Fighting repressive laws

By working with allies who challenge restrictive media legislation with tenacity, patience and creativity, IMS helps fight illiberal laws and policies in even the most challenging contexts.

As democratic backsliding continued in 2022, limiting opportunities to work with formal institutions, IMS continued to adjust its interventions accordingly. Indeed, with fewer countries in a state of positive political transition, classic policy reforms cannot be the only solution to effectuate change. For IMS, this means focusing our strategic work to harness the power of coalition building and advocacy coordination.

Our interventions are built from context-informed strategy around calls voiced by civil society; we recognise that a comprehensive awareness of the social, economic and political interests of local communities is integral for lasting and well-designed reform. IMS continuously works at the grassroots level to identify what freedom of expression and access to information really mean to the average citizen to build consensus around the need for action. Holding this common understanding is essential before engaging in political fora.

Fighting repressive laws is not for the faint hearted – it requires tenacity, patience, creativity and diplomacy when tensions are often high and set within a shrinking civil space. In these tough times, we seek By working with allies who challenge restrictive media legislation with tenacity, patience and creativity, IMS helps fight illiberal laws and policies in even the most challenging contexts.
the individual actors and political figures who can respectively push back and serve as allies.

In 2022, these allies included the Media Law Forum in Sri Lanka, which provides pro bono legal support for media workers; the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee, which helped re-establish parts of a comprehensive legal framework safeguarding journalists; and the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, which successfully intervened to stop the government from establishing a “national digital gateway” that media and civil society groups said would lead to increased surveillance, media harassment and restrictions on freedom of expression.

As geopolitical tensions increase hand-in-hand with the reign of autocratic leaders, proactive engagement with government is not always an option for IMS and its partners. We must play the long game in many contexts, keep close track of small wins and capitalise on reforms only at the right moments.

One certainty around our advocacy is that change is never linear. However, when we bring together key national stakeholders and arm them with a range of best practice approaches, it is possible to fight repressive laws and policies in even the most challenging contexts.

CASE: Civil society groups make legislative gains in Cambodia

Cambodia suspended plans to establish a national digital gateway (NIG) that would manage all internet traffic into and out of the country.

The U-turn came in February after civil society organisations, tech companies and media raised concerns that the NIG would lead to increased surveillance, media harassment and restrictions on freedom of expression. They also said the NIG would give the government more power to control internet activity and either block or disconnect an individual user’s internet connection.

IMS supported its partners, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) and the Cambodia Center for Independent Media (CCIM), who called on the government to scrap the planned legislation. CCHR and CCIM were also part of a coalition of civil society organisations in Cambodia that called for more access to information in 2022.

The coalition submitted a petition urging the prime minister and the Ministry of Information to send a long-delayed law on access to information to Cambodia’s National Assembly for approval. The law, which has been in draft form for over a decade, is intended to give Cambodian citizens access to government records, documents and information. The hope is that it will increase public participation, transparency, good governance and press freedom.

CCHR conducted legal analysis of the law and helped raise public awareness of it. It also met foreign diplomats to raise concerns about the scope of the law and released an annual report outlining the state of freedom of expression, press freedom and access to information in Cambodia.

While freedom of expression and media freedom are protected under both Cambodian and international law, the situation is deteriorating, with the government continuing to silence independent media and dissenting voices. Reporters Without Borders currently ranks Cambodia 147 out of 180 countries for press freedom, and in 2022, Freedom House rated Cambodia as “not free” with a global freedom score of 24 out of 100.

CASE: Upholding press freedom during economic crisis in Sri Lanka

IMS partner Media Law Forum (MLF), which provides pro bono legal support for media workers and human rights defenders in Sri Lanka, successfully intervened in almost 80 percent of the cases it handled.

MLF usually takes on around 50 cases a year, but as the government cracked down on dissent and protests against corruption and impunity that triggered an unprecedented economic crisis, making arbitrary arrests, MLF was approached to co-intervene and took on about 250 such cases.

MLF had a positive outcome in 198 cases and secured bail or release from detention in over 80 percent of them. MLF’s work came as Sri Lanka was gripped by a unprecedented economic crisis which resulted in fuel and gas queues as well as a shortage of essential food items. Its work proved to be crucial in upholding freedoms of expression and assembly in the South Asian country. Its interventions also sent a clear signal to both the government and civil society that legal assistance would be available for those exercising democratic dissent.

CASE: Advocacy efforts re-establish support mechanisms in Afghanistan

Following the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban in 2021, IMS partner the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee (AJSC) helped re-establish parts of a comprehensive legal framework safeguarding journalists that had been approved by the Afghan parliament two weeks before the coup.

The framework had included a policy on sexual harassment, which was to have been implemented by Afghan media organisations before the takeover.

After the coup, the Taliban imposed new restrictions on the media, particularly on women media workers and at the provincial level. At the same time, the development of Afghanistan’s media sector and national legal institutions stalled.

Working in collaboration with the Afghan Federation of Journalists and Media, AJSC managed to establish a framework based on the previous national regulatory system, with adjustments for Sharia law and the Taliban’s new media guidelines.

The hope is that the re-establishment of support mechanisms within this fragile new operational context will ensure access to information and the safety of Afghanistan’s remaining media.

According to Amnesty International, “restrictions on women’s rights, freedom of the media and freedom of expression increased exponentially” while “institutions designed to support human rights were severely limited or shut down completely”.

The Taliban has also carried out extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests, torture and unlawful detention of perceived opponents.

CASE: Coordinated input on media law reform in Tanzania

Having struggled to speak with one voice, the Tanzanian media sector ramped up its advocacy work and submitted recommendations to the government on the reform of the country’s media law.

The advocacy was led by the Coalition on the Right to Information (CoRI), a long-standing advocacy group comprising media associations and civil society organisations. Its members include three IMS partners: the Media Council of Tanzania, the Tanzanian Media Women Association and the Media Institute of Southern Africa.

As a result of their work, CoRI got four new members in 2022, revitalising a coalition that has long faced pushback from state actors and struggled to coordinate its advocacy activities.

IMS’ media partners led the process of engaging the government over its reform of Tanzania’s Media Services Act, meeting with the Minister of Information in March. When the minister expressed concerns that he was receiving too many recommendations from across civil society, CoRI galvanised its approach and launched a taskforce to speak with one voice. It also issued a statement on World Press Freedom Day calling on the government to speed up the reforms.

The media sector’s coordinated advocacy is likely to give it increased leverage in the reform process.

CASE: Court in Pakistan strikes down controversial law curtailing press freedom

A high court in Islamabad struck down a presidential ordinance that extended the scope of online defamation in Pakistan and increased the prison term for the offence. It also ruled that section 20 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016, which criminalised defamation, was unconstitutional.

The ruling has been viewed as a major win for press freedom and freedom of expression in Pakistan. It came on the back of two research reports published in 2021 by IMS media partners in Pakistan: the Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development (IRADA) and Freedom Network.

The reports had argued that the offence of “online defamation” was being used to intimidate journalists into self-censorship and prevent independent public interest journalism.

IRADA was also a signatory of a civil society campaign to repeal the controversial ordinance and remove the criminal defamation clause from the act.

This article was published in IMS’ Annual Report 2022.