional amendments threaten free speech, Maldives extends the state of emergency, media attacks in Oceania, and creative protests from Thailand’s #WeWalk to China’s #MeToo campaign.

Boeng Kak community activists call for the release of land rights activist Tep Vanny during a rally to mark the one year anniversary of her imprisonment, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 15 August 2017
Boeng Kak community activists call for the release of land rights activist Tep Vanny during a rally to mark the one year anniversary of her imprisonment, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 15 August 2017

Satoshi Takahashi/LightRocket via Getty Images

Pakistan court declares network disconnections illegal

In a landmark ruling, Pakistan's Islamabad High Court has declared that network shutdowns are an “illegal and a disproportionate response to security threats.” Before this ruling, the government of Pakistan had been claiming the authority to suspend cell phone services in the name of preventing terrorist acts and protecting the security of its people.

Bytes for All, whose research on internet and network shutdowns was used as a reference in drafting the court petition, described the ruling as an important precedent that can be invoked to challenge the decision of authorities every time they justify network disconnections as a tool to suppress fundamental rights in the name of security.

“Disconnecting people from communication networks is tantamount to denying a set of fundamental rights, including access to information, emergency services, expression and other associated rights," said Shahzad Ahmad of Bytes For All.

Cambodia’s constitutional amendments

Cambodia's National Assembly has approved amendments to the constitution which many believe could further intensify state persecution of dissenters and the political opposition.

For example, the amendments to article 49 prohibit Cambodian citizens from "any activity" that directly or indirectly "affect[s] the interests" of Cambodia or its citizens. In addition to this, the amended article 42 limits the right to freedom of association by requiring political parties to "put the interests of the nation first". Other amendments include a similar provision requiring citizens to prioritize national interests.

The vague terms in the amendments could be intended to suppress free speech. Who will decide if an NGO activity or protest action by activists 'affects the interests' of Cambodians? What constitutes a betrayal of national interests?

Various civil society organizations, including IFEX, signed a petition expressing alarm over the approved amendments: “These proposed amendments constitute a severe threat to human rights and fundamental freedoms, and are clearly designed to further criminalize any individual or entity that dares to express legitimate dissent.”

Cambodia's parliament also passed an anti-royal insult (Lèse Majesté) law, which many critics insist is unnecessary because the country's defamation law is already more than enough to protect the integrity of individuals, especially the monarchy.

The constitutional amendments, plus the introduction of Lèse Majesté, reflect the deteriorating human rights situation in Cambodia. During the same month, Cambodian authorities ordered the blocking of Cambodia Daily, an independent news website. Meanwhile, the court upheld the conviction of land rights activist Tep Vanny who remains in detention for leading a peaceful protest.

The crackdown on critical voices in Cambodia is linked to the consolidation of power by the ruling party.

Media repression in Oceania

Rising incidences of attacks targeting the media in the Oceania region have alarmed several groups.

"Post Courier" journalist Frankiy Kapin, Papua New Guinea

In Papua New Guinea, Post Courier journalist Frankiy Kapin was reportedly assaulted in Morobe Province by some men from the office of the governor. Kapin was accused by his attackers of being biased.

In Fiji, three journalists from the regional monthly magazine Islands Business were arrested and interrogated by the police over an allegedly seditious article.

In Indonesia's Papua region, the military detained and subsequently expelled BBC reporter Rebecca Henschke for posting tweets that 'hurt the feelings' of authorities. Henschke was covering the measles outbreak in Papua.

Pacific Islands News Association is concerned over these acts of intimidation against members of the media. "This is a very worrying trend for all media workers in the Pacific who are just doing their jobs. Already there is a lot of self-censoring happening in some newsrooms as journalists are fearful for their lives and their jobs, forcing them to shy away from covering controversial issues," the group said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Pacific Freedom Forum underscored the need to protect 'infogees' or “journalists, whistleblowers and activists (who) desperately need new options (to) keep their urgent messages alive."

The same message of concern was raised in an editorial published by Vanuatu Daily Post. The paper cited several cases of free speech violations in Australia, Fiji, Kiribati, and Vanuatu. It highlighted what needs to be done: “We need to realise something: Either we speak up now and draw a clear line under freedom of speech, or we write it off in the Pacific region.”

State of emergency in Maldives

A state of emergency was declared in Maldives by the president after the Supreme Court ordered the release of some opposition leaders, including the reinstatement of suspended members of parliament.

The president refused to obey the court's ruling, and instead ordered the arrest of justices and several opposition politicians.

On 20 February 2018, the state of emergency was extended for another 30 days.

Authorities are accused of using the state of emergency to arbitrarily detain hundreds of protesters, judges, and politicians who have been criticizing the government's 'undemocratic' actions.

Press freedom watchdogs also protested the inclusion of media outlets and journalists in the government crackdown on dissent. An opposition-aligned TV station was suspended, while independent news websites were targeted by cyber attacks.

In a joint statement, the IFJ, RSF and CPJ emphasized that "it is critical for the media to report freely and without fear to ensure public access to credible information." The statement also bemoaned the "dangerously high" level of threat to the media by state agencies "making it impossible to ensure independent journalism."

Thailand’s #WeWalk, Bangladesh’s #IAmaSpy

Despite the worrying trend of free speech violations across Asia-Pacific, there were also inspiring protests and online initiatives that challenged the repressive policies of states.

In Bangladesh, journalists and concerned netizens used the hashtag “#IAmaSpy” in the Bengali language to protest the draconian provisions in the proposed Digital Security Act of 2018. Critics cited section 32 of the draft document, which could make the gathering of evidence in government offices an act of espionage. The hashtag was used to denounce the provision and to defend investigative journalism.

Journalist Badruddoza Babu was one of those who opposed the proposed law.

“#IAmSpy. I am Badruddoza Babu. I investigate, I am a journalist. I work for the people searching for irregularities and corruption. I have to get a lot of evidence secretly. According to the latest Digital Security Law, I am a spy.”

In Thailand, the People Go civil society network organized #WeWalk, a 450-kilometer march traversing the northern part of the country, to highlight the detrimental effects of junta policies on social security, agriculture, natural resources, and freedom of expression.

Thai activists also found creative ways to express their political views despite the threat of criminal prosecution, including street murals, an anti-corruption effigy, and a mime performance.

Focus on gender

In China, the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment inspired some young women to share their stories in January and February. They received support from the public and even state agencies. Several activities were organized on campuses to decry sexual abuse.

But the state soon prevented the spread of the movement and even the term 'sexual harassment' was filtered from search results.

Despite the censorship, Chinese internet users found a way to continue the conversation by talking about 'rice bunnies' (mǐ tù in Chinese) while others used the 'rice' and 'rabbit' emojis to support the #MeToo campaign.

Freedom House explained why the state suppressed the #MeToo campaign. “The party-state is wary of any type of grassroots collective action, so whatever traction #MeToo has gained in the country will soon be broken up.”

In Brief

In Burma, 11 students were expelled from Yadanabon University in Mandalay for simply organizing a protest demanding higher education subsidy from the state. It was the first student protest in Burma after the National League for Democracy headed by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi came to power in 2016.

In memoriam: Asma Jahangir

The news that Pakistan's well-known human rights activist and feminist lawyer Asma Jahangir had died of a heart attack on 11 February 2018 was a blow to rights activists around the globe. Various human rights groups in and out of Pakistan paid tribute to Asma.

Antoine Bernard of RSF said the death of Asma “is a tragic loss for the entire human rights and press freedom movement.”

“With just her courage and the strength of her conviction, she achieved spectacular progress and won admiration in Pakistan and in all the countries where she worked. She truly embodied the universality of our struggle,” Bernard added.

Meanwhile, IFEX member Digital Rights Foundation recognized the legacy of Asma as a pioneering feminist leader of Pakistan.

“As a feminist, Asma was unapologetic in the positions she took and was unfazed by the hatred that was directed at her. Being a woman in the public eye, she was not shy of being political and did not allow herself to be weighed down by propaganda and sexist rhetoric directed at her. Asma was firm in her convictions and demonstrated a lifelong commitment to the cause of democratic freedoms.”

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