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Historic court victories on right to privacy in India and LGBTQI+ in South Korea

Historic court rulings in India and South Korea affirming the right to privacy and the equal recognition of LGBTQI+ were among the inspiring stories in the month of August - islands in a sea of relentless attacks against members of the media across the Asia-Pacific region.

A participant takes part in the Korea Queer Culture Festival 2016 in central Seoul, South Korea, 11 June 2016
A participant takes part in the Korea Queer Culture Festival 2016 in central Seoul, South Korea, 11 June 2016


A big win for the right to privacy

Nine judges of India's Supreme Court unanimously ruled that right to privacy is protected as an intrinsic part of Right to Life and Personal Liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution and other freedoms guaranteed under Part III of the Constitution.

The ruling is related to the Indian government's collection of data for Aadhaar, the world's largest biometric identity scheme. Petitioners argued that the biometric system violates the right to privacy. In response, the government pointed out that the right to privacy is not a fundamental right.

The historic ruling, composed of 547 pages, not only affirmed the right to privacy but also described it as a "fundamental inalienable right, intrinsic to human dignity and liberty."

Human rights groups believe that the ruling will have a positive legacy in influencing privacy-related cases not only in India but in other countries as well.

Gender in focus

A South Korean LGBTQI+ foundation has won a three-year administrative and legal battle to register as a charity. The South Korean Supreme Court ruled that there's no reason why the Ministry of Justice should reject the Beyond the Rainbow foundation's application for accreditation.

Beyond the Rainbow documents discrimination against the LGBTQI+ community. Its registration as a charity will boost its work supporting LGBTQI+ groups because it can now offer donors tax deductions.

For three years, the group had unsuccessfully applied for recognition in various government agencies. The decision of the Ministry of Justice to reject the group's application for registration in April 2015 prompted the latter to file a case in the court.

Homosexuality is not a crime in South Korea, but discrimination against LGBTQI+ individuals persists, especially within the bureaucracy. Activists hope that the recent Supreme Court ruling will encourage government agencies and other institutions to rethink their discriminatory policies against members of the LGBTQI+ community.

Arrests, sedition cases, media killings

But while there's reason to celebrate the court victories in India and South Korea, the continuing spate of attacks against journalists, netizens, and activists in the past month is a grave reminder of the growing need to enforce greater protection of rights in the region.

In Vietnam, five people were arrested on charges of "attempting to overthrow the government" or "anti-state activities" under article 79 of the penal code. Four of them were members of the online group Brotherhood for Democracy. Earlier, Vietnam handed out long prison terms to two bloggers, an action which reflects the government's intensified crackdown on dissent.

It has also been a deeply troubling month for Thailand's free speech advocates. A journalist and two other critics of the junta were slapped with sedition cases over Facebook posts that highlight the undemocratic policies of the military-led government. Peace TV was suspended for one month over some episodes that allegedly "undermine national security", five academics who participated in an international conference were accused by the military of staging a protest which reportedly violated the ban on political assembly, and several individuals were convicted by local courts for "insulting" the monarchy. One of those convicted was an activist who simply shared a BBC profile of the new king.

In the Philippines, a volunteer broadcaster and a tabloid columnist were killed in Mindanao and another columnist survived an assassination attempt in Batangas, a province located south of Manila. These cases have brought the number of media killings under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte to four. Listed as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists, the Philippines has failed to stop media killings even after democracy was restored in 1986.

In Hong Kong, young leaders of the Umbrella Movement, which organized pro-democracy protests in 2014, were jailed for offenses under the Public Order Ordinance, sparking global outrage. The conviction would effectively bar the popular leaders from running for the Legislative Council and District Council of Hong Kong.

Cambodia: Silencing Tep Vanny and independent media

Cambodian land rights activist Tep Vanny remains in detention after a local court affirmed her conviction for "insulting a public official" during a protest. The government also revived previous cases against her which will likely extend her imprisonment. About 65 civil society organizations from around the world have signed a statement urging the Cambodian government to drop the trumped up cases against Tep Vanny and to stop criminalizing her activism.

But the Cambodian government seems intent on silencing not just activists but also members of the media who are deemed critical of the ruling party. The government has ordered more than a dozen radio stations which broadcast programs of the political opposition to stop operating due to licensing violations. The government also ordered the closure of Cambodia Daily for failing to pay taxes. Media groups believe authorities are simply trying to harass independent media ahead of the 2018 general elections. The ruling party has been in power for the past three decades but it lost a significant number of seats in the 2013 elections.

Aside from closing down several media outlets, Cambodia is also clamping down on foreign NGOs, which has led many institutions and even foreign governments to express concern about the deteriorating political situation in the country.

Censorship of books and academic journals

Cambridge University Press initially blocked more than 300 articles about China due to pressure from the Chinese government. Fortunately, it reversed its decision and rejected the demand of China to block more content. The issue also exposed how China is using its clout to censor information in academic institutions.

In India, a local court issued a preliminary injunction preventing the publication and sale of a biography of a spiritual guru. This was described by the Committee to Protect Journalists as an "excessive use of defamation laws to restrict the flow of information in India."

Also in India, novelist Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar was attacked by some groups which accuse him of misrepresenting the Santhal community. The writer's detractors have threatened to burn his effigy and his books, which they deride as pornographic.

Finally, in Malaysia, political cartoonist Zunar sued the police for "illegal arrest" and confiscating 1,187 books which he was planning to sell during an event last December. Zunar is a prominent critic of the prime minister who is facing various corruption scandals.

Also in Malaysia, the government has banned the book "Breaking the Silence: Voices of Moderation - Islam in a Constitutional Democracy" which was deemed prejudicial to public order. The book actually condemns extremism, which led some to accuse the government of being paranoid and suppressing free speech.

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