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Outrage over jailed journalists and activists, two big wins for LGBTQI+, and more

September in the Asia-Pacific region: Protests in Burma, Bangladesh, Cambodia, and West Papua; anti-Fake News Act in Malaysia, Digital Security Act in Bangladesh, and Nepal’s Electronic Transaction Act continue to threaten free expression; Aadhaar declared constitutional; another court ruling decriminalizes same-sex relations.

Supporters of detained journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo march during a rally in Yangon, Burma demanding for their release, 1 September 2018
Supporters of detained journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo march during a rally in Yangon, Burma demanding for their release, 1 September 2018

-/AFP/Getty Images

Focus on gender: Same-sex legal victories in India and Hong Kong

India's Supreme Court unanimously ruled on 6 September to strike down the country's law criminalizing same-sex relations. Section 377 of the penal code treats same-sex conduct as a criminal offense subject to punishment from 10 years to life.

In Hong Kong, the government has started implementing a court order to recognize same-sex spouses of residents in visa proceedings. This is a welcome development since authorities recently banned LGBTQI+-themed books from library shelves, and the government has yet to introduce legislation against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Journalism is NOT a crime: Support for Wa lone and Kyaw Soe Oo

Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were sentenced to seven years in prison by a Burmese court for their role in exposing a massacre in a Rohingya ethnic community allegedly perpetrated by state forces. The conviction was quickly condemned by media and human rights groups as an attack on free speech in a society embarking on a democratic transition.

Hundreds of protesters gathered in the nation's capital on 16 September not only to express support to the two Reuters journalists who had been placed under detention since December 2017, but also to assert the public right to information.

Global solidarity actions were also organized. In Indonesia, journalists with black tape over their mouths and tied hands held a silent protest in front of Burma's embassy in Jakarta. In turn, Thai authorities blocked a planned forum by the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand which was intended to discuss a United Nations report accusing Burmese generals of committing genocide and other impunity crimes against the Rohingya.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) wrote an open letter to Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi urging the Nobel Laureate to endorse the release of the two journalists. RSF also criticized Suu Kyi's statement which insisted that both Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were charged not for investigating a crime in Rakhine State, but for violating the colonial-era Official Secrets Act:

“Were journalists traitors when they covered the military junta's suppression of the 1988 democracy movement, in which you rose to political prominence? Were journalists traitors when they relayed your calls for democracy during the 15 years you spent under house arrest?”

RSF also deplored the harsh seven-year prison sentence handed out to Ngar Min Swe, a former columnist in a government newspaper, for his anti-Suu Kyi comments that allegedly incited hatred against the state. RSF called for the abolition of archaic laws like the Official Secrets Act and the sedition law.

Defending human rights is NOT a crime: Support for Cambodia's ‘Adhoc 5’

Five members of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (the 'Adhoc 5') were convicted to five years in prison for 'bribing a witness' related to the case of Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha.

The five were previously detained for 14 months before being released on bail in June 2017.

Despite the suspended sentence given by the court, the conviction reflected the continuing difficulties faced by human rights defenders under the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

A week before the 'Adhoc 5' trial, Kem Sokha was released through a court-supervised bail, but the ruling prohibited the opposition leader from communicating with his party members and even foreigners. Kem Sokha was accused by the ruling party of conspiring with foreign powers in attempting the overthrow of the Hun Sen government.

In other Cambodia news, Australian filmmaker James Ricketson was found guilty of espionage after flying a drone during an opposition rally in 2017. He was given a six-year prison sentence, but authorities immediately issued a pardon that allowed him to be released after spending almost 16 months in jail.

Some might interpret the release of Kem Sokha, James Ricketson, and land rights activist Tep Vanny (who was pardoned last August) as signs of an improving democracy, but the guilty verdict against the 'Adhoc 5' is a reminder of the continuing threats undermining the work of human rights groups in the country.

Human Rights Watch argued that the release of some political prisoners could be a mere “public relations effort to regain international legitimacy.”

Activism is NOT a crime: Support for West Papuan activists

The Pacific Freedom Forum denounced the jailing of hundreds of student activists by the police in Jayapura, the capital of Papua. The students were reportedly herded in police trucks and forcefully detained. They were demonstrating in support of Vanuatu and other Pacific states, calling on the United Nations to address rights to self-determination in Papua. Papua is part of Indonesia's easternmost region, but many indigenous groups there are demanding an end to the 'illegal occupation' of their lands and the establishment of an independent Papua state.

The Pacific Freedom Forum reminded Indonesia about its obligations to honor national and international laws guaranteeing freedom of speech of its citizens.

Photojournalism is NOT a crime: Support for Shahidul Alam

Veteran photojournalist Shahidul Alam remains in detention almost two months after he was arrested for his coverage of student protests in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He was accused of “spreading propaganda against the government” and “spreading false information on electronic media” after he posted Facebook videos of the protest and after participating in an online video interview with Al Jazeera.

His petition for bail was denied by the court.

Various activities were held in Bangladesh as well as in other countries calling for his immediate release amid concerns about his deteriorating health.

On 9 September, a public gathering titled “Let democracy be free” was held in Dhaka, where students, artists and activists demanded Alam's freedom.

Nobel peace prize winners, prominent academics and journalists from across the world also signed a statement calling for his release.

Repressive laws in Malaysia, Bangladesh, and Nepal threaten online expression

First, there was an Anti-Fake News Act. Then a bill was passed by the lower house of parliament to repeal it. Now, Malaysia's senate has rejected that bill. The senate, dominated by members of the previous ruling party which had hastily approved the anti-Fake News Act last April, voted to have the law amended, instead. The vote has disappointed many groups which have lobbied strongly for the abolition of a law that has been criticized for its provisions restricting free speech.

The parliament of Bangladesh has approved the Digital Security Act despite a petition calling for its reconsideration. Instead of removing the repressive articles of the Information and Communications Technology Act, the parliament came up with a new law that could pose more danger to the civil liberties of citizens. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has cited several problematic provisions in the law, including Section 43, which allows a police officer to search or arrest anyone without an arrest warrant.

Freedom Forum has raised the alarm over several arrests made by Nepali police against journalists accused of violating the Electronic Transaction Act, and warned about the rising number of cybercrime charges, which can be used to target and silence journalists. Police in the country arrested Raju Basnet, the editor-in-chief of Khojtalash, over a news report about the role of politicians in selling government-owned factory land. Police also arrested Nawaraj Kunwar, who had reported about domestic violence in Udaypur district.

Privacy, anyone? India’s Aadhaar ruled constitutional

In a 1,448 page judgment, India's Supreme Court has ruled that the controversial identification system Aadhaar (with over 1 billion people enrolled as of 2016) is constitutional. The decision is not exactly what groups like Privacy International (PI) wanted to receive from the court, but the organisation has identified some opportunities in the ruling:

“The court has demanded that the government introduce a 'strong data protection law' as soon as possible. It also requires that Aadhaar not be required for some services, including for people applying to get a SIM card for their mobile phone, for opening a bank account, for government grants, and schools. The court also seems to state that use by the private sector must be limited.”

In Brief

A special report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) noted the drop in media killings in Pakistan, but it warned about some troubling actions of the military such as barring access to reporters, encouraging self-censorship through direct and indirect acts of intimidation, and even allegedly instigating violence against journalists.

A new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented the situation of the Turkic Muslim population in China who are subjected to "forced political indoctrination, collective punishment, restrictions on movement and communications, heightened religious restrictions, and mass surveillance."

At this point, would publish: "Home page(home_page)"

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