Secularists killed in Bangladesh, bleak reports on press freedom in Asia and crackdowns on civil society in Cambodia
May 4, Dhaka: On 6 April, law student and blogger Nazimuddin Samad, 28, was reportedly attacked with machetes by unidentified assailants before being shot, in Sutrapur, Dhaka. According to reports, Nazimuddin wrote regularly against religion on his Facebook page and was critical of radical Islamists.
Global reactions were immediate from organisations like PEN International, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), who condemned the attacks and called for measures to be put in place to protect bloggers like Nazimuddin.
But just weeks later, two others were killed, 58-year old English professor Rezaul Karim Siddique and the founder of Bangladesh's only lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender (LGBT) magazine, Xulhaz Mannan. While Rezaul Karim had not been known to be vocal against religion, he was involved in organising cultural programs. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) claimed responsibility for the murder, accusing him of being an atheist. Xulhaz, 38, was aware of the risks he faced in advocating for gay rights in a country that has seen violent attacks against those with secular views. AJ+ features his story in this short video.
Five Bangladeshi freethinkers and writers were killed by assailants believed to be linked to Islamist organisations last year.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, was among those who commented on this latest brutal killing:
In Maldives, journalists were arrested as they conducted a peaceful protest on 3 April against a media crackdown, which included a proposal to reintroduce criminal defamation law, closure of a newspaper, Haveeru (including its website), and the protracted investigation into the 2014 disappearance of journalist Ahmed Rilwan.
According to the Maldives Independent, riot police used physical force and pepper spray to disperse the journalists and subsequently arrested 16 people. In a statement, the IFJ called on the government to drop any charges against the journalists and to reverse its actions that could stifle press freedom, a position echoed by RSF.
Civil society groups joined the media community to condemn the crackdown, among them the Maldivian Democracy Network.
In Cambodia, the ruling party filed a complaint for defamation against prominent political analyst, Ou Virak, who is director of Future Forum, and a former executive director of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR). The Cambodian People's Party (CPP) alleged that Virak had maligned the party in his radio interview on 26 April by suggesting that it was using an ongoing sex scandal to damage the political opposition. Several other activists were also arrested for making similar suggestions.
CPP leader and Prime Minister Hun Sen has been known to harass and target critics, and the CCHR expressed concern over the authorities' handling of the situation amidst the worsening crackdown on civil society in Cambodia.
Global state of press freedom
Globally, reports were released assessing the state of media freedom by RSF, Freedom House and CPJ.
RSF's 2016 press freedom index saw countries in the Pacific region and Sri Lanka showing the strongest growth, while the rest reported a significant deterioration or stagnation, including those in east Asia that had been previously regarded as regional models.
In its Attacks on the Press 2016, CPJ looks specifically at the sexualized violence and online harassment and more broadly, the intersection of gender and press freedom.
The key findings from the annual Freedom of the Press report show that press freedom declined to its lowest point in 12 years in 2015, with Bangladesh in Asia Pacific suffered among the largest declines.
In Japan, the UN Special Rapporteur David Kaye concluded his official visit in April, after his earlier trip scheduled for December 2015 was postponed by the government. Japan is only the third official country mission to have taken place in Asia Pacific for the mandate holder on the rights to freedom of expression and opinion, under the UN Human Rights Council, the others were Maldives in 2009 and South Korea in 2010. Speaking at a press conference after the visit, Kaye expressed concern that the country's media independence was being jeopardized by government pressure and the dangerous culture of media associations. He however commended the country's levels of internet freedom, saying it could be a role model for other nations.
Commenting on the findings, ARTICLE 19 issued a statement urging the government of Japan to “commit to respecting the editorial independence of media houses and the freedom of journalists.” Kaye's full report will be submitted to the UN Human Rights Council in 2017.
The Oslo Times/IFEX