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Asia-Pacific in October: #MeTooIndia, Mother Mushroom, the disappeared Interpol chief and more

#Metoo inspires Indian journalists to speak out against abuse; Vietnamese blogger ‘Mother Mushroom’ is free and sent into exile; Hong Kong’s freedoms under threat; journalists released from detention while media killings continue in the region

Female journalists stand to protest against the sexual harassment at the workplaces as part of the #MeToo campaign, New Delhi, India, 13 October 2018
Female journalists stand to protest against the sexual harassment at the workplaces as part of the #MeToo campaign, New Delhi, India, 13 October 2018

Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

#MeToo sweeps India’s newsrooms

The #MeToo movement has inspired many Indian women to speak out against sexual abuse, narrate the violence they suffered, and pursue justice. It has brought attention to the culture of violence targeting women in Bollywood, universities, and even media offices.

On 5 October, journalist Sandhya Menon wrote on Twitter that Times of India resident editor KR Sreenivas sexually harassed her in 2008. After this, seven other women came forward and accused KR Sreenivas of unwanted touching and sexual propositions.

On 8 October, another woman journalist, Priya Ramani, accused Minister of State for External Affairs Mobashar Jawed Akbar of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior when the latter was still a media editor. Akbar previously worked for prestigious newspapers such as The Telegraph and The Asian Age. He resigned his post in government on 17 October after 20 other women made similar accusations against him. But he filed a defamation suit against Ramani on the same day.

The rise of #MeToo led many newspapers to launch their own investigation against sexual violence in their offices. Some editors and other officials accused of harassment have stepped down from their positions to give way for an impartial probe.

The movement is expected to generate more support as lawyers, health workers, scholars, and NGO workers have volunteered to provide legal, financial, and moral support to all those who want to share their #MeToo stories.

The challenge now is how to further strengthen the campaign for women's rights in a society where talking about sexual violence is considered a taboo. A particular concern is the gap between urban India and the rest of the country, where journalists based in the rural south and northeast are unable to report their own #MeToo stories and file complaints against sexual predators for fear of losing their jobs or putting their families at risk.

Vietnam’s ‘Mother Mushroom’ is free

Environmental activist and blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, who adopted Me Nâm (Mother Mushroom) as her pen name, was freed on 17 October and immediately exiled to the United States with her family.

Quynh had been in jail since 2016 and was serving a ten-year sentence for posting reports of civilians dying in police custody. She also wrote about a toxic spill in central Vietnam which affected the livelihood of thousands of fisherfolk.

She protested her incarceration by staging several hunger strikes. She was subjected to eight months of solitary confinement before facing a court trial last year. Various global groups, including IFEX, campaigned for her freedom and that of other citizen journalists languishing in jails.

Her release was conditioned on a forced exile and a suspended prison sentence.

Quynh told reporters that, despite her release, conditions in Vietnam remain unchanged. Indeed, Vietnam affirmed the convictions of a journalist and an environmentalist on the same week Quynh was allowed to walk free from prison.

On 12 October, journalist Do Cong Duong was sentenced to five years in prison for his Facebook posts about government corruption and land disputes. Last September, he was handed a four-year prison term for documenting the forced eviction of residents in a local commune. He is now facing a total of nine years prison sentence for simply informing his fellow citizens about the country's situation.

Meanwhile, a local court upheld the 20-year prison verdict of environmentalist Le Dinh Luong, who is one of at least 55 activists arrested this year. Luong's prison sentence is considered one of the harshest punishment imposed against a peaceful activist and citizen journalist. According to his lawyer, Luong responded to the court verdict by asserting the justness of his actions: "My deeds will be judged by history. I will be happy to be in prison if the nation grows up in freedom and democracy."

Hong Kong’s diminishing freedoms

China's influence in stifling dissent in Hong Kong became more evident after a pro-independence party was banned by authorities. In recent years, the Hong Kong government has disqualified candidates and removed lawmakers advocating a pro-independence stance. It even branded pro-democracy scholars as threats to national security while ordering the arrest of young activists pushing for democratic reforms in governance.

The growing intolerance in Hong Kong was also reflected in the decision to reject the visa renewal application of veteran journalist Victor Mallet, Asia editor of Financial Times since 2016 and first vice president of the Foreign Correspondents' Club (FCC).

Authorities have not explained the decision to reject the visa of a working journalist, which was rare and unprecedented in FCC history. The Hong Kong Journalists Association believe it may have been done in reprisal, after Mallet hosted a luncheon talk which featured the leader of the banned Hong Kong National Party.

The visa rejection of Mallet and the banning of a political party are expected to be tackled during the next Universal Periodic Review of Hong Kong's human rights situation.

The ‘vanished’ Interpol president

The family of Interpol president Meng Hongwei was unable to reach him when he visited China on 25 September. It was only on 7 October that Chinese officials admitted that they had detained Meng, who is also China's vice-minister for public security. Meng is reportedly under probe for corruption. After two days, Interpol announced that it had accepted Meng's resignation.

It is highly probable that Meng is being subjected to 'liuzhi,' a form of secret detention controlled by the Communist Party. He is held incommunicado without access to lawyers or relatives and this could last for up to six months.

Meng's case highlights how the rule of law is easily undermined under the leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Human Rights Watch urged global organizations like Interpol to challenge “Beijing's machinery of repression” and prevent it from inflicting abuses worldwide as China's power grows.

Sri Lanka's political crisis endangers rights

On 26 October, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena appointed former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the new prime minister despite questions about the legality of this decision.

Rajapaksa's return to power alarmed many who still remember the rampant human rights abuses committed during the last stages of Sri Lanka's civil war.

The political crisis is also undermining media independence. Free Media Movement (FMM) reported that 'outside elements' are seen entering state media institutes and exerting pressure on the staff at these institutes. FMM said this threatens the editorial integrity of state media.

In brief

Muhammad Sohail Khan, a Pakistani reporter working for the daily K2 Times and AVT television channel, was shot dead in the Hattar area of Haripur on 16 October. He had been receiving threats after writing about the transactions of a local drug dealer.

A Taliban attack in the southern Afghanistan city of Kandahar on 18 October killed cameraman Mohammad Salim Angaar from state TV Radio Television Afghanistan. ISIS and Taliban attacks have already killed 15 journalists in Afghanistan in 2018.

Japanese freelance journalist Jumpei Yasuda has been released after being held hostage by an armed group in Syria for more than three years. He was kidnapped while he was investigating the death of fellow Japanese journalist Kenji Goto.

In Burma, three Eleven Media journalists were released on bail after spending two weeks in jail based on charges filed by Yangon City authorities. The three are accused of causing fear or alarm to the public after writing about an alleged fund mismanagement involving the local government.

New reference for journalists

Pakistan-based Digital Rights Foundation has published a “Guidebook on Ethical Journalism for Digital Platforms”, which serves as a handy resource for journalists who widely use online spaces for their work and advocacy.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines has published a safety guide for journalists based in the Philippines. The group also offers it as a self-help guide for journalists in trouble or headed for difficult or hazardous coverage.

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