The Debate | Opinion

2019 Was a Dark Year for Civic Freedoms in Asia

In Asia, 95 percent of people live in countries that violate political and democratic freedoms.

By Josef Benedict for
2019 Was a Dark Year for Civic Freedoms in Asia
Credit: Pixabay

The assault on fundamental freedoms and civil society is escalating across the globe. Over the last decade we have seen governments use various tactics to silence dissent and target their critics. Protest movements seeking political reforms or challenging dire economic conditions were met with brutal force by security forces while civil society organizations have been denied funding or faced smear campaigns. 2019 has sadly not been very different, as we saw ongoing violations of civic freedoms, particularly the censorship of the media and online spaces, as well as the judicial harassment of activists and journalists, especially in Asia.

Findings based on data released this month by the CIVICUS Monitor in its recent People Power Under Attack 2019 report — which rates and tracks respect for fundamental freedoms in 196 countries — shows that compared to the previous year, twice as many people are living in countries where their civic space or freedoms of association, peaceful assembly, and expression are being violated. According to the research, 40 percent of the world’s population now lives in countries rated with repressed civic space compared to 19 percent in 2018.

In a historic year for protests, millions poured into the streets to claim their rights. While the protests in Hong Kong gained most of the limelight, the region also saw mass protests by ethnic Pashtuns in Pakistan demanding accountability for human rights abuses, as well as in Indonesia, where communities rose up to protest against a controversial criminal code. Yet, instead of facilitating peaceful assembly, too often the governments have used repression, not dialogue. In at least 96 countries around the world, authorities have detained protesters, disrupted marches, or used excessive force to prevent people from exercising their right to peaceful assembly.

This situation is particularly alarming in Asia. The percentage of people living in Asian countries with closed, repressed or obstructed civic space is now at 95 percent. The only exceptions are South Korea and Japan, where civic space is rated as narrowed, while Taiwan is the only country rated open according to the CIVICUS Monitor.

Among the top documented violations in Asia are censorship, the use of restrictive laws to silence dissent, and the harassment of activists and journalists.

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China continues to be a primary perpetrator, as it expands its censorship regime, blocking critical news outlets and social media sites. This was demonstrated in the run up to June’s 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and also around the anti-government protests in Hong Kong, where the government blocked news coverage of the protests, deployed trolls against protesters and mounted disinformation campaigns. To make matters worse, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, China also imprisoned the most journalists in 2019.

Unfortunately, censorship goes well beyond China with violations of freedom of expression reported in at least 19 other countries in Asia. In Bangladesh, the authorities have blocked numerous online newspapers and websites critical of the government. In Thailand, censorship was heavily used in the run up to the March elections and included the targeting of journalists. In Pakistan, the authorities have restricted media coverage of protest movements and journalists are regularly harassed.

People in Asia have also witnessed the use of internet and telecommunications shutdowns. This year, communications blackouts were imposed in West Papua, where protests took place in support of independence from Indonesia, as well as in the Chin and Rakhine states of Myanmar. Attacks on journalists were documented in at least 10 countries in this region, with journalists killed in Afghanistan, the Philippines, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan.

Another common civic space violation in Asia, documented in 18 countries in the region, is the use of restrictive laws to stifle democratic and political rights, Criminal defamation laws continue to be deployed to silence public debate or prevent activists and journalists from revealing human rights abuses. In Bangladesh, scores of critics and journalists have been prosecuted under the draconian Digital Security Act. In Vietnam, national security laws have been used to criminalize dissent where over a hundred activists are in prison while Pakistan has resorted to using anti-terrorist laws to silence critics.

The harassment of activists and journalists by states has also been extensively documented across the region, including surveillance, travel bans, smear campaigns, threats, and physical attacks. In some cases, we see collusion between the authorities and businesses to target activists seeking to expose corruption and hold these actors to account.

India, the world’s largest democracy and once seen as a regional counterbalance to China’s authoritarianism, has had its civic space rating downgraded to repressed, the second worst rating a country can receive. It joins the company of Pakistan, Iraq, and Turkey, to name a few. Over the past years, activists have been persecuted and journalists have been criminalized, assaulted, and even killed for reporting on government affairs. The Modi government has also used laws such as the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act to restrict or investigate groups that are critical of the government. There have also been severe and alarming restrictions on fundamental freedoms in Indian-administered Kashmir since August 2019 — hundreds of political activists, human rights defenders, and community leaders have been detained and a communications blockade has been imposed. The brutal, ongoing crackdown on protesters around the discriminatory citizenship law further highlights this regression.

Despite this gloomy outlook in the region, citizen action has not been deterred and battles have been won. In the Maldives, an anti-defamation law that civil society groups and journalists had long opposed, was repealed by the new government that came to power in late 2018, while in Malaysia, the government scrapped its repressive Anti-Fake News Act.

In Taiwan, there was a major victory for the island’s LGBTQI community when, following extensive civil society advocacy, parliament legalized same-sex marriage in a landmark vote. Even in Hong Kong, where the police’s brutal crowd-control tactics on the streets have been televised for the world to see, the mass protests eventually led to the withdrawal of the extradition law that first sparked the uprising.

As we enter the new decade, much more needs to be done by progressive states and international bodies to support civil society regain their rights. We need to put safeguards in place for freedom of expression and pushback against all forms of censorship. There is also a greater need to engage parliamentarians in efforts to repeal restrictive laws and enforce accountability for those whose rights are being violated by states but also increasingly by businesses. By doing so, we can reverse the deterioration of civic freedoms.

Josef Benedict is a human rights researcher with CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation and is based in Kuala Lumpur.