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‘Tiananmen Square’ censorship, #LoveWins in Taiwan, Malaysia falters on reforms, and Indonesia’s post-election violence (Demo)

China censors ‘Tiananmen Square massacre’

‘June 4’ became the most heavily censored topic on the Chinese internet ahead of the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. It refers to that fateful day when the military opened fire on peaceful Beijing protesters who were demanding political reforms. The crackdown ended months of student protests which came to be known as the 89 Democracy Movement. At least 2,700 civilians were killed, but some studies suggest that the death toll could be higher.

Aside from censoring terms related to ‘June 4’ and ‘Tiananmen Square massacre’ in social media channels, authorities also suppressed internet content that made reference to this important moment in China’s modern history. A video ad by camera company Leica went viral in China but was quickly restricted in Chinese cyberspace because it featured the ‘tank man’ – the lone protester who faced a military tank during the 1989 crackdown. The word ‘Leica’ was also censored for several days to stop Internet users from commenting about the video.

Meanwhile, a filmmaker was arrested for retweeting an image of a liquor bottle with a label alluding to the ‘June 4 Tiananmen Square massacre’.

There were several initiatives across East Asia to commemorate the legacy of the 89 Democracy Movement. In Hong Kong, a video project seeks to document the testimonies of journalists who covered the Tiananmen Square massacre. In Taiwan, a giant inflatable ‘tank man’ art installation was unveiled in central Taipei.

Zhou Fengsuo, a survivor of the 1989 crackdown, has a piece of advice on how to honor the participants of the 89 Democracy Movement. “The most important thing is that we need more people to talk about their stories.”

Malaysia: What happened to the reform agenda?

A year ago, in May 2018, the Pakatan Harapan coalition defeated the United Malays National Organization, which has been Malaysia’s ruling party since 1957. Pakatan Harapan ran on a platform of ending government abuse, corruption, and the use of draconian laws to silence dissenting views.

At first, there were encouraging signs of change such as the creation of a committee to study policy reforms, the ending of criminal proceedings against some prominent critics – like opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and political cartoonist Zunar – the declaration of a moratorium on the use of the Sedition Act, and the repeal of the controversial Anti-Fake News Act by the lower Parliament.

But hopes were dashed by the government’s failure to ratify international human rights treaties, the senate decision to restore the law against fake news, and the continued use of laws such as the Sedition Act 1948, Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 and Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 to prosecute critics and activists.

Civil society groups have been urging Pakatan Harapan to revisit its campaign manifesto and the reforms it promised to deliver after it clinched a landslide election victory a year ago.

Social media restricted to stop violence in Indonesia and Sri Lanka

Indonesia restricted social media usage for three days after an election protest turned violent on 22 May. Supporters of defeated presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto reportedly clashed with the police while protesting against the election result which was announced that day. At least seven journalists were attacked by both police and protesters during the scuffle.

Authorities justified banning apps such as Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook and Telegram by voicing concerns about hoaxes and the use of fake news to sow fear and violence.

But media groups like Aliansi Jurnalis Independen (AJI) reminded the government about the negative public impact of a social media ban during crisis situations. “While we understand the government’s intention to stop the distribution of false information and protect the public during violent protests, the decision has also inadvertently restricted public’s access to factual information.”

AJI added: “We ask the government to engage with social media providers so they can be actively involved in stopping the spread of false information and hate speeches through transparent mechanisms with a stronger legal basis.”

Indonesia’s social media ban is similar to what the Sri Lanka government implemented after a series of bomb attacks in the capital city of Colombo in April. Unfortunately, violence erupted again in the southern part of Sri Lanka when houses and shops of Muslims were attacked by a mob on 12 May. Again, the government’s response to defuse tension was to impose a curfew and a temporary ban on social media.

#LoveWins: Taiwan legalizes same-sex marriage

Taiwan became the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage after its parliament voted in favor of marriage equality on 17 May. The president herself made the announcement, via Twitter:

Hundreds of LGBTQI+ couples were married on 24 May – the day when the law took effect. This victory was achieved after many years of asserting the rights of LGBTQI+ couples. In 2017 the Supreme Court ruled that the country’s marriage laws were discriminatory, and gave the Parliament two years to fix this.

A referendum in 2018 had shown that public opinion rejected same-sex marriage. But marriage equality advocates persevered and actively engaged lawmakers to pass a law before the expiration of the court’s two-year deadline. Some think it’s a half-victory for rainbow families, because the law has a provision which stipulates that adoption is granted as a right to same-sex couples – but only if the adopted child is biologically related to one of the parents.

In brief

After spending 511 days in detention for doing an investigative piece on the military atrocities in a Rohingya community in northern Myanmar, Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were released on 7 May. A presidential pardon was granted following more than a year of a vigorous global campaign calling for the freedom of the two reporters. Meanwhile, the seven soldiers who were convicted for committing the massacre were given an early release from prison despite serving a ten-year sentence.

Singapore’s Parliament approved the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) on 8 May. Commonly known as the anti-fake news law, POFMA gives broad, unchecked powers to government ministers to determine what online information is “false” and demand that it be censored or corrected.

Well-known poet Henry Sawpon, activist lawyer Imtiaz Mahmood and human rights activist Abdul Kaium were arrested on separate occasions in Bangladesh for “hurting religious sentiment”, undermining “law and order”, and violating the Digital Security Act 2018. What the three have in common was their social media posts which ‘offended’ religious leaders, local traders, and authorities. Their cases validated the concern of many about the role of the Digital Security Act 2018 in persecuting critics. Sawpon and Mahmood have already been released on bail, but Kaium remains in detention.

Mina Mangal, a former television presenter for three private channels who became a parliamentary adviser, was shot dead on 11 May in Kabul, Afghanistan. It is unclear whether her killing is related to her professional work, but it raised a concern about the violence faced by women and journalists in the country. Before her death, she was working with officials on crafting policies aimed at protecting women facing threats.

And finally, media groups in Nepal have warned that instead of providing autonomy to the press, the proposed Media Council Bill will establish a government organ that could curtail press freedom. “When media stakeholders are asking for more autonomy for the Press Council and to develop it into a self-regulatory mechanism, the government has tried to turn it into a government organ, where the government can have all the control”, said Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ) president Mr. Acharya.
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