Challenging start to the year in Asia-Pacific free expression

Graphic: IFEX

Report from IFEX

Journalists have been killed in terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan in separate incidents that took place in January 2016, heightening concerns over the continued targeting of media personnel.

On January 20, seven staff members of the Afghan Tolo TV were killed following a Taliban suicide attack in Kabul on a minibus that was transporting the station’s journalists. Thirty others were also injured in the attack.

International organisations issued a message of solidarity with the Afghan media. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) tweeted this:

IFEX members including the Afghanistan Journalists Center, Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the International Press Institute (IPI) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which ranked Afghanistan 122 out of 180 in their 2015 press freedom index, also reported on the attacks.

Earlier, two journalists were killed in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, a spot where militants have a stronghold. According to the IFJ, journalist Mehboob Shah Afridi of Aaj TV was killed in a suicide bomb attack on the outskirts of Peshawar on 19 January, while on 16 January, unidentified gunmen shot dead journalist Muhammad Umar, who was a correspondent with a local newspaper.

These incidents were not isolated, as journalists have been targeted across the country; a week before the office of the ARY News was attacked by unidentified attackers who hurled a hand grenade at the Islamabad office and a similar attack took place in November 2015 at the Faisalbad office of Dunya News TV.

It was noted with irony that Pakistan authorities had on 13 January searched the home of New York Times reporter Salman Mahmood, reportedly for terrorists. Media freedom activist Asad Baig tweeted:

Dawn, one of Pakistan’s national newspapers, commented that little action has been taken by the state and media houses to protect journalists, leading to the routine killings.

Missing booksellers
Continuing in the spotlight in January was the disappearance of five people associated with a publishing company in Hong Kong, believed to be held in China. The first to go missing, in Thailand, was Gui Minhai, a writer and co-owner of publishing house Mighty Current, which runs the Causeway Bay Bookshop and produces books said to be critical of the Chinese Communist Party, on 17 October 2015.

Three others – Lui Bo, Cheung Ji-ping and Lam Wing-kei – went missing in Shenzhen, China, between 20 and 26 October. Then, in December, a major stockholder in the company, Lee Bo, was reported missing by his wife.

Reports say Lee Bo has since met with his wife, secretly, and Chinese authorities have, after more than two weeks, confirmed that they have detained Lee in mainland China.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association had earlier written seeking clarification on their whereabouts, and the International Publishers Association issued a statement to express their concern that the Chinese government was attempting to quash free speech in the former British colony.

A leaked letter identified 14 publishing houses and 21 publications in Hong Kong as targets to be ‘exterminated’:

The South China Morning Post is monitoring the issue and has created a special page to compile updates and maintain a timeline of the incidents.

Digital rights
Several individuals were convicted for online expression, specifically for postings on the social networking platform, Facebook, that were deemed in breach of national security or defamatory by the respective governments and courts.

In Thailand, a 46-year old ex-stockbroker was sentenced to six years in jail for two Facebook posts about the king that were cited as having breached the country’s controversial lèse majesté law, according to the Bangkok Post.

As of December 2015, prosecutions under the insult law topped 60 since a coup was launched in mid-2014, and the military regime has attempted to get the compliance of online companies Facebook and Youtube to ban any content said to be defamatory to the monarchy.

In Burma, activist Patrick Khum Jaa Lee was sentenced to six months in prison for posting on his Facebook page comments about the country’s army chief. Critics and his family say there is no digital evidence to prove the crime, and that the charge under the Telecommunications Law threatens freedom of expression.

On a more positive note for digital rights, Bytes for All in Pakistan has created a series of cartoons on the importance of encryption to protect one’s privacy online as well as to ensure individuals are able to express themselves freely. As they say, “We believe the best way to respond to the attempts to put curbs on encryption is for everyone to learn about it and actively use it.”

Members calling for action
The Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance has come together with the Community and Public Sector Union to launch a campaign to restore adequate funds for Australia‘s national broadcaster – the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) – and to end government interference in the station’s editorial and programming. More details on the Hands Off Our ABC campaign are on MEAA’s website.

Key Regional Reports
Several groups painted a bleak picture for 2015 in terms of impunity in Asia, reflected in reports by the Pakistan Press Foundation and the Freedom Forum in Nepal. Other forms of attack against the media in Indonesia were recorded by Aliansi Jurnalis Independen, while the Thai Journalists Association reported that, in 2015, the atmosphere in Thailand was one of paranoia, and marked by control by the military regime. Amendments to the constitution in progress have worried activists and critics of the regime. Journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk, who was detained twice by the junta, tweeted on the targeting of students who challenge the regime.

South Pacific
In the South Pacific, Pacific Media Watch reports the IFJ released its report Strengthening Media in the Pacific – an insight into the media landscape and working conditions for media workers in Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

The report was a culmination of research and media consultation in the Pacific’s media in 2014 and 2015 and highlights the challenges and success stories from the region as the media continued to rapidly develop and grow.

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