Restrictions and attacks on activists and civil society have persisted across the Asian region according to a new report released by the CIVICUS Monitor, a global research collaboration that that rates and tracks fundamental freedoms in 197 countries and territories.
The report, People Power Under Attack 2022, shows that out of 26 countries or territories in Asia, seven – China, Laos, North Korea, Vietnam and now Afghanistan, Myanmar and Hong Kong – are rated as ‘closed’. Eight are rated as ‘repressed’ and seven as ‘obstructed’2. Civic space in Japan, Mongolia and South Korea is rated narrowed, while Taiwan remains the only country rated as ‘open’.
In reality, this means that the freedoms of speech, peaceful assembly and association are not being respected in most countries in this region. 2022 is the year with more people living in countries with closed civic space ever documented by the CIVICUS Monitor. Twenty-eight per cent of the world population – approximately 2 billion people – experienced extreme levels of repression.
In Singapore, where civic space is rated as ‘repressed’ – following its downgrade in 2021 – the CIVICUS Monitor documented in 2022, the ongoing efforts to stifle freedom of expression, the prosecution of journalists and protesters and the harassment of activists.
Censorship remains prevalent in Singapore. In January 2022, it was reported that a book entitled “Red Lines: Political Cartoons and the Struggle Against Censorship” was blocked for release in Singapore. The book is a tribute to political cartoons and includes interviews with cartoonists around the world who have been variously harassed, sued, jailed and attacked for their work. In March 2022, a book launch by civil society activist Constance Singam was pulled from a bazaar at The Arts House. In October 2022, the authorities banned a film which included LGBTQI+ characters.
Journalists were also targeted. In April 2022, Terry Xu, the chief editor of The Online Citizen (TOC), and TOC contributor Daniel De Costa Augustin were sentenced to jail for criminal defamation over an article allegedly calling government ministers corrupt. The Public Order Act has been systematically used to clampdown even on solo peaceful protests. In February 2022, Singaporean activist Jolovan Wham was fined S$3,000 (2,200 USD) for an ‘unlawful assembly’ in December 2018 along the main entrance of the former State Courts building. Wham had held up a paper calling on the government to drop charges against ‘The Online Citizen’ (TOC) editor Terry Xu and Daniel de Costa, who were then facing defamation charges. Wham was convicted of violating the Public Order Act in January 2022.
In June 2022, activists Kirsten Han and Rocky Howe were questioned by police at Bedok Police Division Headquarters for potential violations of the Public Order Act 2009, namely for participating in two public assemblies. The first assembly was a four-person peaceful vigil outside Changi Prison the night before Singaporean Abdul Kahar Othman was executed for drug trafficking on 30 March 2022. The second was when the activists had posed for photos outside Changi Prison two nights before the execution of Malaysian Nagaenthran Dharmalingam on 27 April 2022. In June 2022, it was reported that the Ministry of Manpower had refused to renew the work permit of a Bangladeshi worker who had been vocal about discriminatory and exploitative treatment of migrant workers in the country.
Lawyers also faced intimidation and harassment for their work defending individuals on death row in Singapore. In May 2022, it was reported that human rights lawyer M. Ravi’s defence of the rights of individuals on death row has led to disciplinary proceedings against him. He is also facing contempt of court proceedings. Zaid Malek, a Malaysian lawyer was detained and interrogated by Singapore police over two days in July 2022, when he travelled to Singapore to provide legal advice to the family of Kalwant Singh who was facing imminent execution.
Three countries or territories have been downgraded from ‘repressed’ to ‘closed’ – which is the worst rating. Afghanistan has been downgraded due to the severe restrictions on civic space by the Taliban following their takeover in 2021. Activists and journalists have been arrested, detained and even tortured. Women rights activists protesting discriminatory policies around education and employment have been met by restrictions and violence. The Taliban has also clamped down on civil society organisations. Another country that has been downgraded is Myanmar. Two years on from the coup, thousands of activists and anti-coup protesters have been jailed by the military junta’s secret military tribunals on fabricated charges. The junta has continued to torture detainees with impunity and four activists were executed in July 2022. Scores of journalists have also been detained while media outlets have been banned. In October 2022, the junta enacted a new NGO law that will further shackle what is left of civil society.
Hong Kong has also been downgraded due to the systematic crackdown on dissent following the passage of the draconian National Security Law in 2020. More than 200 individuals have been arrested under the security law and dozens of civil society groups and trade unions have disbanded or relocated since the law came into place. Activists have also been criminalised on sedition charges. Independent media outlets have also been targeted with raids and forced to close and journalists have been criminalised.
“The regression of civic space across the Asia region is reaching alarming levels. Most people in the region are living in countries with closed or repressed civic space where their freedoms to speak up, organise or mobilise are under attack on a daily basis. The downgrading of Afghanistan, Myanmar and Hong Kong’s civic space rating this year to ‘closed’, highlights how authoritarian states are increasingly gaining ground and the critical need to support activists and civil society from these countries who are pushing back again these repressive regimes” said Josef Benedict, Asia Pacific researcher for CIVICUS.
In Asia, the top civic violation documented in 2022 is the use and enactment of restrictive legislation in 23 countries, as governments used the criminal justice system to muzzle dissent. Among the legislation most often used to stifle dissent include laws related to national security and anti-terrorism, public order and criminal defamation. Human rights defenders were prosecuted in at least 17 countries in the region.
As President Xi Jinping sought an unprecedented third term in office, China detained and prosecuted scores of human rights defenders in 2022 for broadly defined and vaguely worded offences such as ‘subverting state power’, ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’ or ‘disturbing public order’.
Restrictive laws such as ‘abusing democratic freedoms’ or ‘spreading materials against the State’ were also used in Vietnam to keep more than a hundred activists in jail. Thailand continued to prosecute critics for royal defamation (lese-majeste) while in Cambodia, ‘incitement’ provisions were used to criminalise activists and union leaders. In Indonesia, the Electronic Information and Transactions Law (ITE Law) was weaponised to silence online dissent. In India, anti-terror laws such as the repressive Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) have been systematically used by the Modi government to keep activists in detention while in Bangladesh, the draconian Digital Security Act (DSA) continued to be used to target journalists and critics. In Pakistan, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, was used against journalists and critics to criminalise online defamation.
Another top violation in Asia was the disruption of protests which occurred in 20 countries. In at least 18 countries, the CIVICUS Monitor documented the detention of protesters.
Unprecedented protests that erupted across China in December 2022, due to widespread public frustration with the “zero-COVID” policy, lockdowns and other issues, were met with restrictions, arrests and excessive force. In Cambodia, striking unionists from the NagaWorld Casino that held regular protests were detained while Riot police also used violent tactics in Thailand to disperse peaceful protesters including around the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. In Indonesia, mass protests by Papuans against the central government’s policies and in support of independence were forcibly dispersed with unnecessary use of force. Protests by the political opposition, students and workers were met with restrictions and excessive force by the Bangladesh police while in Sri Lanka there was a crackdown on mass protests in the country, as the country suffered its worst economic crisis in decades. The authorities used sweeping emergency powers to curtail protests, make arrests and shut down social media networks. Human rights groups documented the use of excessive force by the police against protesters, with the use of water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets.
The authorities also deployed various other tactics to silence dissent in the region. In at least 17 countries in Asia, the harassment of activists, journalists and critics was reported. In the Philippines, activists continue to be red-tagged and then arrested on fabricated charges.. The Bangladeshi authorities coerced and intimidated families of the victims of enforced disappearances to silence them while in India, the government sought to block activists and journalists from travelling abroad
“As authoritarian states sought to stay in power and silence all forms of dissent it weaponised an array of restrictive laws to persecute activists. When people began to mobilise on the streets against repression they were met with excessive and even deadly force. Government also resorted to other extra-legal tactics to harass activists including digital attacks, smear campaigns or travel bans. Despite this, civil society in many part of the region have continued to flight back and used innovative ways to demand their rights” added Benedict
Countries of concern in the region include Bangladesh and Cambodia. There are serious concerns about the regression of civic space in Bangladesh in recent years including the judicial harassment, threats and attacks on human rights defenders, journalists and the political opposition. in the lead up to the 2024 elections. Another country of concern is Cambodia where repressive laws are routinely misused to restrict civic freedoms and criminalise critical voices. Prime Minister Hun Sen has also intensified his crackdown on the political opposition ahead of elections in July 2023.
Despite these threats to civic freedoms, there are some positive developments. In Thailand, after many years of campaigning, the authorities formally charged a former senior park ranger and three subordinates suspected of killing an ethnic Karen activist, while in Indonesia, after years of advocacy by activists and victims groups, the government finally acknowledged serious human rights violations from the past. In India, the Supreme Court ordered the suspension of the use of the sedition law which has been used as a tool to silence dissent while in Sri Lanka, mass protests led to the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who oversaw a climate of repression against activists, journalists and critics.
Over twenty organisations collaborate on the CIVICUS Monitor, providing evidence and research that help it target countries where civic freedoms are at risk. The Monitor has posted more than 490 civic space updates in the last year, which are analysed in People Power Under Attack 2022. Civic freedoms in 197 countries and territories are categorised as either closed, repressed, obstructed, narrowed or open, based on a methodology that combines several sources of data on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.