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Asia-Pacific in November: Hong Kong freedom under siege, APEC, Rappler indictment, and same-sex marriage referendum loss in Taiwan

Hong Kong's free speech under attack, media restrictions at APEC summit, Rappler indicted, Shahidul Alam freed on bail, Pakistan court overturns blasphemy conviction, and disappointing referendum loss for same-sex marriage advocates in Taiwan.

Journalists and activists stage a protest calling to defend press freedom on January 19, 2018, in suburban Quezon City in Metro Manila, Philippines.
Journalists and activists stage a protest calling to defend press freedom on January 19, 2018, in suburban Quezon City in Metro Manila, Philippines.

Jes Aznar/Getty Images


Hong Kong's 'death knell' for free speech

Mainland China's increasing dominance in Hong Kong politics has become increasingly evident, with more cases undermining free speech recorded in November.

On 3 November, an art exhibit by Chinese-Australian political cartoonist Badiucao was cancelled due to threats reportedly made by Chinese officials to the artist. Badiucao was also scheduled to appear in an online video call but this too was shelved.

On 8 November, Financial Times editor Victor Mallet was denied entry to Hong Kong as a tourist following hours of interrogation by airport immigration officers. Last month, his work visa was not renewed after he hosted a talk organized by the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club with pro-independence advocate Andy Chan Ho-tin.

On the same day, an events venue abruptly cancelled the hosting of a talk by exiled Chinese novelist Ma Jian at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival. The cancellation sparked global condemnation which led to the reversal of the decision and allowed Ma to continue with his talk. Nevertheless, the incident was seen as an act of self-censorship aimed at avoiding a potential retaliation from Beijing authorities.



On 19 November, the three founders of Hong Kong's 'Occupy Central' movement, more popularly known as the 'Umbrella Movement', stood trial on charges of conspiracy to commit public nuisance and incitement to commit public nuisance. Their case highlights the continuing crackdown on pro-democracy activists.

Several media and human rights groups issued a joint statement condemning the decline of civil liberties in Hong Kong. They expressed concern about how China's notorious tools of censorship are increasingly being applied in Hong Kong, which in the past month alone saw a journalist, a novelist, an artist, and activists affected. And they raised an urgent question: "If people can no longer speak their mind, what place is there for press freedom?"


Sidelining the media at APEC meet

Several duly accredited Pacific journalists were barred by Chinese officials from covering some meetings at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation annual summit held during 12-18 November in Papua New Guinea. Even local journalists were prevented from accessing some meetings, including the China-funded Pacific Forum Leaders, held ahead of the APEC summit in Nauru.

Pacific Freedom Forum urged Papua New Guinea's leaders to reject Chinese bullying and ensure that media freedom is protected as China's influence continues to grow in the region.

But media woes didn't end with the conclusion of the APEC summit. Several reporters were manhandled by APEC security personnel who stormed the parliament building in protest over the non-remittance of their overtime pay. Media groups have asked the government to probe this attack.

It was also during this period that the deputy regional head of news at state-owned EMTV station, Scott Waide, was suspended for rebroadcasting a story from a New Zealand TV report on the controversial procurement of Maserati luxury cars which were used during the APEC conference. Waide's suspension lasted only a few days following a strong online campaign demanding his reinstatement.

On his blog, Waide asserted that the media should be free to hold those in authority to account. "This means highlighting flaws in policy and making sure mistakes are pointed out and corrected”, he said: “It is an essential part of our democracy".



Philippine government indicts Rappler

Tax charges were filed by the Philippine government against news website Rappler and its president, Maria Ressa. An arrest warrant was issued by a local court but Ressa managed to post bail.

Rappler has rejected the allegations that it violated tax laws.

Many believe that Rappler is facing legal persecution because of its critical coverage of the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte. Earlier this year, Rappler's license to operate was revoked after it was accused of violating the country's laws restricting foreign ownership of the mass media. A Rappler reporter was also barred from entering the presidential palace and covering the activities of the president. Duterte himself has publicly criticized Rappler for spreading 'fake news' about his government.

The Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters without Borders have sent a letter to the government urging the withdrawal of charges against Rappler. "We view the tax evasion charges, which carry potential 10-year prison penalties under local law, as a clear and present threat to press freedom", they said.



The government indictment of Rappler reflects the worsening state of media freedom under the Duterte presidency. A recent study compiling media attacks showed that 12 journalists have been killed since 2016, the year when Duterte became president. Threats, physical attacks and libel suits against the press have increased in the past two years, which has coincided with the government's bloody 'war on drugs' and its imposition of Martial Law in the southern part of the country.


In brief: Court updates

In Bangladesh, veteran photojournalist Shahidul Alam was released on bail on 15 November after 100 days of arbitrary detention. Alam was arrested last August after posting Facebook videos of student protests. He was charged under Section 57 of the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Act for spreading 'false information'. ARTICLE 19 said Alam's release should be followed by the dropping of charges against him and the repeal or reform of the 'repressive' Section 57 of the ICT law, which is often used to silence critics of the government.



In Burma, the incitement case filed by Yangon City officials against Eleven Media reporters has been withdrawn. The case was filed last October after Eleven Media published a report which raised doubts about the city's budgeting process. Three Eleven Media reporters were jailed for a few weeks but were eventually allowed to post bail. Their detention and the earlier conviction of two Reuters journalists for violating the Official Secrets Act put into spotlight the restriction of free speech under the supposedly reformist government led by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

In Pakistan, the Supreme Court has quashed the blasphemy conviction of Asia Bibi, who has been on death row for the past eight years. Bibi has been released from jail but her safety is still a concern because of threats coming from religious extremists. Human Rights Watch urged Pakistan to draw lessons from the case and review the country's blasphemy laws.


Focus on gender

In Taiwan, a referendum on marriage equality was won by conservative groups opposed to same-sex marriage. Despite the loss, the campaign for LGBTQI+ rights continues since the parliament can still draft a separate law for same sex unions. Taiwan's top court ruled in May 2017 that the country's legal definition of marriage is unconstitutional and it gave the parliament two years to amend or pass a law that will incorporate same-sex marriage.

In Indonesia, a teacher was sentenced to six months in prison by the Supreme Court for documenting the sexual harassment she experienced at work. Public outrage over the verdict has forced the Office of the Attorney General to suspend her imprisonment.

And finally, in Nepal, the #MeToo movement has inspired women journalists and artists who faced sexual assault and misconduct to share their stories and seek justice. Some of those accused of committing sexual harassment are local officials and members of the ruling party.

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