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Commentary » International

Asia's basic freedoms fall short of international standards

Too many restrictions and not enough promotion of rights

Asia’s basic freedoms fall short of international standards
Renato Mabunga, Manila International

September 8, 2014

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There is a general lacuna in legal and institutional protection for freedom of assembly and expression in many Asian countries.

Most Asian countries emphasize restrictions rather than the promotion of freedoms.

Forum Asia, a regional human rights organization based Bangkok, found that Maldives, for instance, defines "assembly" as a gathering of two or more people expressing opinion or dissent.

Maldives' Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Act sets up a "red and green" demarcation to mark areas where people are allowed to speak of their concerns.

In this island paradise, protest rallies can only be held in the middle of the country’s surrounding ocean.

The law also imposes heavy restrictions on journalists covering protests.

Absurdly, the law purports to be about promoting rights.

Ahmed Rilwan, a Maldivian journalist, went missing on August 8 after reporting on a Maldives Broadcasting Commission threat-analysis report into threats to media freedoms in the country.

The report found that 84 percent of journalists surveyed had experienced harassment for doing their work.

Another five percent received threats on a daily basis, while approximately 43 percent said they did not report these threats to the authorities, presumably because such incidents are rarely investigated.

In Malaysia, the country's Peaceful Assembly Act requires organizers "10 days before the date of an assembly to notify the officer in charge of a police district in which the assembly is to be held”.

Thus, random public responses on matters of life and death have to wait for more than two weeks before they can be expressed publicly.

In May, Thailand’s military junta banned any political gathering of five or more people. Even if a gathering is not political, the government has the power to crack down on it out of mere suspicion.

On September 1, a presentation of a report titled Access to Justice in Thailand, written by local and international human rights groups in Bangkok, was cancelled by military officials, who threatened to charge the organizers under the ban.

Although Mongolia’s Constitution guarantees the right to assembly and freedom of expression, the country’s controversial criminal defamation and libel laws facilitate threat, harassment and pressure from authorities.

On August 19 a blogger was sentenced to three months in prison for exposing corruption and allegedly defaming via social media the country’s Minister for Roads and Transport.

The right to freedom of assembly is a gateway to freedom of expression and the attainment of all other rights.

These rights are basic to maintain a robust and functional democracy. Their regulation, if warranted at all, must strictly comply with international standards and not take the form of outright limitations.

It is unfortunate that existing laws on assembly in the region unduly curtail freedom of expression and the activities even of journalists.

Dr Renato Mabunga is chairman of Human Rights Defenders, a lobbyist at the UN Human Rights Council and a regional educator on human rights.

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