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Freedom and Fury: Tep Vanny, "Fake News" law repealed, LGBTQI portraits removed

In August, rights advocates celebrated the release of Cambodian land rights activist Tep Vanny and the repeal of Malaysia's anti-Fake News law; but they condemned the crackdown on student protests in Bangladesh, Google's alleged complicity with China's censors, and genocide in Burma.

Protesters form a human chain to call for the release of photographer Shahidul Alam, in front of the National Press Club, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2 September 2018
Protesters form a human chain to call for the release of photographer Shahidul Alam, in front of the National Press Club, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2 September 2018

Khandaker Azizur Rahman Sumon/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Focus on gender: LGBTQI+ portraits removed from Malaysian exhibit

A minister in the Prime Minister's Department for Religious Affairs was criticized for ordering the removal of portraits of two LGBTQI+ activists in an exhibit that showcases the diversity of the people of Malaysia.

The portraits of human rights advocates Nisha Ayub and Pang Khee Teik, designed with a rainbow pride logo, were supposed to be part of the Stripes and Strokes exhibition at the 2018 George Town Festival. But Minister Datuk Mujahid Rawa said he had to order the removal of the portraits because they promote LGBTQI+ activities.

Human rights groups have condemned this as an act of censorship and restriction that "will only embolden those who hold anti-LGBTIQ views and increase discrimination and violence against LGBTIQ persons and allies with impunity."

Cambodia releases some activists and journalists

Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni pardoned four land rights activists on 20 August based on a request by Prime Minister Hun Sen. The pardon led to the immediate release of Tep Vanny, who had been in jail since 2016 for defending the rights of the Boeung Kak Lake community. Days before the granting of the royal pardon, various local and global groups, including IFEX, issued a statement urging the Cambodian government to drop all charges and end all criminal investigations against Tep Vanny and other activists.

A day after the release of Tep Vanny, a local court allowed the release on bail of two former reporters of Radio Free Asia (RFA), Oun Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, who spent the last nine months in pre-trial detention based on charges of espionage and production of pornography. The two are required to report to the police every month, their passports were confiscated, and they could be re-arrested at any time.

Meanwhile, the petition for bail of detained opposition leader Kem Sokha was denied by the court. Kem Sokha and the dissolved opposition party were accused of conspiring with foreign powers in ousting the Hun Sen government.

Another politically charged case involves the bribery complaint against five human rights defenders known as the ADHOC 5. Authorities said the ADHOC 5 bribed a witness in a case involving Kem Sokha.

While many welcomed the release of Tep Vanny and the two former RFA reporters, human rights groups said the continuing persecution of activists, the independent media, civil society, and opposition leaders highlight the difficulties of struggling for peaceful democratic reforms under the Hun Sen government.

Malaysia repeals Anti-Fake News law

Fulfilling its earlier pledge, Malaysia's new government has repealed the anti-Fake News law. Malaysia was one of the first countries in the world to pass a law criminalizing "fake news". This was enacted last April, a month before the general elections. Its passage was described by human rights groups as a repressive act that would "further suppress public discourse and legitimate criticism of public officials and other powerful individuals." But the historic defeat of the ruling party after being in power over the past 60 years has raised hopes that the new government will now commit to implement urgent political and media reforms.

Many lauded the repeal of the anti-Fake News law, but the government was also urged to undertake a review of other draconian laws which are often used to persecute critics: the Sedition Act 1948, the Official Secrets Act 1972, the Communication and Multimedia Act 1998, the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 and the Film Censorship Act 2002.

Another positive development was the commercial distribution of books by political cartoonist Zunar. After the sedition cases against him were dropped, the ban on Zunar's books was also lifted, allowing the award-winning cartoonist to share and sell his books and other artworks to the public again.

Crackdown on Bangladesh student protest

Thousands took to the streets in Bangladesh demanding road safety, accountability, and implementation of laws after two students were killed by a speeding bus on 29 July. The spontaneous protest spread across the capital city in Dhaka; students took over the streets as traffic enforcers, even apprehending government vehicles and ministers and found out that many lacked proper licenses.

The protest was peaceful until social media rumours and misinformation led to clashes between the protesters and the student arm of the ruling party. The police violently dispersed the protest and arrested scores of students, netizens, and journalists, citing section 57 of the notorious Information and Communication Technology Act.

One of those arrested was veteran photojournalist Shahidul Alam, for allegedly "making provocative comments" and "giving false information" on electronic media. He was arrested on 5 August a few hours after he posted a Facebook video of the protest, and appeared in an online interview with Al Jazeera. Shahidul Alam said he was beaten and tortured while under police custody. Various groups including IFEX issued a statement calling for the release of Shahidul Alam and the repeal of the ICT Act which is used to "legally harass journalists and media workers and violate the right to freedom of expression."

Reports indicated that several journalists continued to face harassment and threats for covering the student protest. Many student leaders have been forced to self-censor or remove their social media postings because of fear of reprisal.

UN report on Burma cites "crimes under international law"

On 27 August, the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission released a strongly-worded 20-page report about the human rights situation in Burma. It described the human rights violations and abuses committed in Kachin, Rakhine and Shan States as "shocking for their horrifying nature and ubiquity." It added that many of the violations "amount to the gravest crimes under international law." The report cited the role of Burmese senior generals for their accountability in committing genocide against the Rohingya people. It also linked the violence to "the silencing of critical voices by the Myanmar authorities, who at the same time amplify a hateful rhetoric that emboldens perpetrators." It blamed the government led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi for fostering a "climate in which hate speech thrives, human rights violations are legitimised, and incitement to discrimination and violence facilitated."

It mentioned the role of social media platforms like Facebook in spreading hate speech.

Immediately after the release of the UN report, Facebook issued a statement detailing its actions to counter hate speech in Burma. It acknowledged that its response has been slow, but also reported that it had already removed the accounts of dozens of individuals and groups, including that of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, "to prevent them from using (Facebook) to further inflame ethnic and religious tensions."

Google to launch a censored search app in China?

Google is reportedly planning to launch a censored version of its search engine which would allow it to access the Chinese market. The project, codenamed "Dragonfly", blacklists certain search terms and websites in the mobile search app that can be used by Chinese authorities to censor content.

This has alarmed human rights groups since this can embolden China to blackmail other tech giants to undermine free speech as a prerequisite to operate inside China. They reminded Google that it exited China in 2010 because of its refusal to endorse censorship. Meanwhile, about 1,400 Google employees signed a letter demanding transparency and ethical review of the 'Dragonfly' project.

Various groups issued an open letter addressed to Google with the following demands:

. Reaffirm the company's 2010 commitment not to provide censored search engine services in China;

. Disclose its position on censorship in China and what steps, if any, Google is taking to safeguard against human rights violations linked to Project Dragonfly and its other Chinese mobile app offerings;

. Guarantee protections for whistle-blowers and other employees speaking out where they see the company is failing its commitments to human rights.

Vietnam activist sentenced to 20 years in jail

Vietnamese blogger and environmental activist Le Dinh Luong was sentenced to 20 years in jail for activities "aimed at overthrowing the people's administration" under article 79 of the 1999 Penal Code. Le Dinh Luong, 52, was among those who signed a petition against bauxite mining in the Central Highlands. He also joined public protests against a Taiwanese company that spilled toxic waste and caused massive fish deaths in the country's central coast.

His 20-year prison term is reported to be the harshest sentence ever given to a citizen for peacefully advocating transparency and accountability in governance.

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