Cases involving online content deemed challenging the state in strong one-party countries in the Asia & the Pacific featured in March. In China, more than 20 people have been arrested over an open letter published online that called for the resignation of President Xi Jinping. The letter was first published on the overseas-Chinese website, Canyu.org, and later made available on a state-backed website, Wujie News on 4 March. Columnist Jia Jia was one of the first few to be detained on 15 March, as he was alleged to have had links with the letter online. He has since been released. According to a BBC report, sources from Wujie News confirmed the arrests, which now include family members of a popular blogger living in the United States and a journalist based in Germany. The Committee to Protect Journalists said blogger Wen Yunchao informed them that his family in Guangdong province had been taken by unidentified people but that the police had visited his family several times and questioned them about his alleged involvement in the publication and dissemination of the letter. Some have questioned the authencity of the letter and how it appeared on a pro-Beijing platform, fuelling suspicions that Wujie could have been hacked and the the item deliberately posted. The issues raised in the letter come on the heels of an increased crackdown on dissenters and stricter controls of the media.
Amnesty International researcher William Nee tweeted on the need to abolish residential surveillance in China:
Human Rights Watch China director Sophie Richardson tweeted this in response to the incident:
This incident is one of many of the reported struggles related to online expression in China occurring this month. The CPJ had released a report on 3 March about the censorship practices of a popular social media site, Weibo, based on documents it received from a former employee who worked in the online platform's censorship department. The report said the documents shed light on how the site walks the fine line between “appeasing government censors and encouraging users to keep posting to its site”, as it has become the go to place to share and discuss contentious issues that don't make it to the media.
In Vietnam, the court sentenced two bloggers on 23 March to prison terms on charges of “abusing democratic freedoms”, a move that has been condemned by the CPJ. Nguyen Huu Vinh is founder of the news website and aggregator Ba Sam, and his editorial assistant, Thi Minh Thuy, were sentenced to five and three years respectively under article 258 of the Penal Code. CPJ reports that this piece of legislation has been used extensively by the Vietnamese authorities to stifle media criticism and persecute independent bloggers and journalists. Human rights activists and independent bloggers have long criticised the government's repressive laws, among others, describing them as laws of state impunity. The UN Office of Human Rights in Bangkok said it was very concerned by the convictions and vagueness of the charges, according to an AFP report. Also criticizing the move was the International Federation for Human Rights:
In Hong Kong, IFEX members, the International Federation of Journalists and the Hong Kong Journalists Association said they strongly opposed the government's continued discrimination against online media and student newspapers which were prohibited from covering the local by-elections. Both the IFJ and HKJA said online journalists have been barred from official or government events in the past and demanded that the outdated policy, which violates the principle of press freedom, should be changed.
In Malaysia, critics of the government have taken to creative and online protests, including spreading political images for sharing, printing and real-life graffitis. One artist, whose now popular clown image of the country's prime minister has gone viral online and offline, is Fahmi Reza. The images have been featured by international and regional media, among them, the Bangkok Post, DNA India, Kompas (Indonesia), Australia's Four Corners programme, BBC World Service and Al-Jazeera. Fahmi's tweet below challenges the Malaysian mainstream media which are mostly pro-government, for ignoring the phenomenon.
Berita badut Najib dah masuk akhbar UK, France, HK, India, S'pore, Indonesia, Filipina, Brunei & Thailand. Malaysia? pic.twitter.com/yQLsqfAvq0— Fahmi Reza (@kuasasiswa) March 30, 2016
In Pakistan, a District and Sessions Court in Karak Province convicted a man for the murder of Jang Group journalist Ayub Khattak. Aminullah, who targeted and killed Ayub Khattak on 11 October 2013, was sentenced to life imprisonment and fined an equivalent of USD50,000. In welcoming the news, the IFJ and the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists said it is an important step to end impunity in media killings in the country. To date, the IFJ said Aminullah's conviction is only the third when more than 100 journalists have been killed since 2000.
In Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch and the Afghanistan Journalists Center reported an alarming 85% increase in incidents of violence, threats, intimidations and insults of journalists over the past year. Government officials and elements of the Afghan military account for most of the attacks, but both organizations also recorded increased intimidation and violence by non-state figures, particularly in relation to reporting on sensitive issues. These can be anything from land grabbing to violence against women and human rights abuses, similar to trends reported by other IFEX members monitoring attacks against journalists in countries like Cambodia, India and the Philippines.
Access to information and free expression laws
Across the region, several countries are taking closer steps to introducing access to information laws, while criminal defamation threatens to take root in others. In Sri Lanka, a right to information bill is scheduled to be tabled in Parliament in the current sitting, while the Solomon Islands has announced it hopes to have a similar legislation by 2017. In the Maldives, media outlets are protesting against the Bill on Defamation and Freedom of Speech, which they claimed could severely restrict free speech in the country. According to an online news website, Haveeru.com, among others, the bill contains broad descriptions of what could be classified as defamation and any remark aimed at harming the sovereignty and integrity of the state can be considered as comments threatening national security.
The Pacific Island News Agency (PINA) hosted the 4th Pacific Media Summit in Palau from 21-25 March 2016 with the theme “Harnessing Opportunities for the Pacific Media in the Digital Age”. PINA president Moses Stevens said the biennial gathering was an opportunity for journalists to exchange views based on their experiences and find common solutions to use the “new innovations to inform, educate and entertain our people.” Lawyer and digital rights activist from Pakistan, Nighat Dad, whom we profiled in 2015, delivered the keynote speech at the conference, of which IFEX is one of the supporters.
PACNEWS editor Makereta Komai tweeted at the summit: