Tag Archives: free expression

The Cebu Declaration for Free Expression in Southeast Asia

CebuDeclarationLawyers from five countries in Southeast Asia have met in an historic conference in Cebu, Philippines to form a common front against the repression of freedom of expression in the region.

One of their key proposals is to engage together and hold accountable regional institutions like the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights – an organization, they say, remains unresponsive to human rights violations in member countries.

More than 30 lawyers, representing 10 civil society organizations from Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia and the Philippines established Sunday the Advocates for Freedom of Expression Coalition-Southeast Asia (AFEC-SEA) and vowed to “raise a Southeast Asian voice that will champion freedom of expression in our region in accordance with international human rights norms as exercised by journalists, bloggers, netizens, citizens and human rights defenders, in whatever medium, form, or frontier, whether traditional or emerging.”

“A violation of the right to freedom of expression in one Southeast Asian nation is a matter of grave concern to the whole region,” they said in a document signed over the weekend during the four-day conference in Mactan, Cebu. “The protection of freedom of expression is an obligation of the whole region under international law.”

Most of the signatories are trial lawyers who have handled cases against freedom of expression and Internet freedom. Some – including senior lawyers from Myanmar – had been jailed for fighting against human rights violations or for advocating freedom of expression.

“Recent events have posed and continue to pose serious threats to freedom of expression in Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand, and the rest of Southeast Asia,” the declaration said, signed by the Center for International Law Philippines (CenterLaw), Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (EMPOWER), Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (ICJR), iLaw, The Legal Aid Center for the Press (LBH Pers), Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism & Human Rights (MCCHR), Myanmar Lawyers’ Network (MLN), Myanmar Media Lawyers’ Network (MMLN), Philippine Internet Freedom Alliance (PIFA), and the Thai Lawyers For Human Rights (TLHR).

The conference was organized by Centerlaw with the support of the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative Internet Freedom program.

“(I)n establishing this freedom of expression collation, our vision is to achieve a Southeast Asia that upholds and protects freedom of expression, and the rule of law, serving as a beacon of free speech to the world,” the declaration added.

“It is an opportune time for us to issue this declaration given the escalating repression of expression in the region, including restrictions on the use of the Internet,” said Romel Bagares, CenterLaw executive director.

He said the lawyers realize that for the most part, they are fighting an uphill battle in countries like Thailand, Myanmar and even Malaysia. “But it is important that cases are filed to have an historical record of wrongs brought to court.”

Among the projects coalition members will undertake is a campaign against the use of a single gateway for the Internet in Thailand, legal challenges against the use of the 1948 Sedition Act in Malaysia to repress protests against the government, and the filing of cases in the Philippines against recently-issued government regulations on the Cybercrime Act, according to Gilbert Andres, a Centerlaw senior litigator who played a key role in bringing the lawyers together to the conference.

“The lawyers have also agreed that the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights needs to be challenged and engaged to play an active role in the promotion and protection of free expression,” said Andres.

Delegates from Myanmar also highlighted their “Yellow Ribbon campaing” for judicial independence in their country in the wake of the appointment by the government of senior military officials to their Supreme Court. “Free expression is stifled when the courts are filled with generals who repress dissent the first time they see it,” said Aung Soe, a veteran lawyer who represented the Myanmar Media Lawyers Network and the Myanmar Lawyers Network, two largest lawyers’ groups in his country .

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Cebu Declaration  on the  Right to Freedom of Expression as a Fundamental Human Right  and its importance to the Southeast Asia region

WHEREAS, we are non-governmental organizations in Southeast Asia working for the protection and promotion of human rights, especially for the right to freedom of expression;

WHEREAS, recent events have posed and continue to pose serious threats to freedom of expression in Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand, and the rest of Southeast Asia;

WHEREAS, we see an urgent need in Southeast Asia to utilize remedies under domestic and international law against these threats to freedom of expression, for we want to establish an edifice for free expression that will serve not only this generation but the future generations of Southeast Asians;

THEREFORE:

WE DECLARE that the right to freedom of expression is essential in the pursuit of truth, justice, equality, and accountability; but more importantly, freedom of expression is a fundamental human right since as human beings we yearn to express our own humanity.

WE DECLARE that in order to animate our core belief in the right to freedom of expression as a fundamental human right, our individual members shall commit not to prosecute criminal cases against anyone for something he or she expresses except in accordance with international human rights norms, and shall advocate for the repeal of criminal libel laws.

WE DECLARE that the right to freedom of expression is universal, but that the methods for its advocacy and protection are contextual; hence, we shall raise a Southeast Asian voice that will champion freedom of expression in our region in accordance with international human rights norms as exercised by journalists, bloggers, netizens, citizens and human rights defenders, in whatever medium, form, or frontier, whether traditional or emerging.

 WE DECLARE that the economic and social integration of Southeast Asia requires the respect and protection of freedom of expression in our region consistent with international human rights norms. Freedom of expression cannot be bargained for purely economic, social or political considerations. Moreover, a violation of the right to freedom of expression in one Southeast Asian nation is a matter of grave concern to the whole region; the protection of freedom of expression is an obligation of the whole region under international law.

WE DECLARE that the rule of law, equality, non-discrimination, access to justice and fair trial are essential to the protection and promotion of freedom of expression.

WE DECLARE that to be more effective advocates for freedom of expression and the rule of law in Southeast Asia, we resolve to work together in unity of purpose, action, spirit and passion, and WE THEREFORE ESTABLISH the Advocates for freedom of expression Coalition-Southeast Asia to advance freedom of expression across Southeast Asia consistent with international human rights norms, through strategic litigation, education, training and advocacy.

LASTLY, WE DECLARE that in establishing this freedom of expression coalition, our vision is to achieve a Southeast Asia that upholds and protects freedom of expression, and the rule of law, serving as a beacon of free speech to the world.

Signed this 27th day of September 2015, in Lapu-Lapu City, Mactan Island, Cebu, Philippines, by our duly authorized representatives

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Filed under Burma, Free Expression, Human Rights, International Law, Internet, Libel, Malaysia, Thailand, Uncategorized

Filipino human rights group brings case of detained Thai poet to UN body

ThailandThe Manila-based free expression advocacy group Center for International Law asked the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention Wednesday to press the Thai Royal Government to free a Thai poet and blogger being tried by a military tribunal for writing articles that allegedly insulted King Bhumibol Aduljadej.

The cyberactivist, the poet Sirapop Korn-A-Rut, has been detained at the Bangkok Remand prison since June 2014 and faces up to 45 years in prison under his country’s restrictive lèse majesté laws, or laws penalizing any publication deemed offensive to the Thai King.

“Sirapop has written about a wide range of issues dealing with the contemporary political and legal climate in his country, a brave act that cannot be honestly done without dealing with the institution of the Office of the King of Thailand,” said lawyers Harry Roque and Romel Regalado Bagares, chair and executive director, respectively, of CenterLaw. “In doing so, he has run afoul of the lese-majesté laws of the Kingdom of Thailand, which he has also considered to be a long-standing instrument of political repression and oppression in his country.”

The Thai cyberactivist, whose situation was brought to Centerlaw’s attention by the Thai internet freedom group Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw), is accused of publishing several allegedly libelous poems online against the Thai King sometime between November 7, 2009 and June 30, 2014 under the pseudonym “Rungsira.” One poem (Shut the news, closing the eyes, buffalos are tearful, because the tiger may die) Pid-khao-bod-khloa, Kra-bu-ram-hai, Duay-wa, Pa-yak-ka-jak- ka-wai, was posted on the web board of the“Prachathai” website (www.prachataiwebboard.com).

This carried a caricature of an crowned old man with a Swastika on his military uniform sleeve accompanied by the text “…being an angel, why does one have to walk on the soil, overlook the ground surface, even if having normal food every meal, being modest, because we are faithful, with two hands we build up ourselves…”

The same caricature with the text “Prince Baworndesh the head of the rebels, Din Tarab the army leader of the rebel, Sulayut Julanon the Grandson of the rebels, the Angel the King of the rebels, Suthep Thaugsuban the Southern rebel, Sondhi Limthongkul the Chinese rebel,” also appeared on his blog (http://rungsira.blogspot.com/2014/01/blog-post-22.hlml). All of these were purportedly placed and made available online by Sirapop during Martial Law in Thailand.

The human rights group Amnesty International reports that around 511 activists, students, academicians and journalists have been arrested and arbitrarily detained, in violation of their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, since Martial Law was declared in the country last May 20, 2014.

Authorities have used security legislations and lese-majesté laws to suppress even peaceful dissenters to such extents that enforced disappearances, torture and inhumane treatment were carried out, prosecutions of criminalized political activities were hastily made, media was bullied into silence and self-censorship, and human rights safety mechanisms were set aside.

In their 16-page petition to the Working Group, the Filipino lawyers said Sirapop is clearly being arbitrary held and tried simply because he has chosen to exercise his right to free expression and to participate in public affairs in his country, which rights are protected under international law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which Thailand is a party. The Thai cyberactivist is also being denied his right to a fair trial, according to the petition.

The UNWAD is a specialized UN human rights mechanism dealing with urgent cases of arbitrary detention any where in the world. While its rulings are non-binding, these are considered authoritative on the state of international law dealing with fundamental human rights. Over the years, its interventions in the situation of many human rights activists in repressive states have yielded positive results.

Centerlaw cited a view issued by the UN Human Rights Committee in the case of jailed Filipino broadcast journalist Alexander Adonis, which Centerlaw had brought before the Committee. “In its view in the Adonis case the UNHRC said that criminal libel is incompatible with the freedom of expression protected under Art 19 of the ICCPR,” it said in its Petition filed on behalf of Sirapop.

Thailand’s ruling military junta has scrapped the country’s old Constitution and replaced it with an interim charter that denied the right of appeal to citizens convicted of violating its lese-majesté laws. As in Sirapop’s case, it has increasingly used military courts to prosecute alleged offenders without a public trial. Centerlaw argues that thailand’s military tribunals are not independent of the Executive and the lack of an appeal removes any possibility of a remedy against its judgments.

*image from http://www.stopmakingsense.org

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Blasphemy, the “Christian state” and the Cross

After reading Douhat’s piece  in the New York Times on blasphemy,  I offer these further thoughts on #Charlie Hebdo in relation to blasphemy and its place in the Christian society:

1. A state inspired by Christian ideals will nevertheless allow room for blasphemy, for the right to offend, precisely as demonstration of God’s grace and Christian civility, of the conviction, to borrow from  Mouw and Griffioen, that while we await the eschaton, we live under an “open heaven” and cannot see what lies beyond the horizon. This calls then for a certain sense of humility and openness to critical dissent. This is the heart of the Cross as symbol, message, and historical reality.

2. A state founded on Christian principles will not criminally prosecute blasphemy. Such a state will have a good grasp of justice deepened by ethics; it will understand why the contemporary differentiation in society where various institutions have their respectively marked out spheres necessitates the separation of “religious offenses” from the jurisdiction of the state as a political institution.

3. This calls to mind Jim Skillen’s reworking of Bishop Newbiggin’s take on the Cross: Skillen, proceeding from Newbigin’s view of the cross, argues that Christians should be arguing that an open, non-totalitarian, religiously plural society cannot be grounded in intolerant secularism but is, in fact, grounded in God’s patience and mercy in upholding the creation.

4. What they need, according to him, is a strong and distinctive doctrine on which to anchor this robust view of political pluralism; they too, must realize that the fair treatment of all faiths –including the atheist faith – in the public arena should, as a matter of principle, be one aspect of a ”Christian society. “

5. This Protestant idea of “principled pluralism” (or also known by its older name as “sphere sovereignty”) holds that if the right thing for Christians to do in obedience to the truth of Christ’s cross and resurrection is to defend religious freedom in public, then they must not tolerate the power of political untruth that would deny religious freedom to non-Christians or to some other religious group.

6. For Skillen, this means pushing a normative political principle for a Christian society that is consistent with the gospel demand that Christians should make some room for untruth and not try to act as God at the final Judgment. “If the political principle consistent with this truth is that all citizens should be treated fairly and equitably in regard to their religious way of life, then the political principle of tolerance is a normative truth-consequence of the gospel.”

7. Of course, the truth of political fairness for all citizens excludes the untruth of political discrimination or persecution of one or another religious group. Thus, precisely in order to live and proclaim the truth of the gospel, Christians should be willing to lay down their lives even for religious enemies in order to defend the truth of equal public justice for those enemies.

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In Solidarity with #Charlie Hebdo

Excerpts from our Mideo Cruz blasphemy case pleadings:

Art calls for a democratic solidarity even in the face of an intense confrontation of values and perspectives because ultimately, if art is to exist in a society that promotes democratic principles, it must sometimes be allowed to express even those thoughts and ideas that may not sit well with what the majority believes to be within the limits of acceptability.

Solidarity expects that a majority sure of their convictions should be able to take it in the chin when their cherished beliefs are put to question by a counter-cultural dynamic; it expects that in the face of intense questioning the majority, since they are sure of their convictions and are secure in their cherished doctrines, will be able to hold up on their own and offer a counter-argument in a dialogical manner that shows both grace and civility.

Of course, this kind of democratic commitment requires a basic appreciation for the variegated function of art in society. Such an appreciation should be able to distinguish between what is shown at a rundown affair in a seedy part of town operated by criminal types, and an exhibit– albeit controversial because of the questioning it subjects society’s conventions to – set up at a government-run museum or cultural center.

It should be able to restrain itself from acting against a contrary opinion in the way the Talibans of Afghanistan did towards the cultural treasures belonging to the Buddhist minority in their country, but which their fundamentalist Islamic traditions considered to be idolatrous and blasphemous towards Allah, simply because it recognizes that societies rise and fall on their citizens’ commitment to a civility able to grant being to the Other who proffers an alternative vision of life. Indeed, it is such a deep cultural and spiritual malaise where – despite the best efforts of our schools and universities to nurture and develop in their students such an appreciation for the place of art in public life – a passionately but hopelessly underdeveloped and constricted view of art predominates in society…..

Yet, if we are to have a state and a society that respects principled pluralism – we must be prepared to heed what Justice Robert Jackson, the chief prosecutor in the Nuremberg Tribunals, said in a landmark American case on compulsory courses in both private and public schools that infringed the rights of a minority religious group, the Jehovah’s Witnesses:

“We can have intellectual individualism and the rich cultural diversities that we owe to exceptional minds only at the price of occasional eccentricity and abnormal attitudes. When they are so harmless to others or to the State as those we deal with here, the price is not too great. But freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.”

The alternative to a state and a society founded on principled pluralism is a return to a Christendom where the Inquisition [insert here any other repressive system] was the order of the day for those who dared to cast a different vision of societal order: “Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.

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Spinoza, Charlie Hebdo and the Future of Religion in France?

charlie-hebdoIn light of the shocking and tragic events in Paris in the last few hours, a short essay by Jonathan Israeli from 8 years ago came to mind, on Baruch Spinoza’s secular tolerance on the question of freedom of thought versus the freedom of religion (as opposed to Locke’s more theological/religiously inspired idea of tolerance). According to Israel, Spinoza represents the heritage of the Radical Enlightenment, one that pushed religion to the fringes and restricted if not banished religion from public discourse.  In contrast, Locke was an heir to a more Protestant idea of toleration.  I believe France has been on Spinoza’s road for a long time now. It will go deeper into Spinoza’s territory after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Some relevant excerpts:

In his later work, the Tractatus Politicus (1677), Spinoza does more extensively deal with liberty of conscience and worship but in a way which again shows that his foundational tolerantisme toleration not grounded in theology – refuses to allow special privileges to the protection of faith and is chiefly intended to ground individual freedom of opinion, as well as of speech and writing. At the same time, Spinoza, again quite unlike Locke, always evinced a marked disinclination to encourage organised ecclesiastical structures to expand in influence, compete for followers, and assert their spiritual authority over individuals, as well as engage in politics. He begins by distinguishing carefully between toleration of worship, strictly speaking, which is one thing and empowering religious groups to organize and extend their authority just as they wish which he sees as something rather different. While readily granting that everyone must possess the freedom to express their beliefs no matter what faith they profess, or what they believe, Spinoza simultaneously urges the need for restrictions on the activities of churches. While dissenters should have the right to build as many houses of worship as they want and individuals may freely fulfil the duties of their faith as they understand it, Spinoza does not agree that this means that minority religions should have a free hand to acquire large and impressive ecclesiastical buildings or exercise sway over their members, as the Amsterdam Portuguese synagogue had once sought to dictate to him. Large and magnificent houses of worship should, he thinks, be monopolized by a publicly endorsed religion supervised by the state which in any well-ordered society needs to be a ˜very simple, universal faith , that is one which teaches ordinary folk that salvation comes through practicing ˜justice and charity. True religion in his terminology is a symbolic or concretely articulated universal philosophical religion. What is absolutely disastrous for any society, he argues, is allow religious leaders of whatever kind sufficient autonomy and prestige to be able to mobilize elements of popular opinion to play an active role in the political process and challenge the authority of the state and its institutions.

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Hate Speech and Free Expression

Lord Anthony Lester of Herne Hill, QC, speaking at the Media Law and Policy Conference 2013, Hongkong University:

 I’m a Jew and members of my family died in death camps in Europe but I believe that you cannot use criminal law to stop racist speech except in extreme cases…of incitement to genocide…the best remedy for evil speech is not less speech but more speech.

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Burma’s children

Mae Sot, Thailand– A.P, a 19-year-old student from Burma, is a child of his country’s so-called “Lost Generation.”

A sophomore studying the Burmese language as a distance education student in Rangoon, Burma’s old capital, A.P. is in this border town in Thailand’s northern reaches with four other students to attend a training conference on free expression organized by my organization, the Center for International Law (CenterLaw), and its partner-institution, the American Bar Association (ABA).

“My parents don’t know I’m here,” he tells me later over dinner at the end of the intensive two-day conference.

“But I have to be here.” Unlike most of the 32 participants in the training conference, he could speak intelligible English, and he exuded the bravado that could only come from a young man with a clear vision of what he would like to be in the future.

In 1988, the Burmese military junta shut down the country’s state-run schools and universities following wide-spread student uprising. Many students were arrested, but many more left the country as refugees. It was an unprecedented brain drain like no other, as young professionals – doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, scientists – followed suit. But the Burma’s generals couldn’t care any less. For them, the fewer the critics at home, the better.

What ensued was unmitigated academic disaster, the result of an egregious crime against the life of the mind. Students of the era who suddenly found themselves with no schools to go to were called the “lost generation” by the foreign press. Years later, the junta would eventually allow the reopening of schools but only under their close supervision and with such watered-down standards that for many, it didn’t make much of a difference had the schools remained shuttered down.

The few who could afford it went to private schools that sprang up like mushrooms in the wake of the closure of state-run schools; most, however simply found their academic life – and their youthful dreams – taken away from them. When I ask A.P. what his parents do for a living, he replies that his father runs a small shop while his mother is a school teacher.

A.P.’s parents must have been students themselves at the time when the generals ordered all state-run schools closed down. But he wants to do more than studying. He wants to enter politics and help shape a future Burma without its junta of generals. But for that he must prepare, he says.

“That is why I want to study political science too.”

In 2007, Burma was rocked by a new wave of protests sparked by the junta’s unannounced decision to remove fuel subsidies to public transportation in the oil and natural gas-rich country. Thousands of monks, joined by students, took to the streets to launch civil resistance. Western observers thought the “saffron revolution” would finally topple the Burmese dictatorship. Instead, it was violently suppressed by the military junta.

The junta has been in power since 1962. In 2010, it supposedly transferred power to a civilian government, now headed by President Thein Sin, although many of its military leaders still dominate the government.

Indeed, student activists of A.P’s new generation must still face ruthless generals whose heartless ways were demonstrated yet again two years ago when they blocked international aid for victims of the international cyclone Nargis, which had killed an estimated 140,000 Burmese.

Julian Assange’s Wikileaks would later reveal that the junta’s leader, General Than Shwe, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, in the aftermath of the calamity, had thought of making a US 1 billion dollar bid for the Manchester United football club.

A big fan of the football club, the general backtracked on the plan because it might “look bad”, according to Wikileaks. Instead, Than Shwe created a new Burmese football league worth millions of dollars, all this while many survivors of the disaster waited in vain on his government to provide them with permanent housing, access to clean water, and tools for fishing and agriculture.

The junta also sentenced to 35 years in prison Burma’s most eminent comedian, Zargana, who had spoken critically of the government’s slow action on the destruction the cyclone left in its wake.

One shudders at the thought of what other horrors a humor-less government who does that to a comedian is capable of doing.

But more recently, under intense international pressure, the Burmese government promised a package of reforms and in a gesture observers said was meant to improve its international image, ordered the release of large groups of political prisoners.

Only last month, in its most significant step yet, the government freed more than 600 prisoners, including the most prominent student, democracy and minority leaders and military intelligence and army dissidents jailed in 2004.

At our training conference, A.P. and his fellow students – most of them in their late teens – wore white T-shirts with the words “Free Expression” printed on them. They were an interesting contrast to the older participants at the conference, including some who had spent years in jail for their political activity and a handful of monks.

The participants came from all over Burma from various organizations that banded together to form the Action Committee for Democracy Development (ACDD), a political alliance representing monks, ethnics, youth and student activists of the 1988 and the 2007 generations.

Not a few traveled for at least four days to get to the conference venue, a small resort tucked away in a hilly part of Mae sot. Most of them did not have travel documents – which is why the ACDD chose a resort with  nondescript surroundings as conference venue.

And all of them appeared to be skeptical of the government’s recent gestures of goodwill.

They say it’s all for a show, done to justify Burma’s turn to chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in 2014.

There is of course, the wide-ranging sanctions imposed by Western nations on Burma that need to be lifted.

DNA, the well-known Burmese political dissident who assisted us in putting together the conference, told as much to me when I asked for his opinion on the question. Still, there is work to be done, and he agrees that training conference like ours are much needed. Indeed, I saw for myself the participants’ eagerness to learn, the language barrier and the sweltering heat of the sun in Mae Sot notwithstanding.

A.P. himself says he will vote in the forthcoming parliamentary elections announced by the civilian government. He looks forward to seeing newly-released opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) emerge victorious in the elections. It will be the first time in two decades that the NLD is joining the parliamentary elections, which is  the first to be held in 22 years.

“Our youth association shares the same goals with her,” he says. “But it doesn’t mean I want to belong to her political party.”

At the dinner, everyone is boisterous. Thai beer and food went well with their Burmese version of the videoke. “We’re all happy tonight,” says A.P., a teenager with a well-chiseled face, an easy-going manner and a smile on his eyes. “Tomorrow we all go back to Burma and we will not be seeing one another for a long time.”*

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Click here for the link to my column for the Iloilo News Today where this essay first appeared.

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