Jun 2015 03 – 05

The Regional Consultation on Expression, Opinion and Religious Freedom in Asia will bring together over 70 human rights defenders, activists and journalists from across the region — including the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion & Expression — to discuss and debate issues related to religious expression. The event is being organised by Bytes for All, Pakistan, in collaboration with FORUM-ASIA, Global Partners Digital, the Association for Progressive Communication, the Internet Democracy Project, ICT Watch and KontraS.

Participants will have the opportunity to take stock of the situation of the rights to freedom of expression in the context of religion while examining the existing international standards on this topic and the extent to which they have been implemented. The consultation also seeks to identify key emerging challenges to the exercise of the right to freedom of expression in the context of religion in the region, and make recommendations to fill the gaps in existing standards and strategize for more effective advocacy on this topic.

Context

The Asia region is the world’s most populated region with a number of development challenges posed by a range of complex issues in different countries, including corrupt governance, socio-economic disparities, diversity of cultures, religion and tribal customs. While Asians should be celebrating the amazing diversity in the region, these issues are often used to create further divisions, promoting discrimination, oppression and controls on people. Freedom of expression and religious freedoms are rapidly regressing at different levels in most parts of the Asia region.

For the last three years Pakistan has been rated one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. With over a hundred journalists killed in the last decade, and the prevalence of complete impunity, it is not difficult to imagine the state of freedom of expression in the country. Journalists are not the only community targeted for exercising freedom of– recently a blogger was arrested on charges of blasphemy for writing a blog that was perceived as offensive and blasphemous. The expression of political opinion through gatherings and protests has also attracted violence and ire of the government. The internet remains the communication medium most open for expressions of dissent but even this is under threat.

This crackdown on the expression of political and religious opinion is not limited to Pakistan.

In Maldives, a country where being non-Muslim is illegal, secular bloggers have been targeted either to be killed or forced to leave the country. Article 19 and Amnesty International have raised concerns about the ‘disturbing increase in clampdowns on freedom of expression’. Several bloggers have been killed in Bangladesh on blasphemy charges by mob justice or non-state actors.

After a fact finding mission to Malaysia, UNSRs on Freedom of Expression, Freedom of Association and Assembly and Situation of Human Rights Defenders stated that The Sedition Act is used in a way that prevents Malaysians from expressing and debating, freely and openly, a diverse range of political opinions and ideas”.

All religious groups are experiencing intimidation and repression alongside those critical of government. Whether it is anti-Ahmadiyya laws in Indonesia and Pakistan, the targeting of religious minorities in Burma and Sri Lanka or a crackdown on bloggers and journalists for criticizing the monarchy in Thailand, freedom of expression is under siege across Asia.

The situation is even more troubling when seen in the context of religious freedoms – not only are people targeted for voicing their opinions but the targeting is much more violent, intense and persistent if the opinions of dissent come from a group of religious minorities. In parallel we are seeing internet freedom around the region has declined, with a growing number of countries introducing online censorship and monitoring practices that are more aggressive in the way they target individual users.

The proposed conference is an attempt to bring together human rights defenders, journalists, bloggers and other stakeholders from all over Asia to discuss, debate, understand and identify solutions for this urgent human rights challenge and understand the role the internet can play in helping preserve religious freedom of freedom of expression.

Objectives

The issues highlighted above barely are merely the tip of the iceberg. In countries like Pakistan and other religious states around Asia, discrimination against religious minorities and in effect the curbs on their freedom of expression are constitutionalized. In this regard, we hope that this conference will allow us to create a network that is capable of exerting the necessary pressure on states to tackle these challenges.

The objectives of the consultation are:

  • To develop an understanding regarding the direction of future advocacy of FoE in the context of religious freedoms;
  • To understand what role the internet is playing and can play in promoting freedom of expression and religious toleration online;
  • To raise awareness about Rabat Plan of Action on the prohibition of advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred;
  • To engage the relevant UN Special Procedures mandate holders in the current debate over issues of Freedom of Expression and Religious Freedoms in Asia; and
  • To generate global support for the region from research think tanks, academia, donors and human rights friendly governments to help reverse the negative trends on basic freedoms.

Event Format

The regional consultation will be held over three days from June 3 to 5, 2015, at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Jakarta – Diponegoro. The event will be divided in to a number of activities, including lectures, plenary discussions, breakout groups and working sessions.

Participation is by invitation only as spaces are limited. For more information, please write to us at: organizers@freedomofexpression.asia.


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