Regional Symposium on the Criminalization of Free Speech, Expression and Opinion in Asia in Jakarta, Indonesia
On July 15 and 16, I attended the Regional Symposium on the Criminalization of Free Speech, Expression and Opinion in Asia in Jakarta, Indonesia. The symposium marked the end of Frank La Rue’s, the UN Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, visit to the Southeast Asian region.
The symposium covered a number of different themes, from repressive legislation (one of the key concerns in Cambodia) to threats faced by human rights activists and the State sanctioned killing of journalists.
Decriminalize Free Speech
La Rue opened the symposium with a clear message: free speech needs to be decriminalized. Authoritarian regimes used to employ force to intimidate the population. However, this came at a huge political cost and these regimes are now “intimidating with the law.” La Rue underlined that the international community, including the United Nations, has not opposed this tactic forcefully enough.
The Special Rapporteur emphasized that he believes exceptional limitations on freedom of expression are necessary, but these should only be used in a democratic society (notably one where the judiciary is capable of interpreting the law according to international standards). For example, the use of incitement to crackdown on pamphleting in Cambodia is “absurd.” Where censorship is necessary – for example, with hate speech and child pornography – an independent body, and not the State, should apply these exceptions. “When government gets to control content, it goes to the benefit of political power. These censorship laws become an excuse for governments to limit freedom of expression,” said La Rue.
Repressive legislation and impunity
One of the key themes emerging from all panels, with delegates representing Southeast Asia and South Asia, was the use of legislation to undermine the work of human rights activists, as well as the total impunity of those who commit human rights violations.
In Thailand, the lèse majesté law is a key concern. Pravit Rojanaphruk, a journalist from Thailand, explained how the line between defamation and criticism of the monarchy is blurred. There is also no transparency as to the number of people detained under the law. A recent estimate stood at 300 people charged with an estimate 11 detained. Naturally, the threat of criminal sanctions under the law has a ‘chilling’ effect on freedom of expression.
In Cambodia, three enacted laws (and two laws in draft form) give the government significant control over civil society. A discussion between Kek Pung, the President of LICADHO, and delegates demonstrated the total absurdity of the situation. Pung asked for suggestions on how to address this issue in Cambodia. The panelists offered some feedback, all deemed inapplicable in the Cambodian context: the friendly parliamentarians are the opposition, but their leader, Sam Rainsy, is in exile. Commissioners at the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights’ (AICHR) are appointed and dismissed by national governments. Donors are mum, some in collusion with the government while others do not want to rock the boat.
In Malaysia, a mix of secular and religious laws are used to crack down on minority religious groups, as well as political movements and more liberal Muslim groups. “Silencing opinion and expression in Malaysia happens not only for crimes against religion, but all forms of dissent against government policies and political powers. It is not peculiar for the government to crackdown on defaming Islam, because they do so on all forms of difference in opinion, period,” explained Masjaliza Hamzah, Executive Director of the Center for Independent Journalism in Malaysia.
Ending human rights violations
In his closing speech, La Rue listed concrete suggestions on how CSOs and NGOs could end government impunity and promote human rights. He drew primarily on experiences in Guatemala, his home country.
For example, he suggested the establishment of independent national investigative bodies such as the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala. While this Commission does not have the power to prosecute, it does the investigatory work in human rights crimes. He also suggested persuading each country to adopt a national human rights commission.
La Rue also discussed the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Although it was at first riddled with its own set of challenges, he praised it for providing justice and in some cases saving lives. He compared this to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), which was founded in 2009, and has been described as toothless. La Rue suggested that having the mechanism in place is a first step; regional civil society bodies should now push the AICHR by referring cases and lobbying for greater impartiality in its commissioners.
As a Special Rapporteur, he highlighted the role these individuals play in highlighting human rights abuses. For example, issuing a press release during a Rapporteur’s visit can serve to draw media attention to certain issues. He noted that the Special Rapporteurs can go beyond their immediate mandate, allowing them to leverage a relatively ‘non-political’ mandate. For example, the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation can deal with everything from water containment to land evictions and the role of big corporations in environmental pollution.
Encouraging a grassroots movement
While interesting, these suggestions seemed to illustrate how intractable the situation is in Cambodia. NGOs like LICADHO are drawing on all the resources suggested by the Special Rapporteur. Yet, this is not enough.
However, it does seem that one last avenue, not specifically mentioned by La Rue, has not been sufficiently leveraged. In retrospect, it seems self-evident: the population needs to start lobbying on a mass scale for change and civil society groups need to promote and support this. However, abuse by the police and unfair criminal sentencing by the judiciary has a damning effect on these efforts. Moreover, people have not forgotten the country’s harsh history.
Yet, there is proof that such lobbying is possible and (somewhat) effective: in 2008, a nation-wide thumb printing petition campaign collected over one million signatures in favor of passing the long-awaited Anti-Corruption law. While the law was not adopted until 2011, it does suggest that there is a population willing to be mobilized and capable of organizing itself.