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Blocked, banned and muzzled: Asia's tough month

The month of October saw the banning of websites, books, mass organisations, and, in the weeks leading up to the International Day to End Impunity For Crimes Against Journalists, on 2 November, an uptick in attempts to silence independent media by governments intent on eliminating what they deem 'threats' to national unity and public order.

Computer room at the Institute of Graduate Studies, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 18 December 2015
Computer room at the Institute of Graduate Studies, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 18 December 2015

Flickr/Nader Ale Ebrahim, ttribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


Blocked websites

The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission said it blocked 5,044 websites between January 2015 and October 2016 in Malaysia. The majority of these websites, 4,277 to be exact, are deemed pornographic, obscene and seditious. The rest deal with gambling, prostitution, and piracy. Recently, Fan Fiction claimed its website was rendered inaccessible in the country. Last month, an online gaming distributor was briefly blocked after it featured a game that was flagged down by censors for allegedly promoting religious violence.

In India, the Software Freedom Law Centre filed a Right to Information application regarding the total number of websites blocked in the country. The Cyber Laws and E-Security Group under Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology Group replied that about 23,030 websites are currently blocked in India. But the agency refused to provide additional information about the blocked websites.

In Pakistan, random tests conducted by the Open Observatory of Network Interference and Bytes for All involving 22 internet service providers revealed that more than 200 URLs have been blocked in the country between 2014 to 2017. Most of the blocked websites contained blasphemous content as defined under the Pakistan Penal Code. Meanwhile, the National Assembly Standing Committee on Information Technology and Telecommunication cited a report by the Pakistan Telecom Authority that at least 188 websites have been taken down for uploading blasphemous material.


Upswing in media killings, threats, and arrests

Pakistan Press Foundation has recorded several alarming incidents that reflect the hardships experienced by Pakistan's independent media. These include the decision of the administration of the city of Islamabad to cancel the publication licenses of the dailies Sahafat and Dopahr, the threatening ultimatum issued by outlawed armed groups Balochistan Liberation Front and the United Baloch Army against media who obey government injunctions against reporting on rebel activities, and the mystery surrounding the murder of Mashriq TV stringer Haroon Khan.

In Hong Kong, the editor and staff of the Hong Kong Free Press received threatening letters for publishing stories that 'spread hatred' against China.

The Pacific Freedom Forum reported that a TV journalist was assaulted during the Pacific Islands Forum in Samoa.

The head of Tanwir TV was injured in a gunman attack in northern Afghanistan. His security was killed.

Two reporters of Cambodia who are covering the election process were charged by a member of the ruling party for 'inciting' violence.

In Australia, the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA) condemned the Queensland Police for raiding the offices of the ABC in Brisbane. The raid was conducted to find leaked Cabinet documents which were used by journalists to report about environment budget cuts in 2012. Earlier, MEAA also criticized a Labor MP for publishing an attack ad against an ABC reporter.

In Maldives, the Raajje TV news channel has been slapped with exorbitant fines by the government for alleged defamation. The charges and the penalty are seen as an attempt of the government to silence the TV network.

In Nepal, Freedom Forum reported that the editor of the Malika Post daily was attacked by an unknown gang on October 6.

In southern Philippines, a broadcaster was killed after reporting about a local corruption issue. This is the fifth media killing incident after a new national government was sworn into office last year.

In the past two months in India, the Committee to Protect Journalists has recorded five threats to kill journalists for exposing anomalies in government.


Deteriorating democracy in Cambodia

Cambodia's ruling party led by Prime Minister Hun Sen continues to mount a crackdown against the political opposition, non-government organizations (NGOs), and the media. The main opposition party is under threat of being dissolved, its leaders are jailed or facing prosecution, and its parliament seats could be distributed to other parties, which is a betrayal of the electoral will.

Meanwhile, NGOs and media outlets that criticize government policies are either slapped with hefty tax bills or accused of being foreign agents. These punitive actions could be a strategy of the Hun Sen government to dominate next year's general election.

The deteriorating political situation in Cambodia has alarmed IFEX and 55 national, regional and international NGOs, and the groups initiated a petition urging immediate UN action, in particular the reconvening of the 1991 Paris Peace Conference - the source of the historic agreement that ended the conflict in the country and restored several democratic institutions.


Indonesian law undermines freedom of association

On October 24, Indonesia's House of Representatives passed a presidential decree into law that empowers the government to disband organizations even without a prior court order, amid warnings from legal experts and human rights activists that it puts civil liberties at risk. President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) had issued the suggested amendment to Law No. 17/2013 on Civil Society Organizations on July 10. The government's aim is to ban hardline or extremist groups, but the law gives the executive broad powers and far too much discretion to decide which groups are deemed a threat - easily extended to any that might express dissent.


From scholarship to cartoons: banned books in Malaysia

Malaysia's Home Ministry has banned the sale and distribution of books by Turkish author Mustafa Akyol and two Malaysians, Ahmad Farouk Musa and Faisal Tehrani, for being "prejudicial to public order." Meanwhile, political cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, popularly known as Zunar, said his latest collection of cartoons Sapuman: Man of Steal has been banned by the government again.

Akyol, a prominent journalist and scholar, was briefly detained in Malaysia on September 25 after religious authorities accused him of teaching Islam without getting official authorization from the government. Akyol was simply giving a lecture about his latest book.

Zunar's book, which depicts widespread corruption in the country, suffered the same fate as the cartoonist's 10 other book titles which have been banned by the government.

While the banning of books was upheld in Malaysia, it was prevented in one important case in India, when the Supreme Court dismissed a petition seeking to ban a book written by activist Professor Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd. The book, entitled Samajika Smugglurlu Komatollu, criticizes the oppressive caste system of India. The Supreme Court ruled that it is part of free speech and expression.


Focus on gender

For the fifth time this year, Indonesian police conducted a raid targeting LGBTQI+. The most recent case featured the raid of a sauna, which led to the arrest of 53 individuals. The police invoked the anti-pornography law in justifying the raid.

In Japan, a TV show aired an episode of a 1980s program which mocked the LGBTQI+ community. This generated public outrage, which forced the head of the TV company to apologize.

In Afghanistan, a report released by Human Rights Watch discussed the challenges facing girls in accessing education. The report cited government statistics showing the continuing disparity between girls and boys in terms of school access and literacy

But there's a bit of good news for gender rights in the region. The education secretary of the Philippines announced that schools are now ready to include LGBTQI+ topics in the curriculum.


#StopTheCrackdownVN

Accused of committing anti-state activities, Vietnamese student activist and blogger Phan Kim Khanh was sentenced to six years in jail and another four years on probation under Article 88 of Penal Code. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Phan Kim Khanh is among the 25 bloggers and citizen journalists who are currently detained in Vietnam. Among those who were recently convicted or whose jail terms were affirmed by the courts include bloggers and activists Me Nam (Mother Mushroom), Nguyen Van Oai and Nguyen Viet Dung.

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