Desecrating Expression in Asia

22.12.2016 - Shahzad Ahmad - Marte Hellema

Desecrating Expression in Asia
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The rights to freedom of expression and religion are both essential components of a vibrant and pluralistic democracy. There are long-held laws that guarantee these freedoms in Asia. However, the way they are interpreted and used, is causing life-threatening situations in many countries. Recent years have seen increasing intolerance and attacks on those speaking out on religion or religious issues in Asia.

On 20 December 2016, the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) and Bytes for All, Pakistan, held an event in Bangkok to launch the new publication ‘Desecrating Expression – An Account of Freedom of Expression and Religion in Asia’ (

Drawing from the global discourse around the intersection between the right to freedom of expression and the right to freedom of religion, the report reflects on ground realities in Asia. Based on regional trends recorded from experiences in nine countries – Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Maldives, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Vietnam – recommendations to all stakeholders and sections of society are made to ensure the better protection of these rights.

All countries reviewed, and many countries in the rest of Asia, have seen a very worrying increase in attacks, threats and general intolerance when it comes to expression and religion. Ranging from the killing of bloggers in Bangladesh, the murder of journalists, attacks on minorities and increase in blasphemy cases in Pakistan, the draconian laws in Malaysia, to the violence against religious minorities in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. In all countries, the situation of women and people belonging to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community is particularly worrisome.

Generally speaking, in Asia the freedoms of expression and of religion are guaranteed through the Constitution, and as such are long held rights. However, countries have adopted extra-ordinary laws, which conflict with the Constitution and undermine them, such as blasphemy and defamation laws.

More so, in many countries cybercrime laws are being formulated and adopted, which are predatory towards expression, opinion and religious freedoms. This is part of a trend where the guaranteed rights to freedom of expression and religion are being undercut through selective interpretation and use.

To begin with, the politicisation of religion and the religionisation of politics have seen the creation of highly toxic relations between non-state, religious actors and politicians. Across Asia, Governments and political parties are championing themselves as the protectors of religion in an attempt to create a solid supporter base. This leaves believers of minority religions, secular or atheist people vulnerable.

At the same time, and in part stemming from this, Asia has seen a resurgence of impunity and inaction when it comes to protecting individuals who speak out about religion related topics. More so, the arbitrary or selective use of blasphemy and defamation laws are undermining the rule of law. Resulting harassment, threats and even murders of people who are speaking against the majority when it comes to religion, should be an immense concern for us all.

Many of these countries pay no more than lip service to international commitments they have made when it comes to upholding the right to freedom of expression and religion. The former UN Special Rapporteur on the freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, for example recognised that individuals are the right holders, not religions or belief systems per se, according to international standards. However, in particular blasphemy and defamation laws go against that principle.

For Asian democracies to prosper, these precarious trends need to be addressed. The report highlights three primary recommendations. First is the urgent need to repeal blasphemy laws across the region. Secondly, all Governments must ensure that national jurisprudence meets international standards. And finally, but maybe most importantly, authorities must protect all individuals exercising their right to freedom of expression relating to religion or religious issues.

With more than half of the world population being from Asia, it is inevitable that the region is enormously diverse when it comes to ethnicities, cultures, and religions. This diversity should be celebrated and cherished for Asia to flourish democratically. The freedom of expression and freedom of religion are two of the most valuable rights to ensure just that.

Shazhad Ahmad is the Director of Bytes for All, Pakistan, a human rights organisation and research think tank focusing on Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs).

Marte Hellema is the Information, Communication and Publication (ICP) Programme Manager for the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA).

Categories: Asia, Human Rights, Opinions
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