A pro-democracy protester gives the three-finger salute during an anti-government rally at Wongwian Yai in Bangkok on Dec. 6. (Photo: AFP)
Fundamental freedoms of association, peaceful assembly, and expression have plummeted significantly across the world with Asia-Pacific faring poorly in 2019, says the new report from a global rights watchdog.
People Power Under Attack 2019 from CIVICUS Monitor, a global research collaboration, noted that twice as many people are living in countries where civic freedoms are being violated in the space of a year.
About 40 percent of the world’s population lived in repressive countries last year compared to 19 percent in 2018, and about 3 percent of the world’s population are now living in countries where their fundamental rights are, in general, protected and respected – which was 4 percent in 2018, said the report released on Dec. 8, two days before International Human Rights Day.
Out of a total 196 countries, 24 were rated with closed civic space, 38 countries with repressed space, and 49 with obstructed space. Just 43 countries receive an open rating, and 42 countries are rated narrowed.
The assault on civil society and fundamental freedoms has persisted in Asia-Pacific in 2019. The top five violations were censorship, restrictive laws, criminal defamation, harassment, and detention of protesters.
Closed civic space in Asia
In Asia, out of 25 countries, four have closed civic space with eight repressed and 10 obstructed. Civic space in Japan and South Korea is narrowed, leaving Taiwan as the only Asian country rated open.
“Our research shows that there continues to be a regression of civic space for activism across the region. The percentage of people living in Asian countries with closed, repressed or obstructed civic space is now at 95 percent” said Josef Benedict, Civic Space Researcher for CIVICUS.
The report expressed particular concerns over the trampling of fundamental civic rights in two Asian countries: India and Brunei.
India has been relegated to ‘repressed’ largely due to attacks on activists and journalists including assaults and killings for performing their duties.
In Brunei, fundamental freedoms have on the decline for years and it has been exuberated by the enactment of the revised Sharia (Islamic) penal code in April 2019.It intensified restrictions further by imposing the death penalty for various offenses including defaming the Prophet Mohammed and punishments against individuals for publications against Islamic beliefs.
Censorship is the most common civic space violation in Asia, occurring in 20 countries.China remains the worst offender as it continued to expand its censorship regime, blocking critical outlets, and social media sites. It was evident in the run-up to the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and during the anti-government protests in Hong Kong when the government blocked domestic coverage of these events and employed numerous internet trolls to disrupt social media narratives and control public discourse.
Other countries of the region including Bangladesh, Thailand and Pakistan have exploited censorship.
Bangladesh’s government blocked news outlets and websites that were critical of the state.In Thailand, censorship increased before the elections in March 2019 – international outlets were cut off and journalists were targeted. Journalists were also targeted in Pakistan, many were harassed or criminalized when they attempted to report the mass mobilization of ethnic Pashtuns demanding their rights.
Repression for power
At least 18 Asian nations used restrictive laws to stifle democratic and political rights, some of them adopting China’s authoritarian tactics to hold on to power and control freedom of expression.
Criminal defamation laws are commonly used in this region to repress activists and opposition members. Such laws were used in Bangladesh with scores of critics and journalists prosecuted under the draconian Digital Security Act. Malaysia’s criminal defamation laws were used to stamp out online criticism of religion and the monarchy, and in the Philippines, anyone who criticizes President Duterte now faces sedition and other charges.
The harassment of activists and journalists in Asia occurred in 18 countries. In China, activists are routinely placed under surveillance, house arrest or detained. Vietnamese activists are also placed under strict surveillance. In Cambodia, members of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party are routinely threatened or attacked.
The CIVICUS Monitor has been seriously alarmed by the harassment and attacks of protesters in Hong Kong. Civic space is rapidly shrinking in Hong Kong since mass protests against a proposed extradition bill began in June 2019. Security forces used excessive and lethal force against protesters and torture activists in detention.
Despite the bleak picture, there are some positive developments in parts of Asia. The Maldives repealed an anti-defamation law; Malaysia scrapped its repressive Anti-Fake News Act and Taiwan historically voted to legalise same-sex marriage.