Free Speech Threatened in South, Southeast Asia: Amnesty International

BenarNews Staff
160224-TH-Amnesty-1000 The Thailand office of Amnesty International launches the rights watchdog’s annual report for 2015/16, in Bangkok, Feb. 24, 2016.
Nontarat Phaicharoen/BenarNews

Freedom of expression is under attack in South and Southeast Asia, international human rights watchdog Amnesty International (AI) said in its 2015/16 annual report released Wednesday.

“In Bangladesh bloggers have been hacked to death for speaking their mind … In India, authorities have clamped down on civil society organizations critical of official policies,” said Champa Patel, Amnesty’s director for South and Southeast Asia.

Southeast Asia, meanwhile, is seeing “an increasing trend of sweeping restrictions on the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, including harsh powers to stamp out peaceful dissent in Thailand” and “Malaysia’s Sedition Act that has seen government critics on trial,” she added.

The latest installment of Amnesty’s annual “State of the World’s Human Rights” report also warned of a worldwide trend of governments “increasingly targeting and attacking activists, lawyers and others who work to defend human rights,” the London-based organization said in a news release.

‘Under severe pressure’ in Bangladesh

In Bangladesh, “independent media came under severe pressure and freedom of expression was restricted,” said the 406-page report, which also highlighted physical attacks on bloggers and publishers in 2015 that left five people dead.

Friday will mark the first anniversary of the killing by suspected militants of U.S.-Bangladeshi secular blogger Avijit Roy, as he and his wife were leaving the Ekushey Book Fair in Dhaka. Since then, three other bloggers and a publisher were slain in similar attacks by machete-wielding men.

Meanwhile, the editors of Bangladesh’s largest dailies, the English-language Daily Star and Bengali-language Prothom Alo, each are now facing scores of criminal defamation and sedition cases.

The cases were filed after Daily Star editor Mahfuz Aman admitted that his paper had published unsubstantiated allegations of corruption against the current prime minister and other politicians, when a military-backed caretaker government ruled Bangladesh in 2007-08.

As of Sunday, 54 criminal defamation cases and 15 sedition cases had been filed against Anam, and 55 cases had been lodged against Prothom Alo editor Motiur Rahman and journalists associated with his publication, for criminal defamation and “hurting religious sentiment,” according to New York-based Human Rights Watch.

The Amnesty report said that in October the government warned business enterprises they would be penalized if they advertised in Prothom Alo and the Daily Star, heaping pressure on the media outlets.

On Wednesday, a press adviser to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina defended her government against the criticism contained in the report.

“The government does not interfere with freedom of the press and expression,” Iqbal Sobhan Choudhury told BenarNews, adding that critical opinions are freely expressed in newspapers and television talk shows.

Choudhury denied that the government was going after the country’s two largest dailies through classified ads, saying that Amnesty should name the businesses that had been warned not to advertise in the Star and Prothom Alo.

Silencing dissent in Thailand

Elsewhere, Amnesty criticized Thailand’s military-controlled government for deepening repression and extending its powers in 2015 “to excessively restrict rights and silence dissent in the name of security.”

The junta intimidated the press, for example, by calling on media outlets to censor “negative” commentary, Amnesty said.

The Thai authorities also were more active in arresting and prosecuting people under the royal defamation law known as Lese-Majeste, and treating perceived slights against members of the monarchy as a security offense.

Military courts handed down “more and longer sentences than in previous years, including up to 60 years’ imprisonment” for violations of Lese-Majeste, according to Amnesty.

At a news conference in Bangkok during which Amnesty’s Thai office launched the report, a government official defended Thailand’s human rights record.

Over the past few years, the government has implemented positive measures aimed at improving human rights in the country, the official said.

Nongporn Roongpetchwong, who directs the Department of Rights and Liberty Protection, listed several examples, such as assignments of translators for foreign suspects, providing suspects with legal representation and the establishment of a witness protection program.

“The Department of Rights and Liberty Protection realizes the rule of law which exists to maintain human dignity and pride,” Nongporn said.

And in neighboring Malaysia, “the crackdown on freedom of expression and other civil and political rights intensified,” the Amnesty report said.

All this occurred in 2015 as Malaysia’s parliament amended the Sedition Act and passed a new Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA).

At least 15 people, including cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque – better known as Zunar – were charged for violating the amended Sedition Act, Amnesty noted. The act was amended to cover electronic media and included harsher, mandatory prison sentences.

In addition, “police used unnecessary or excessive use of force when arresting opposition party leaders and activists,” Amnesty reported.

The two giants

Amnesty went on to criticize the two largest countries in South and Southeast Asia for a range of alleged rights violations.

Among other issues, the watchdog cited cases of caste-based discrimination and violence in India against Dalits and Advasis, which were reported in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu states.

Amnesty also noted hundreds of thousands of crimes committed against Indian women last year, including rape, as well as the murders of two so-called “rationalists” who had spoken out against or written about religious intolerance and idolatry.

In Indonesia, Amnesty called out authorities, saying that police and military officials had violated human rights through “unlawful killings, unnecessary and excessive use of force, torture and other inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” It cited incidents in Maluku and Papua provinces as well as Jakarta.

The report, however, did recognize both countries for human rights gains made in 2015.

Amnesty credited Indonesia for releasing Filep Karma, a pro-independence activist in the eastern province of Papua, from prison in November. He had been locked up for more than a decade for raising a Papuan independence flag at a political ceremony in 2004.

AI also credited India for a ruling by its Supreme Court that struck down the Information Technology Act in March. The act had been used to prosecute activists and government critics for voicing opinions online.

Shahriar Sharif in Dhaka and Nontarat Phaicharoen in Bangkok contributed to this report.


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