Attacks against civic freedoms in Asia have been rife over the past year, with Taiwan being the only territory that can be considered open, according to a new report from global civic space tracker CIVICUS Monitor, a self-described “ongoing research collaboration between global civil society alliance CIVICUS and over 20 research partner organizations.”
Key findings: The report, titled “People Power Under Attack 2021,” contains a section focused on the Asia Pacific region which rates 26 countries or territories based on compiled data on “freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.” Of these territories, four were considered “closed,” 11 “repressed,” seven “obstructed” and three “narrowed,” with Taiwan the only one rated “open.”
- The communist states of China, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam were all rated as “closed.” According to CIVICUS, a “closed” rating translates to the complete closure of civic space in both law and practice. State and powerful non-state actors can imprison, injure or kill anyone exercising freedom of expression or assembly. The internet is “heavily censored,” and any criticism of authority is “severely punished.”
- Singapore was downgraded from “obstructed” to “repressed” due to the enforcement of several laws that threaten fundamental freedoms such as the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019, which CIVICUS says has allowed the government to file defamation charges and levy exorbitant fines against government critics and independent journalists. Meanwhile, Mongolia was upgraded from “obstructed” to “narrowed” after its parliament adopted a new law that protects human rights defenders (HRDs), becoming the first Asian country to do so.
- The report named Myanmar and Afghanistan as countries of concern. Myanmar, which was rated as “repressed,” saw a rapid decline in fundamental freedoms following the February coup, CIVICUS noted. Afghanistan, which was also “repressed,” suffered the same fate with the Taliban takeover in August. Both countries are currently hostile to activists and journalists.
Why this matters: The report sheds light on the worsening state of civil liberties in Asia. The most widespread violation in the region was the “use of laws that criminalize freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression,” which has been recorded in at least 21 countries.
- “As authoritarian leaders in Asia seek to hold on to power, they have deployed restrictive laws to arrest and criminalize human rights defenders. Scores of activists and journalists are behind bars, facing trumped-up charges, and some have been tortured and ill-treated,” said Josef Benedict, a CIVICUS researcher focused on the Asia-Pacific region, according to Al Jazeera.
- Other top violations in Asia include the “detention of HRDs, activists and journalists, as well as the disruption of protests.” Benedict said authorities disrupted peaceful assembly “at times under the guise of the pandemic, with excessive or deadly force.”
- The report also made note of positive developments in Asia. Aside from Taiwan being truly “open” and Mongolia moving to legally protect HRDs, it highlighted South Korea’s dismissal of restrictive amendments to its media law and the Philippines’ activism to hold President Rodrigo Duterte accountable to the International Criminal Court for his infamous “War on Drugs” as indications of positive change.