New CIVICUS Monitor report shows civic space remains ‘obstructed’ in Singapore as the numbers living in repressive states in Asia increase

Findings based on data released today by the CIVICUS Monitor, a global research collaboration which rates and tracks respect for fundamental freedoms in 196 countries.

The People Power Under Attack 2019 report shows that the assault on civil society and fundamental freedoms has persisted in Asia. In this region, out of 25 countries, four are rated as closed, eight repressed and ten obstructed. Civic space in South Korea and Japan is rated as narrowed, while Taiwan is the only country rated open.

“Our research shows that there continues to be a regression of civic space for activism across the region. The percentage of people living in Asian countries with closed, repressed or obstructed civic space is now at 95 percent” said Josef Benedict, Civic Space Researcher for CIVICUS, at a launch event co-organized with the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) in Bangkok today.

CIVICUS is an international non-profit organisation, which describes itself as “a global alliance dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society around the world” while Forum Asia is a membership-based regional human rights organisation with 81 member organisations in 21 countries across Asia.

CIVICUS and FORUM-ASIA expressed that they are particularly alarmed by the regression of fundamental civic rights, such as the freedom of speech, assembly and association, in two countries in this region: India and Brunei.

India, the world’s largest democracy, has been downgraded to ‘repressed’. Of specific concern are attacks on activists and journalists – some who have been assaulted or killed just for doing their job. CIVICUS and FORUM-ASIA are also concerned about the use of restrictive laws to stifle opposition voices: students, activists and academics have all been silenced by stringent legislation. Another repressive law being enforced by the Indian government is the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), which has been used to stop foreign funding and investigate NGOs that are critical of the government. The clampdown on civic space in Kashmir since August is also extremely worrying.

Brunei has also been downgraded to ‘repressed’. While fundamental freedoms have been curtailed in the country for years, the revised Sharia (Islamic) penal code that was enacted in April 2019 has further increased these restrictions by imposing the death penalty for various offences including insulting the Prophet Mohammed and punishments against individuals for publications against Islamic beliefs.

Singapore is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. It is noted by the NGO’s report that the Singapore government has continued to take action to target the media, activists and others for criticising the government particularly using defamation and libel laws. In April 2019, activist Jolovan Wham and opposition politician John Tan were fined for criticising the judiciary.  In September 2019, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong demanded in a letter that the independent news website The Online Citizen (TOC) take down a critical article.

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill was passed by the Singaporean parliament in May 2019 which will have a negative effect on freedom of expression. The Public Order Act has been systematically used to harass and investigate individuals for no other reason than expressing their views and organising peaceful gatherings. In February 2019, Singaporean human rights defender Jolovan Wham was sentenced for a conference which featured a Skype call with Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong. In September, two people were investigated by the police after they wore t-shirts bearing a message against the death penalty.

The research by CIVICUS reveals that censorship is the most common civic space violation in Asia, occurring in 20 countries. China continues to be the main offender as it expands its censorship regime, blocking critical outlets and social media sites. This was demonstrated in the run up to the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and during the anti-government protests in Hong Kong, when the government blocked domestic coverage of these events and employed an army of internet trolls to disrupt social media narratives and control public discourse.

Censorship has been used in many other countries in the region, including Bangladesh, Thailand and Pakistan. In Bangladesh, the authorities blocked news outlets and websites that were critical of the state. In Thailand, censorship increased before the elections in March 2019 – international outlets were cut off and journalists were targeted. Journalists were also targeted in Pakistan, many were harassed or criminalized when they attempted to report the mass mobilization of ethnic Pashtuns demanding their rights.

The second most common civic space violation in Asia is the use of restrictive laws to stifle democratic and political rights – this has been documented in 18 countries. Criminal defamation laws are commonly used in this region to repress activists and opposition members. Such laws were used in Bangladesh with scores of critics and journalists were prosecuted under the draconian Digital Security Act. Malaysia’s criminal defamation laws were used to stamp out online criticism of religion and the monarchy, and in the Philippines, anyone who dared to criticize President Duterte now faces sedition and other charges.

“Governments in Asia are increasingly adopting China’s authoritarian tactics to hold on to power or control the narrative. Censorship is on the rise with states blocking news outlets and social media sites, shutting down the internet and attacking journalists exposing abuses of the state. This is often coupled with the use of restrictive legislation such as defamation laws as a weapon to silence public debate or prevent activists and journalists from revealing inconvenient truths” said Benedict.

The harassment of activists and journalists in Asia is a well-documented trend noted by the CIVICUS Monitor, occurring in 18 countries. In China, activists are routinely placed under surveillance, house arrest, or detained. Vietnamese activists are also placed under strict surveillance. In Cambodia, members of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) are routinely threatened or attacked.

CIVICUS and FORUM-ASIA also express alarmed in regards to the harassment and attacks of protestors in Hong Kong. Civic space is rapidly shrinking in Hong Kong since mass protests against a proposed extradition bill began in June 2019. There have been reports of excessive and lethal force by the security forces, as well as evidence of torture in detention.

Despite this bleak picture across Asia, there are some bright spots. The Maldives repealed an anti-defamation law; Malaysia scrapped its repressive Anti-Fake News Act and Taiwan historically voted to legalise same-sex marriage.

Over twenty organisations including FORUM-ASIA collaborate on the CIVICUS Monitor to provide an evidence base for action to improve civic space on all continents. The Monitor has posted more than 536 civic space updates in the last year, which are analysed in People Power Under Attack 2019. Civic space in 196 countries is categorized as either closed, repressed, obstructed, narrowed or open, based on a methodology which combines several sources of data on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

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