Media killings, zines promoting women’s empowerment, and the dangers of criticizing monarchies

Six journalists were killed in November across the Asia-Pacific. The past month also saw the further erosion of civic space in Thailand and Malaysia where citizens faced persecution for speaking out about the royal family in their respective countries. Opposition legislators were removed in Hong Kong, which was followed by the resignation of the pro-democracy bloc, and reflected the government’s crackdown on dissenting voices.

A deadly November for journalists

Six journalists were killed in November in the region. The deaths in Afghanistan, India, and the Philippines highlight the worsening culture of impunity and the need to intensify the campaign against it.

In Afghanistan, Radio Azadi reporter Elyas Da’ee was killed in the southern Helmand province when a bomb attached to his car exploded on 12 November. He had previously received threats from the Taliban. A similar bomb attack five days earlier in the Afghan capital Kabul killed former Tolo News TV journalist Yama Siawash and two other civilians.

According to IFEX member the Afghanistan Journalists Center (AFJC), 115 journalists and media workers have been killed in Afghanistan in the last 19 years. The organization urged the government to address the impunity killings targeting the media.

“Impunity for crimes against journalists and media workers means a failure by the Afghan government to bring perpetrators to justice, it gives a license for more violence in Afghanistan.” –  AFJC executive director Ahmad Quraishi

In India, Tamizhan TV reporter Isravel Moses was brutally murdered on 8 November after neighbours identified him as a journalist to members of a local gang.

Another Indian journalist was killed three days later. Pratidin Time reporter Parag Bhuyan was killed after a speeding car struck him in Assam state. Pratidin Time editor-in-chief Nitumoni Saikia said it could have been a “planned murder” as a reprisal against Bhuyan who had recently done stories on illegal mining, illegal trafficking in precious woods, and cattle smuggling in the state.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) sent a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi calling on the government to take swift action on the issue of media killings. According to IFJ’s monitoring, 55 journalists have been killed since 2010 in India, and in only one case has there been a successful conviction.

Two journalists were killed in the Philippines in November, the same month when the most lethal attack ever against journalists – the Ampatuan Massacre – is commemorated each year.

Virgilio ‘Vir’ Maganes, a newspaper and radio reporter, was shot dead on 10 November in the province of Pangasinan. Maganes survived an attack four years earlier. He has tackled illegal gambling, drugs, and black sand mining trafficking on his shows.

Four days later, freelance journalist Ronnie Villamor was killed by government soldiers in an “encounter” in Masbate province. Villamor was covering a land dispute. Villamor is the 19th journalist killed during the Rodrigo Duterte administration, and the 191st since 1986, when the dictatorship ended in the Philippines.

Hong Kong’s shrinking democratic space

Opposition members resigned en masse from the Legislative Council. All 15 members of the Democratic Party resigned from the Legislative Council (LegCo) of Hong Kong to protest the government’s decision to expel four of their colleagues – a decision based on a Beijing directive that allows the unseating of legislators for breaching their oath of allegiance to the Special Autonomous Region. This marks the first time that the LegCo will be convening without an opposition bloc.

Youth leaders faced jail time for “unlawful protest”. On 23 November, youth activists Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam were remanded in custody after pleading guilty to charges of inciting and organizing an unlawful protest in June 2019. The three are prominent icons of the “Umbrella Movement” in 2014 and the massive pro-democracy protests in the city in 2019. The court will deliver a verdict in early December. Wong sent out this tweet before his custody:

Journalist charged for doing investigative report. Media groups have sent a letter to the government demanding access to information. This was prompted by the filing of a case against RTHK producer Bao Choy, who was charged after accessing a government vehicle database for an investigative report. An excerpt from the letter:

“The case of the arrest of Ms. Choy has already created a chilling effect in the media. Journalists fear they may be jailed for merely doing their work of investigative journalism.”

Penalizing citizens for speaking out about the monarchy

Activists in Thailand and Malaysia who have been speaking out about their respective monarchies are facing persecution.

Massive protests continued in Thailand demanding democratic reforms, including Constitutional amendments. Another significant demand is for reforms of the monarchy. The 17 November protest near the parliament was violently dispersed, with police using tear gas and water cannons. Indignation protests were organized condemning police violence and in response to rumours of another coup. Some activists who joined the protests have been summoned by the police to hear Lèse Majesté (anti-royal insult law) charges.

In Malaysia, members of the Universiti Malaya Association of New Youth are under investigation for sedition, after releasing a statement on Facebook urging the king not to interfere in national affairs.

Several civil society groups, including IFEX member Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ – Malaysia), have signed a statement deploring the harassment of student activists. They reminded authorities that “the right to express views and ideas freely, without fear of interference or persecution, is an essential part of democracy.”

In brief

In Australia, an investigation found credible reports of 23 incidents of unlawful killing by Australian forces in Afghanistan, resulting in the deaths of 39 people. Human Rights Watch said the war crimes investigations should be prompt and independent to ensure justice. Despite the release of the report, the former military lawyer and whistleblower David McBride continues to face prosecution for speaking out about the abuses. The report is also a vindication for journalists who reported about the ‘Afghan Files’ and whose offices were raided because of their reporting.

In Pakistan, Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) has expressed concern over the confirmation of the ‘Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards), Rules’ for containing provisions that have troubling implications on privacy, free speech, and the digital economy. DRF also noted a lack of consultation with stakeholders in drafting the social media rules.

Media Matters for Democracy said the new rules “allow extensive censorship of digital spaces in Pakistan,” adding:

“We find the Rules excessive in scope, contradictory in text, and detrimental to Pakistan’s digital growth.”

The Cabinet of Solomon Islands has issued a temporary ban on Facebook for what it considers ‘harmful content’ disseminated on the social media platform. Some critics and the opposition see the ban as an attempt to silence citizens who are exposing irregularities in government. Amnesty International’s Pacific Researcher Kate Schuetze said the ban will deprive users of vital information that can save lives during a pandemic.

Globe International Center (GIC) said new measures imposed by Mongolia to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic “have introduced provisions that risk censoring the media and reducing the space for civic engagement, both in online and offline spaces.” It added that citizens who criticize public officials are being penalized, under the guise of combating disinformation in the time of pandemic.

Some good news to share

New zines promoting women empowerment were recently launched in Brunei and Pakistan. DRF has published the second edition of the ‘Feminist Movements Go Online’ e-zine which explores the theme of “Imagining Feminist Futures Online.”

In Brunei, a feminist zine gives space for every woman in the country “to speak up, to voice out their opinions, to celebrate their girl/womanhood, to encourage sisterhood, and to educate the public.”

The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) welcomed the High Court ruling on the judicial review it filed over the failure of police officers to display their distinctive identification numbers. The ruling said this was a breach of the Hong Kong Bill of Rights which “guarantees victims of police violence the right to reasonably identify the police officers who committed violence against them so that they can file civil or private lawsuits on their own.”

HKJA urged authorities to establish an independent investigation mechanism to deal with public complaints against the police.

The governor of Kerala in India signed an ordinance in November which withdraws an earlier ordinance containing an amendment to the Kerala Police Act. Software Freedom Law Center India (SFLC.IN) said the amendment “can cause law enforcement agencies to curb dissent and to clamp down on legitimate criticism of authorities and individuals.” It welcomed the action of the Kerala governor, describing it as a victory for free speech.

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Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) is a network of human rights journalists in Uganda working towards enhancing the promotion, protection and respect of human rights through defending and building the capacities of journalists, to effectively exercise their constitutional rights and fundamental freedoms for collective campaigning through the media.

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