Asia-Pacific in May: Malaysia’s Election, Afghan Attacks, Defiant Newspapers

Malaysia’s ruling party was defeated at the polls after being in power for more than half a century, bomb attacks killed nine Afghan journalists, activists sought greater accountability from Facebook, and a movement was launched to counter the sexism displayed by the Philippine president.

Malaysia: Time to Repeal Repressive Laws

Free Man: Federal opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim holds his first press conference after his release in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Photo: Patrick Lee.

On May 9, the opposition coalition defeated the ruling party, which had been in power over the past 60 years. This historic victory has raised hopes that it will lead to the implementation of reforms in governance, in particular the abolition of laws that undermine free speech such as the Sedition Act 1948, Prevention of Crime Act 1959, Prevention of Terrorism Act 2015, Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, and the recently passed Anti-Fake News Act 2018.

Many expressed optimism because the election agenda of the new government included a commitment to promote freedom of expression.

A few days after the elections, the new ruling party worked for the release of former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim who had been under hospital arrest on politically motivated charges of corruption and sodomy. It also formed a Committee on Institutional Reforms to accept proposals on reforming the bureaucracy. Some news websites were also unblocked on May 17, such as the Sarawak Report and Medium. The travel ban on political cartoonist and activist Zunar was also lifted on May 14.

But a statement by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad that the government will amend the Anti-Fake News law by providing a clear definition of what constitutes fake news has alarmed civil society organizations because he had earlier vowed to abolish the law.

Around 20 civil society organizations signed a statement reminding the government to uphold the momentum for reforms. Instead of amending the Anti-Fake News law, they asserted that the “more effective solution to any disinformation and misinformation is the enactment of a Freedom of Information Act at the federal level.”

They added that “legislative reform must go hand-in-hand with the restructuring of national institutions to ensure accountability, independence, and respect for human rights”.

The Centre for Independent Journalism stressed that “this is not the time to prop up the relics of the previous administration that were used to silence its critics and to create a climate of fear.”

Afghanistan: Deadliest Day for Media

A double suicide bombing instantly killed nine Afghan journalists and injured eight others in the capital city of Kabul on April 30. The second bombing deliberately targeted the media, and was done by militants who posed as members of the press. The IS (Daesh) has claimed responsibility for the bombings.

Hours later, a journalist was killed in the southern city of Khost by unidentified gunmen. It was a deadly day for Afghanistan’s media.

According to Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF’s) tally, a total of 36 Afghan journalists and media workers have been killed since 2016, which reflects the worsening level of violence and impunity in the country. According to media groups, the perpetrators of the attacks are not only the Taliban and IS (Daesh), but also the police, army and, increasingly, the unofficial militias created by local warlords and politicians.

Hong Kong Journalists Attacked in Mainland China

Several Hong Kong journalists were attacked and briefly detained in China while doing their work.

On May 12, Chan Ho-Fai of I-Cable Television and Lui Tsz-Kin from Commercial Radio were beaten by two village officials in Dujiangyan City while covering the memorial activities for the 10th year anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake. The attackers were arrested by the police.

A few days later, NOW Television cameraman Chui Chun-Ming and journalist Lee Tung-yan were manhandled by Beijing police while interviewing a human rights lawyer. Chui was injured after he was grabbed by five non-uniformed police, despite showing his press identification, and was only released after he was forced to write a repentance letter.

In a separate incident, two people verbally attacked journalists outside the building of the Association of journalists from RTHK, I-Cable Television and Television Broadcasting Ltd. This was witnessed by four police officers, but they did nothing to apprehend the attackers.

Media groups led by the Hong Kong Journalists Association condemned the attacks and called on the Chief Executive of Hong Kong to raise these blatant violations of rights with Beijing officials. HKJA said that the government should assert the safety and protection of journalists instead of making “nonchalant comments” about complying with mainland laws.

#DearMark Campaign Demands Facebook Accountability

Several activists and human rights groups from Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, India, Syria, the Philippines, and Ethiopia met on the sidelines of RightsCon 2018 in Toronto and initiated a greater push for accountability from Facebook about its “role in abetting human rights abuses, spreading misinformation and manipulation of democratic processes” in the Global South.

“It is critical that Facebook respect the fundamental principle of equality on their platform, and work diligently to defend the rights of users regardless of the market in which they reside,” they said in a statement.

One of the proposals of the new coalition is to conduct “independent third party human rights audits” to be carried out in each country in which Facebook operates.

This campaign follows the earlier engagement of civil society groups which sent letters to Facebook about its inadequate response to the misuse of its platform for the propagation of hate speech and other content that promotes violence against minorities.

Focus on Gender: #BabaeAko Against Duterte’s Sexism and Misogyny

Women’s groups and activists in the Philippines launched the #BabaeAko (I am a woman) campaign to counter the anti-women remarks of President Rodrigo Duterte. They accused Duterte of exhibiting sexist and misogynistic behavior for issuing statements that discriminate and degrade women. Last month, for example, he said he will not appoint a woman chief justice.

Activists also decried the policies of Duterte that violate women’s rights such as the bloody anti-drug campaign and the intense militarization of indigenous peoples’ communities.

The #BabaeAko campaign also used the hashtag #LalabanAko (I will fight back). Below are some of the tweets of the campaign.

In response, Duterte’s spokesman said the controversial statements of the president on women were simply a play on words.

India: Journalist Rana Ayyub Fights Back

RSF has expressed concern about the threats faced by women journalists in India. One of the journalists facing online harassment is Rana Ayyub, who has written investigative articles about the prime minister.

But Ayyub is determined to stand her ground. “I am used to hate and to the state creating trouble for me. But this, what they have done to me now is a new low. And I have promised myself that I will take each one of them to court, I will fight back,” she told RSF.

Her case has reached the attention of the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.

In Brief: Newspapers in the News

The Fiji Times, its three executives, and an opinion columnist were cleared of the sedition charges filed by the Fiji government. The ruling was welcomed as a victory for free speech in Fiji and Oceania.

Former Bangkok Post editor Umesh Pandey wrote on his Facebook page that he was removed from his position because he rejected the demand of the paper’s management to tone down his stance on the military-backed government. But officials of the newspaper said that Pandey was transferred to another position in the company for another reason.

Several editors and staff reporters of Cambodia’s Phnom Penh Post resigned after expressing concern that the sale of the 26-year-old newspaper to a Malaysian public relations executive would undermine its editorial independence. Phnom Penh Post has been widely regarded as Cambodia’s only independent professional news site since the government shut down dozens of radio stations over tax and licensing issues in 2017.

And, finally, military authorities are accused of disrupting and blocking the distribution of Dawn, Pakistan’s oldest and one of the country’s most widely read newspapers. It was reported that the military was unhappy over an article published by the newspaper which featured an interview with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.


This post first appeared on the IFEX website and is cross-posted here with permission.

Mong Palantino is a Manila-based activist, former Philippine legislator for two terms and blogger/analyst of Asia-Pacific affairs. He joined Global Voices as regional editor for Southeast Asia in 2006. He is also Asia-Pacific regional content editor of IFEX.

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