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Religious fundamentalism restricts space for free expression in Asia, report finds

Pallbearers carry the body of Faisal Arefin Deepan, a publisher of secular books, during his funeral in Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1 November 2015. Deepan was hacked to death and three other people wounded in attacks in Bangladesh's capital that were claimed by Muslim radicals.
Pallbearers carry the body of Faisal Arefin Deepan, a publisher of secular books, during his funeral in Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1 November 2015. Deepan was hacked to death and three other people wounded in attacks in Bangladesh's capital that were claimed by Muslim radicals.

A.M. Ahad

This article was originally published on bytesforall.pk on 9 December 2016.

Restrictions on the freedom of expression in the context of religion are eroding the space for democratic discussions including academic and legal discourse in Asia, Reveals 'Desecrating Expression: An Account of Freedom of Expression and Religion in Asia' a study by Bytes for all, Pakistan and FORUM-ASIA.

Key findings of the study refute the common perception that these restrictions are prevalent in Islamic countries, only. As these violations are also prevailing in countries such as India, Sri Lanka and Myanmar.

The study shows how States legitimize violence against religious minorities and those who raise voice against injustices. Attacks and violence by non-state actors against dissent are also noted with concern in the case studies highlighted.

"Cases of violations studied in the report are a result of state and non-state action in the name of defending religion. Ironically, these restrictions on free speech in fact violate freedom of religion," argues Gayatri Khandhadai, the author of the report.

The murder of 39 bloggers in Bangladesh since February, 2013 and cases of criminal charges brought against netizens in Pakistan for their views on religion, are some of the glaring examples of these violations. “This trend is indeed alarming as we are losing our freedoms on the internet as well, which is our last bastion of free speech”, said Shahzad Ahmad, Country Director for Bytes for All.

The study highlights the need to have mutual respect and acceptance to ensure co-existence of beings practicing various religions. “Acceptance of different religious beliefs is crucial to achieving respect and protection of all religions. For any freedom of belief to be properly enjoyed by all, tolerance and acceptance is essential”, said Andrew Puddephatt, Executive Chair for Global Partners Digital.

"Freedom of belief, expression and assembly are unprecedentedly under threat of politics of hate and increasing intolerance in many countries. This is the more reason for global solidarity for these freedoms and human rights overall, particularly of minority communities", says John Samuel, Executive Director of FORUM-ASIA.

Bytes for All, calls for the recommendations in the report to be implemented by the state and international institutions. Particularly, it calls for the repeal of laws criminalizing speech across Asia and for international institutions to focus on its impact on the internet, minorities and women on account of such restrictions.

The study focused nine countries of Asia. Including, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Vietnam, which have recorded a significant number of violations on freedom of expression on account of religion or religious sensitivities in the context of religion.

This study is launched in collaboration with Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum Asia), Global Partners-Digital and Association for Progressive Communications.

The report is accessible here.

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