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Thailand’s biggest democracy protest, resisting digital abuse in Pakistan, and crackdown on activists in Cambodia and India (Demo)

The youth of Thailand continue to lead the movement calling for democracy and monarchy reforms. Pakistani women journalists are speaking out against digital abuse and sexual violence. Myanmar clamps down on free speech ahead of an important election. And dozens of activists in India and Cambodia have been arrested for their role in local protests.

Thai youth protesters call for democracy and monarchy reforms

On 19 September, more than 100,000 joined the protest in Bangkok calling for the dissolution of the Thailand parliament and the drafting of a new constitution. It was the biggest anti-government protest since the military grabbed power in 2014.

The protest proceeded despite reports of police intimidation and threats of arrests. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the former army general who led the 2014 coup, also made a televised address discouraging people to go out by arguing that the rally could cause a spike in COVID-19 cases.

On 20 September, protesters claimed a symbolic victory after they succeeded in submitting a petition to the king’s Privy Council about their demands to reform the monarchy.

The student leaders were later charged by pro-royalist forces for insulting the monarchy .

Myanmar: Free speech restrictions ahead of polls

There has been a noticeable surge of incidents undermining freedom of expression in Myanmar ahead of the general elections scheduled for November this year.

Activists face prosecution for violating the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law. On 4 September, activist poet Maung Saungkha was convicted for organizing a protest against the continued internet restriction in several townships of Rakhine and Chin states.

The government has ordered the blocking of websites spreading hoaxes and disinformation, but the list included ethnic news media that provide independent coverage of what’s happening in many remote communities. A recent order led to the blocking of the ‘Justice for Myanmar’ website which was launched this year to expose the corruption and dubious business ties of the military.

Crackdown on protests in Cambodia

On 9 September, around 35 civil society groups in Cambodia signed a statement calling for the release of seven youth activists who were arrested for organizing a protest action in support of detained union leader Rong Chhun. Three were environment advocates who were planning a march to raise awareness about the destructive impact of a project in Boeung Tamok lake.

“We are extremely concerned about the use of incitement charges as a weapon to silence civil debate and strangle civic engagement.”

Since last month, civil society groups have monitored the violent dispersal of peaceful protests, the arrest of more than a dozen activists, and the harassment of family members of the opposition party. This disturbing trend is taking place as the government is considering the passage of a law on public order which contains provisions that could further curtail people’s civil liberties.

IFEX member the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) reported that 28 activists have been arrested since 31 July in four provinces. Of the 28 arrested, 8 were subsequently released, and 20 remain in detention.

Pakistani journalists charged for criticizing the military

Several journalists in Pakistan who posted critical reports and statements about the military were charged for alleged violations of the Pakistan Penal Code and the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act.

Journalist Asad Toor, a producer of a prime time show for Samaa TV, was charged for “posting negative propaganda against the state, Pakistani institutions and the Pakistan Army on his social media account.”

Bilal Farooqi, news editor of The Express Tribune, was accused of sharing ‘highly objectionable material’ that ‘defamed’ the Pakistan Army on his Twitter and Facebook accounts.

Absar Alam, a journalist who used to head the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, is facing a police investigation for suspected sedition and treason after he criticized the prime minister and the military.

Meanwhile, journalist Ahmad Noorani received death threats after publishing an investigative story about the business fortunes of close relatives of a retired army officer.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has expressed concern about the filing of cases against critical journalists. “The alarming increase in such actions against journalists confirms that the government is bent on muzzling freedom of expression.”

Women journalists in Pakistan: ‘Together against digital abuse’

On 12 August, more than 70 Pakistani women journalists released a statement condemning the online violence instigated by ruling party officials and their supporters. This was followed by another statement released on 7 September and signed by more than 150 women journalists detailing the gender-based attacks, sexualized abuse, and persecution they are experiencing.

Here’s an excerpt from the statement titled ‘Together against digital abuse’:

“Out of fear of being hounded and harassed; and our dignity violated through vile abuse, many of us self-censor.”

They have addressed several demands to the government, including the initiation of formal investigations and action against officials for whom there is evidence that they are directly or indirectly engaged in discrediting and harassing women in media.

They added that the ruling party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, should take the lead in reviewing its social media policies for supporters, in order to set an example for other parties.

IFEX member the Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) said the government should act swiftly on these demands. “State inaction sends a message to women in the journalist community that they are on their own and in the long term discourages young women from joining the profession.”

The DRF also raised concerns about the death of Shaheena Shaheen, a Balochistan journalist who was shot dead inside her home. DRF said this reflects the persistent structural violence and discrimination faced by women journalists in the country.

Foreign journalists face harassment in Hong Kong and mainland China

Australian journalist Cheng Lei, who works as an anchor for the Chinese state broadcaster CGTN, was detained without formal charges. This was followed by threats made against two other Australian journalists, Bill Birtles of ABC and Mike Smith of the Australian Financial Review, forcing them to seek diplomatic assistance before evacuating China. The harassment against Australian journalists is linked to the escalating diplomatic tension between Canberra and Beijing.

But recently, other foreign journalists known for their critical reporting have experienced harassment.

For instance, the Los Angeles Times Beijing Bureau Chief Alice Su was detained for more than four hours and released without charge while researching a story in China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

Authorities have resorted to ‘visa weaponization’ to expel journalists. The work visa of New York Times correspondent Chris Buckley was rejected in Hong Kong. The same action was done for the visa application of Hong Kong Free Press editor Aaron Mc Nicholas.

In brief

Breaking: The Indian government’s ‘constant harassment’ has forced Amnesty International to halt its operations and campaigns in the country. The latest example was the complete freezing of Amnesty International’s bank accounts. The group criticized the government’s treatment of human rights groups as a criminal enterprise, and accused authorities of attempting “to stoke a climate of fear and dismantle the critical voices in India.”

In Malaysia, the Centre for Independent Journalism launched a petition calling on the government to protect media freedom in the country amid newspaper closures, COVID-19 impact on media operations, and the filing of harassment suits and investigations against journalists by officials of the new government.

In the Philippines, 18 organizations and 164 individuals have sent a letter to UNESCO regarding the latter’s classification of the Ampatuan Massacre as ‘resolved’. It refers to the 2009 killing of 58 individuals, including 32 journalists, in southern Philippines by armed goons of a local politician. UNESCO acknowledged the letter and affirmed that the case should still be considered as ‘ongoing/unresolved’.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that several activists in India have been arrested on politically-motivated charges. Dozens of human rights defenders, journalists, and academics are already in jail for their participation in community protests. Two cases of arrests this month were related to communal violence, yet supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party who were implicated in these incidents were never investigated.

In Laos, several human rights and media groups have called for the release of Houayheuang Xayabouly, also known as Muay, who has been in detention since September 2019 for posting a Facebook video criticizing the Laos government’s response to a flooding disaster.

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