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Charting the Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on free expression in Asia

By Ross HolderAsia/Pacific Program Coordinator, PEN International

Around the world, the public health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated the unprecedented utilisation of emergency powers by governments to minimise the threat to human life. However, all too often free speech has become an avoidable casualty of the virus, with the pandemic cynically and opportunistically exploited as a justification to silence critical voices and implement disproportionate free speech restrictions that will remain a reality long after the pandemic has ended. This has been markedly so in the Asia region.

In China, authorities have continued to crackdown on civil society, limiting the space for free expression and controlling access to information. The government’s resort to silence Dr Li Wenliang, one of the first to raise the alarm about the threat posed by COVID-19, is a damning illustration of a regime that prioritises control over the welfare of its citizens. From the imprisonment of citizen journalists to the use of enforced quarantine to delay the release of imprisoned writers and activists such as Li Bifeng, the government’s response to the pandemic has deepened already severe restrictions to free expression across China.

In Xinjiang, attempts by the Chinese government to limit the flow of information about the spread of the virus has been a source of grave concern in relation to the fate of the hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other minorities who have been extrajudicially detained in harrowing conditions, increasing their risk of exposure to the virus. Among them are many writers and artists. In Hong Kong, the government has selectively deployed public health restrictions to hamstring the pro-democracy movement while using its recently promulgated national security law to criminalise critical expression in the territory.

For imprisoned writers across the region, the pandemic has exacerbated their ongoing mistreatment by the authorities. In India, the appalling treatment of octogenarian poet and activist Varavara Rao by the Indian government has contributed to his contracting of COVID-19 while in prison. Despite ongoing concerns for his deteriorating health, authorities have repeatedly denied his applications for medical bail throughout 2020. The absence of compassion for those who have been unjustly detained is also evident in the ongoing detention of Sudha Bharadwaj and G.N. Saibaba, both of whom have requested release on medical grounds given the heightened risk of contracting the virus.

In Bangladesh, despite photographer and writer Shahidul Alam’s release on bail in May 2020, his impending trial has been repeatedly delayed due to the pandemic, casting a shadow over his limited freedom. The resulting delays have also denied justice to the family of murdered Bangladeshi blogger Ananta Bijoy Dash, with the trial of his alleged murderers being postponed throughout 2020 due to the pandemic.

In Myanmar, the damaging impact of internet shutdowns in townships populated by the Rohingya people has been compounded by the pandemic, denying access  to vital public health information necessary to mitigate the threat posed by COVID-19.

Governments have also sought to use the pandemic as a pretext to enact legislation to provide authorities with sweeping powers to stifle criticism and control the flow of information. In Cambodia, the government’s promulgation of a state of emergency law imperils the country’s already vulnerable space for free expression, further restricting media reporting and facilitating greater monitoring of private communications. Similarly, in Thailand authorities have enacted an emergency decree that includes restrictions on freedom of expression and media as part of the Thai government’s wider crackdown on mass protests that have taken place throughout 2020. In Singapore, pre-existing ‘fake news’ legislation was used by government agencies in a way that threatened to undermine legitimate criticism of their handling of the pandemic.

Cultural genocide in Xinjiang
The severity of the crisis in Xinjiang remains of the utmost urgency. With reports of as many as 1.8 million Uyghur and other minorities being held in extra-judicial re- education camps, the Chinese government has shown no sign of relenting in the face of mounting international condemnation. By design, the intensity of the crackdown has had a devastating impact on the Uyghur identity in the region, with detainees forced to undergo intensive political indoctrination and coerced to renounce their deepest beliefs.

Among those held in the camps are hundreds of Uyghur writers, poets, scholars, translators, and other public gures, who together represent the living embodiment of the Uyghurs’ cultural identity. Many have had no communication with the outside world since they were detained without trial. Those detained include world renowned scholar Rahile Dawut, a leading expert on Uyghur folklore at Xinjiang University, who disappeared without a trace while travelling from Xinjiang to Beijing in December 2017. Perhat Tursun, one of the world’s greatest Uyghur writers, was seized by the security services in January 2018 and has been sentenced to sixteen years’ imprisonment.

The PEN community mourns the loss of Uyghur poet Haji Mirzahid Kerimi following reports of his death while serving a sentence of 11 years’ imprisonment.

Weaponisation of Social Media
Social media has played a vital role throughout the pandemic, allowing individuals and societies to access independent information and providing the ability to maintain contact during enforced lockdowns. However, malicious state and non-state actors have sought to weaponise social media, utilising online communication platforms to harass, threaten and intimidate those who express views they disagree with. The Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, Salil Tripathi, experienced this first-hand when a collective of pro-Indian government supporters launched a coordinated de-platforming campaign that resulted in his brief suspension from Twitter.

In the Philippines, celebrated journalist Maria Ressa has been the subject to several charges under a controversial cyber libel law for content that was shared on her news platform’s social media before the law existed.

In China, which Freedom House ranks as the worst country assessed for internet freedom, writers and bloggers are routinely detained for their social media posts. In April 2020, writer and Independent Chinese PEN Centre member, Liu Yanli was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment for her online posts criticising the Chinese Communist Party.

Pham Doan Trang: Author and journalist facing 20 years’ imprisonment for“propaganda against the State”. Photo credit: permission granted by 88 Project.

Pham Doan Trang, who is facing 20 years’ imprisonment for “propaganda against the State”, is an award-winning Vietnamese author, publisher, journalist, and pro democracy activist. Following her initial detention in 2009, Pham Doan Trang used her writing to promote democracy and highlight human rights issues in Vietnam. Despite suffering severe persecution from the authorities, including harassment, assault, and enforced homelessness, Pham Doan Trang has continued to strive for realisation of basic freedoms in Vietnam. In October 2020, she was arrested and charged for her defence of human rights.


Varavara Rao: Poet and political activist detained without trial as part of
crackdown on activists by Indian government. Photo credit: Wikipedia creative

Poet and political activist Varavaa Rao has detained without trial as part of crackdown on activists by Indian government. Varavara Rao is a celebrated writer, poet and activist who has been detained without trial since 2018. Among other activists who were arrested for their alleged role in inciting violent unrest, Varavara Rao has rejected all charges, with many viewing his detention as politically motivated and part of a wider crackdown on activists across India. Despite falling gravely ill with COVID-19 and other health complications while detained in abhorrent conditions, Indian authorities have repeatedly denied his requests to be granted medical bail.

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