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Ending impunity and defending democracy: November in Asia-Pacific

Cambodian democracy takes a hit, while IFEX members mark IDEI in Nepal, Pakistan, Mongolia, Australia and make strides against gender-related violence

A woman casts her vote on a ballot box during the parliamentary and provincial elections in Sindhupalchok District, Nepal, 26 November 2017
A woman casts her vote on a ballot box during the parliamentary and provincial elections in Sindhupalchok District, Nepal, 26 November 2017

REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

Various activities were held on November 2 across the Asia-Pacific region to mark the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists. From signing petitions to producing video documentaries, these actions were done to raise public awareness about the continuing attacks against the media and the need to protect journalists.

International Day to End Impunity

In Nepal, Freedom Forum organized 10 programs in three universities and in seven provinces, which gathered over 350 persons representing the media, academia, victims' families, human rights defenders, and legal practitioners, as part of a campaign to unite people from these diverse groups against media killings. The organisation also produced a short video featuring the voices of stakeholders speaking about the threats faced by the media and how the government can effectively address the issue.

Freedom Forum also expressed concern about the spate of attacks targeting election candidates, media persons and peaceful rallies and programs across the country ahead of the provincial elections. The organisation said that the attacks have created fear among journalists about whether or not to report on the election.

In Pakistan, media monitoring groups recorded at least four cases of journalists who were killed in the line of duty this year. Many survived multiple attacks, but they also continue to face danger. For example, media networks in Balochistan were threatened by armed groups that accused journalists of being partial to the government. Various groups also gathered in Karachi, which is the city in Pakistan with a high concentration of media killings, and adopted a resolution demanding "justice in crimes against journalists and for pro-active protection of those reporting under threat."

Citing the worsening state of impunity in the country, Pakistan Press Foundation has called for the appointment of special prosecutors on violence against media at the federal and provincial levels. A safety bill for journalists was initially deliberated in the legislature but this was rejected after the media raised some issues about the proposal and the lack of a proper public consultation to improve mechanisms on how to adequately protect journalists.

According to the Afghanistan Journalists Center (AFJC), 73 journalists and media workers, including 14 women, have been killed in Afghanistan since 1994; an additional two Afghan journalists were killed in Pakistan. Investigations into only four of these cases have led to convictions. The group added that there were six media killings in 2017 alone. Deadly attacks against media stations by suicide bombers and other armed groups have also resulted in the injuries and deaths of several journalists.

More than 150 Afghan journalists signed a petition calling for an end to impunity and the protection of civil liberties. This petition, calling for the prioritization of cases of journalists and media workers killed in the past two decades, was submitted to the presidential palace and the office of the Chief Executive Officer.

In Australia, the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance remembered nine journalists who have been murdered with impunity.

In the Philippines, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) has warned that impunity has gone from bad to worse under the government of President Rodrigo Duterte. It noted that six media workers have been killed, four in the line of duty, in the year since Duterte assumed power. CMFR also lamented the slow pace of the trial involving those accused of killing 58 persons in the 2009 Ampatuan Massacre, among them 32 journalists. There have been zero convictions in the Ampatuan case. Mongolia's Globe International Center (GIC) has documented about 40 cases of violations targeting the media. GIC said that the continuous attacks against critics have gravely affected the work of the media. It attributed "media silence" to pressures and attacks, which lead to self-censorship. Part of the response of media groups is the establishment of a Media Law Committee whose aim is to protect freedom of expression by providing defense and consultancy for journalists and by developing a media legal framework.

Cambodia 'shuts down' democracy

Cambodia's Supreme Court has approved the dissolution of the opposition party and barred its 118 members from participating in the 2018 general elections. Earlier, the ruling party also ordered the closure of dozens of radio stations for alleged licensing and tax violations. The Cambodia Daily newspaper was also forced to stop operating after being slapped with hefty tax fines.

Radio Free Asia (RFA) made the decision to shut down its bureau in Phnom Penh because of the deteriorating climate for freedom of expression. One example of this climate is the case of two former RFA reporters who were charged with espionage for simply reporting on election issues.

The elimination of the opposition party and the silencing of the media are seen as part of the Hun Sen government's plan to dominate next year's elections. He has already been in power for more than three decades. In addition to persecuting the media and the opposition, Hun Sen has also publicly accused several critical non-government organisations of being agents of foreign interests and for failing to remain 'neutral' in politics.

Recently, he ordered a probe of IFEX member Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), for its possible role in a conspiracy to topple the government. In his order, Hun Sen pointed out that CCHR was founded by opposition leader Kem Sokha, who is currently detained on treason charges. CCHR responded by reaffirming its independence from all political parties. It added that the group "has faced backlash from both the ruling party and the opposition as a result of its principled criticism of their policies, actions or rhetoric". A statement released by IFEX said "the closure of such a principled and dedicated group as CCHR would be devastating for the safeguarding of Cambodians' rights at a time when they are under increasing threat, and would irrevocably add to the climate of censorship that has taken hold".

On another front, Facebook began testing its new Explore feature in Cambodia. This feature has drastically reduced the reach of small businesses, NGOs, media outlets, and political parties on Facebook by moving posts from these types of groups out of users' regular news feeds. Some critics believe that this has undermined access to information at a time when social media, especially Facebook, has become an alternative source of news in Cambodia.

Focus on gender

This month the International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT) launched a safety handbook for women journalists working in war and conflict. The launch was made before the start of the annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Manila to underscore the attacks against women journalists in the region. The IAWRT noted "online media women are subject to attacks at three times the rate of their male colleagues". The handbook is available to download here.

In Australia, a postal survey showed that citizens have voted strongly in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage. A total of 61.6 percent said 'yes' to the postal survey question: 'Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?'.

In Papua New Guinea, Pacific Freedom Forum (PFF) is calling for an independent review of autopsy findings regarding the death of Post Courier editor Rosalyn Albaniel Evara. The group wants to verify reports about Evara being a victim of domestic violence. Evara's death has sparked a national debate about the issue of gender-based violence and domestic abuse.

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