Civic freedoms occupy a shrinking space in Asia Pacific
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Civic freedoms occupy a shrinking space in Asia Pacific

THE state of civic freedom in Asia and the Pacific is “dismal” with a staggering 94 percent of people living in “closed, repressed or obstructed civic space,” according to new research.

The report from CIVICUS Monitor, a global civil society alliance, found out of 23 countries in Asia, four countries are rated closed, six repressed and 10 obstructed.

Taiwan was the only country in the region considered open. While South Korea and Japan were both rated as narrowed.

“Activists are facing increasing levels of persecution in the region and the media is under assault,” said Josef Benedict, Civic Space Research Officer at CIVICUS.

“As governments seek ways to remain in power, citizens who take to the streets to seek changes are frequently met with violence and many are prosecuted.”

SEE ALSO: ‘A massacre is not a state secret’: Protests in Burma against jailing of journalists

The report pointed to specific cases, saying the level of censorship in China was “unprecedented” due to the invent of new technologies. This has allowed the ruling China’s Communist Party to clamp down on critics and bolster the “Great Fire Wall” that restricts what people can access online.

The plight of activists and human rights defenders across the region is bleak, the report said.

In Burma (Myanmar), the authoritarian practices of the old military government were starting to creep back into society with rights defenders being prosecuted and journalists reporting on the Rohingya crisis being imprisoned.

The report also pointed to the one-party government of Vietnam as being guilty of detaining hundreds of activists “as a means of maintaining control and silencing dissent.”


Detained Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo leave Insein court after listening to the verdict in Yangon, Myanmar September 3, 2018. Source: Reuters/Stringer

Thailand’s ruling military junta has banned political gatherings and rallies, as well as criminalised peaceful protest, as it “seeks ways to remain in power.”

Bangladesh was a country of particular concern for the organisations, who said their research has shown a significant drop in freedoms over the last two years. The report claims Bangladeshi authorities have increased their use of repressive laws to crack down on the freedom of assembly and target and harass human rights defenders and journalists.

The most recent example of this being the arrest and imprisonment of photojournalist Shahidul Alam.

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Shahidul was arrested in August, shortly after giving an interview to news network Al Jazeera and posting live videos on Facebook that criticised the government’s violent response to the 2018 Bangladesh road safety protests.

The 63-year-old photographer was charged with spreading propaganda and false information. On Nov 20, he was granted bail and released from jail.

“Tactics being used by governments – from Pakistan to Fiji – to control the public narrative include taking news channels of the air, intercepting the circulation of newspapers, blocking websites or intimidating and prosecuting journalists,” said Benedict.


An anti-government protester stands in front of riot police officers during a protest to demand that the military government hold a general election by November, in Bangkok, Thailand, May 22, 2018. The words on the fan read “People want to vote”. Source: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

One of the few bright spots is Southeast Asian, Malaysia, which witnessed a dramatic election year that put an end to the 61-year rule of the United Malays National Organisation-led government.

The May election was won by the Pakatan Harapan coalition who promised to bring civic space reforms after a mounting attack on freedom of expression from the previous government.

Government critics and pro-democracy activists who faced prosecution under the former Najib Razak-led government have since been acquitted or had their charges dropped, the report says.

SEE ALSO: Malaysia repeals controversial, short-lived ‘fake news’ law

The new government, led by 93-year-old political veteran, Mahathir Mohamed, has also made headway in ratifying international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The controversial Anti-Fake News Act imposed prior to the election to inhibit free press was also repealed in August.

This trend of repressing civic activism is not restricted to Asia Pacific but is a global trend that “continues to be a widespread crisis for civil society in most parts of the world,” the report found, with just four percent of the world’s population living in countries with open space for civil society.