What you need to know about Zimbabwe’s upcoming elections

Photo: Opposition MDC supporters wave flags at a rally to launch their election campaign in Harare, Zimbabwe, Jan. 21, 2018. VoA. Associated Press.

On Wednesday, Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa announced that the country is to hold presidential and parliamentary elections on July 30th. In less than two months, Zimbabwean citizens will have the opportunity to vote, in the first elections since the ousting of Robert Mugabe in November last year. What do you need to know about the upcoming elections?



For current President Emmerson Mnangagwa, the 2018 elections are mostly about legitimizing his presidency. Following the November 2018 coup, in which the military leadership installed the former vice-President as the country’s new leader, Mnangagwa needs democratic confirmation through the ballot. Mnangagwa has invited Commonwealth election personnel to monitor voting in Zimbabwe for the first time since 2002, when Harare was suspended from the group over accusations of rigged elections. Experts claim that, if qualified as free and fair, the July-elections could be an important step in bringing foreign investors back to the southern African country after a decade of economic decline.

Nevertheless, there are grave concerns about several aspects of the upcoming elections. Despite Mnangagwa’s narrative of free and fair elections, many still fear rigging. This is not without a reason. A little over a week ago, deputy Minister of Finance Terrence Mukupe made a controversial statement during a ZANU-PF meeting, claiming that those who were behind the military intervention to oust Mugabe will never let MDC-T leader Chamisa take over if he wins the elections.

The electoral Act still does not allow Zimbabweans who live outside the country to vote. Most recently, the refusal of Justice Minister Ziyambi Ziyambi to have an open tender for the procurement of ballot papers and other related material sparked outrage among opposition and civil society, who believe this poses a serious threat to the credibility of the elections.


Main Competitors

The upcoming elections are also to be seen as a clash between old and new. The old political generation is represented by a 75-year-old former ally of Robert Mugabe. Emmerson Mnangagwa still rides the narrative of the independence war like Mugabe did, and is strongly supported by the current upper echelon of the military and by former military leaders who have taken their places in government.

A younger generation of political life is being represented by Nelson Chamisa. The 40-year-old was put forward by the MDC after long time opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai died of cancer in February this year. Chamisa has prioritized the reform of the country’s social systems as part of his bid to win the Presidency, and has also promised to return land to dispossessed white farmers. Nevertheless, the MDC-party is still fractured, with several party members still not fully supporting Chamisa’s race.

Finally, the G-40 faction, who lost the battle against the Crocodile last November, seem set to mobilize once again. Under the name National Patriotic Front, the Mugabe clan is backing Ambrose Mutinhiri – a man who served nearly four decades under Mugabe and had fought alongside him for liberation.


Election Prospects

Will any of these competitors be able to defeat ZANU-PF in the upcoming elections? In the view of many experts, no opposition party is in a position to challenge the ruling party. ZANU-PF is happy to hold these elections simply because they’re confident of victory, rather than for commitment to a new dawn of democracy. “Though the election looks like it will go to the wire, the greater likelihood, based on cold-blooded analysis, is that experience, depth and state incumbency will triumph over youthfulness,” said Eldred Masunungure, a professor of political science at the University of Zimbabwe.

What role could civil-society and social movements play in the upcoming elections? For an in-depth analysis of the situation in Zimbabwe, check our recently update ZIMBABWE COUNTRY ANALYSIS online.

Kidnapping and Murder of Ecuadorian Journalists Just One Facet of Declining Free Press

Photo: Colombian journalists gather in front of Ecuador’s embassy to protest against the murder of the media team, holding signs reading “We Are Missing Three” in Spanish. Reuters.

On April 13, a team of three Ecuadorian journalists was confirmed dead on the border between Ecuador and Colombia. They were reporting on the activities of rebel narco groups, who generally don’t appreciate being scrutinized, and were kidnapped on March 26 by the Oliver Sinisterra Front. The International Committee of the Red Cross retrieved the bodies, responding to a request for assistance from both Colombian and Ecuadorian authorities.

Across Ecuador, citizens held vigils and criticized the government for its handling of the situation. Journalists gathered in front of the presidential palace in Quito every day following the kidnapping, chanting “We’re missing three! We want them back alive!” and demanding the government take action to retrieve them. The day after the deaths were confirmed, the protesters changed their shouts to “You did nothing!”

Media actors such as Colombia’s Foundation for Press Liberty have denounced the passivity of the Colombian and Ecuadorian government in protecting the lives of the reporters. Major news outlets held blackouts as a sign of mourning for their colleagues and journalists of Cartagena collected at a martyrs’ monument to protest the murders. Ronald Rodriguez, spokesperson for the Bolivar Journalists Association, reminds “everyone that our profession is a neutral one that does not take sides, so we demand that we be excluded from the armed conflict, and we reiterate to the governments of Colombia and Ecuador that they are responsible for our safety in practicing our profession.” The 2017 Freedom House report on Ecuador states that the government has “increasingly cracked down on social media and other internet activity in recent years” and that officials monitor Twitter for accounts critical of the Correa administration.

The Colombian government claims Oliver Sinisterra Front is a splinter group of FARC, a former rebel group which signed an historic peace agreement and transitioned into a political party, although currently it no longer has a connection to the political party. Oliver Sinisterra Front, in turn, blames the Ecuadorian government for the deaths, saying it “did not want to save the lives of the three detained” and that the military operations nearby were the reason the captives died. Discouragingly, the Ecuadorian government received a video on April 18 from Oliver Sinisterra Front showing two more Ecuadorians have been kidnapped.


The media is often in one of two positions: acting as a pillar of support for the government/powerful interests, or as whistleblowers. Journalists not under the thumb of any government are often expected to challenge authority and the status quo. They reveal truths that those in power might prefer to be left in the dark, and hold them accountable.

The trend of violence and threats facing reporters is spread across the globe, with journalists targeted and killed in Slovakia, India, Yemen, and other Latin American countries just in 2018, according to Reporters Without Borders.

April 12, In the Russian city Yekaterinburg, a journalist fell off his balcony and died soon after in the hospital. There is some debate over the circumstances surrounding his death: some proclaim it suicide, others suspect foul play. Neither of those theories speaks to a secure environment for the reporter. Leonid Volkov, an acquaintance of the dead journalist, describes the conditions in Russia for principled journalists as so devoid of any prospects that it “forc[es] them to choose between honor and a piece of bread every day.”

A Maltese journalist who had made a habit of investigating and exposing corruption and money-laundering schemes tied to politicians was killed last fall when her car exploded outside of her home on the island of Malta. She quickly became something of a martyr, her violent death and bold, corruption-exposing journalism catching the attention of many. News organizations and private journalists around the globe have since pledged to take up and carry on her work, forming the Forbidden Stories project.


These cases of murder and violence are extremes, but journalists face various injustices and threats on a daily basis. They are subjected to harassment from governments, bloggers are put under surveillance, and some are arbitrarily barred from free movement within countries. There has been a decline in free press globally over the last 15 years, reaching its lowest point in 2016 while unprecedented levels of threats to journalists and media outlets were recorded in “major democracies,” and authoritarian states looked to control the media even beyond their borders.  One of the most common penalties imposed on journalists is imprisonment. Many countries use old or vague laws to target media, like in Myanmar where two journalists currently are being charged with violating the Official Secrets Act. Others use situations of social unrest as a pretext to exercise their power and crack down on media.

And as social movements demand more clarity, greater transparency, the knowledge has to be disseminated some way— usually through traditional media channels. When we rely on journalists to be on the front lines of disclosing information to the public, and revealing secrets that ought to be shared, we must also support the journalists when they are in danger. Demands for high-risk actions should not be the only thing we have to offer. We must take steps to ensure the safety of journalists and support their endeavors. In the words of Bratislava archbishop Stanislav Zvolensky: “An attack on a journalist is also an attack on the freedom of our country, we must not allow it.”

#SOSNicaragua – Is the Ortega Murillo Dynasty Crumbling ?

Photo: Nicaraguans protest against reforms to social security. EFE.

The last five day’s protests have led to the death of at least 26 people, according to human rights groups. 46 people have been reported missing, and hundreds have been injured, shot by snipers, by police with rubber bullets, or beaten by pro-Sandinista protesters. The protests may have started in response to president Ortega’s recent changes to the social security system, which will increase income and payroll taxes and reform the pension system, but the uprisings are likely to continue as a means of expressing the population’s discontent with the government and their repressive politics.

As the government ordered the shutdown of five independent TV channels covering the situation, the protests spread to León, Estelí, Masaya and other cities throughout the country on Thursday. Reports and footage have shown several reporters being beaten, robbed, verbally threatened, and having their expensive camera equipment stolen by violent pro-government protesters. Among those killed was Ángel Gahona, a journalist who was shot dead while broadcasting live via Facebook in Bluefields. Amnesty International called the attacks on peaceful protesters and journalists a “disturbing attempt to curtail their rights to freedom of expression and assembly.”

President Ortega was first elected president in 1984 and is currently serving his third consecutive term of presidency. He’s a former left-wing guerilla officer and therefore keeps close control of the country’s military and national police. On its path to the presidency, and as a method of retaining power, the Ortega Murillo government also relies heavily on support from the Catholic church, another of their main pillars of support. The ever-increasing political power given to Murillo, who was made vice president last year, is seen to be a part of the couple’s efforts to cling to power and their plan to create a new family dynasty.

Not all representatives of the Catholic church are supportive of President Ortega’s politics. The government’s violent response to the protests, attacking the media and freedom of expression, show their true face and some of their repressive tactics.This is an excellent example of when oppression backfires, as human rights groups have condemned the violence, and even Pope Francis has called for “an end to every form of violence” and for differences to be “resolved peacefully and with a sense of responsibility” during his Sunday address.

Following the Pope’s address, president Daniel Ortega said in an official announcement that the social security system changes had been cancelled. He spoke of chaos and the need to re-establish order, seemingly acknowledging that the protests and the past day’s social unrest seriously challenge his authority, for the first time since he was elected in 2007. The people protests last week have marked the most popular uprising since the end of the civil war, 30 years ago. Ortega said he will negotiate the proposed social security changes together with business leaders, who contrarily have backed the peaceful protests, saying that no talks will take place unless freedom of expression is restored, peaceful protest detainees are released, and police repression comes to an end. Although the statements of COSEP, Nicaragua’s most powerful business association with close ties to Ortega, are mainly playing to the gallery, they did call for some action, a ‘private sector’ march on Monday, which several activists have said they will not take part in.

Throughout the weekend, looting and fires have been reported, although protesters are accusing the riot police and government supporters of initiating violence and staging any such scenes in attempts to delegitimize the protests. Protesters have however taken down several of the enormous illuminated metal structures named “Trees of Life” (Arbóles de la Vida), both officially and unofficially referred to as symbols of the Ortega Murillo regime, in acts of celebration. The immense metal trees, first installed in 2013 on several grand ‘avenues of power’, measure 14 meters high and 6 meters wide with an estimated cost of $25,000 per unit, and have been largely critiqued for their aesthetics, symbolism, and the high electricity consumption required. In the capital Managua alone, 140 trees have been installed during the past five years. The brightly coloured trees are thought to serve as first lady Rosario Murillo’s amulet of protection, as she has a passion for Catholic mysticism, biblical sculptures, and ornaments.  

The destruction of the trees clearly carries symbolic value for the people of Nicaragua, and as they fall, with the right leadership, perhaps too will the pillars of power that the government’s authority relies so heavily on start to face the power of the peaceful peoples of Nicaragua.

One of the protesters, Mauri Hernandez, said to the media:

“We are in the streets asking for Ortega and his wife to go. This has already gone beyond the social security issue. Here there have been dead, wounded, and he does not even apologize for his killings or the savage repression against the people.”

The protests may have started in response to a social security system reform. What follows, however, will be determined by the population, fueled by repression, discontent, and poverty. A people that hasn’t been this fearless for 30 years. And as fake metal trees are falling to the ground, a population armed with social media is on the rise.

People Power Rages in Armenia as Opposition Declares Revolution

Photo: Opposition protesters demonstrate in Yerevan on April 17. RFE/RL.

Fueled by fear, hope, and anger, more than ten thousand Armenians have come out in protest to oppose the appointment of Serzh Sarkisian as prime minister. The leader of the demonstration has called for nonviolence, but past instances of excessive force by police against peaceful protesters bode poorly for those out on the streets. As the situation rapidly develops, and democracy slips from the people’s hands, their measured responses will be critical for charting the course of this conflict.

Sarkisian has been in power for the past decade in Armenia, serving two terms as president, the maximum limit, and having finally stepped down on April 9 at the inauguration of his successor. At the time he was elected, and throughout his terms, the presidency was the most powerful single position of leadership in Armenia. In 2015, however, a change to the structure of the government was approved. This made the president into more of a national figurehead, transferring most of his legislative authority to the parliament and prime minister. In 2014, with the campaign for these policy changes underway, Sarkisian had announced that he would “not aspire” to become prime minister if they took effect. Now, this comment is infuriating and driving many members of the opposition who accuse him of breaking that pledge.

Protest leader Nikol Pashinian has been rallying protesters since April 13. A few days before, opposition lawmakers set of smoke bombs in parliament to call for demonstrations. So now for days, people have gathered in Yerevan, blocking government buildings, bringing transportation to a standstill, confronting significant government-linked individuals, and resisting attempts to be contained. Moreover, similar demonstrations are being held in almost every city in the country while the parliament moves to formally appoint Sarkisian as prime minister. With the movement escalating and the shows of solidarity at their height, Pashinian has just declared the start of a nonviolent people’s revolution in Armenia.

The government and police are working actively to disperse the protesters and quell the movement. They have fought paths through the blocked streets, often shoving people to the ground on the sidewalk to make way. The Armenian police in fact have a history of using excessive force against peaceful demonstrations, firing stun grenades and aggressively beating both protesters and journalists. In light of this current wave of demonstrations, Human Rights Watch has again called on the police to respect peaceful assembly.

The movement is, however, predominantly the responsibility of the people: the individuals on the ground, the source of the people power. Pashinian has called for nonviolence, but it is their responsibility to maintain that discipline as the movement accelerates. Strategies are critical. Civil resistance works. If this revolution is going to not only happen, but be successful and endure, these principles will be paramount.

Srdja Popovic Installed as St Andrews’ 53rd Rector

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On Friday, April 13, Srdja Popovic officially became the 53rd Rector of the Scotland’s first university. (via St Andrews)

Since 1858, the Rector has been elected by the students. Srdja follows in the footsteps of a long list of illustrious former Rectors, including authors J M Barrie and Rudyard Kipling, Monty Python founding member John Cleese and Catherine Stihler MEP. In addition to being President of the University Court, the highest governing body of the University, the Rector also plays an informal, pastoral role for students.

The official installation ceremony followed the traditional student ‘drag’ (Wednesday 11 April), which saw students lead the new Rector on an epic six-hour tour of student halls and local hostelries in a day of celebration, which included a procession through the town.

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“I am proud and honoured to serve as a Rector – a voice and empowerment of students of St Andrews. I am ready to commit my term to listening to the students and turning their initiatives into concrete action. The position of the Rector belongs to the students, and it will be my goal to empower students to use it in their best interest!”

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Lewis Wood, President of the St Andrews Students’ Association said: “The Rector’s Installation is a day of celebration to welcome Srdja to the University community. Srdja’s campaign and vision for St Andrews inspired a lot of students last October and we look forward to inducting him into our traditions and culture. Both myself and the student body wish him all the best for the three years ahead, and look forward to working closely with him.”

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Bead Portrait Raises Awareness of Violence Against Indigenous Women

Photo: Community bead-making workshop for the portrait project. Luger’s Instagram.

Communities across the US are hand-rolling beads and sending them to Native American artist Cannupa Hanska Luger. He will assemble these beads into a large scale portrait, titled ‘Every One’. This portrait project aims to raise awareness of the disproportionately high violence against indigenous women, girls, and LGTBQ community. Luger was born on the Standing Rock reservation, and his work focuses on critical analysis of culture to inspire diverse communities to “engage with Indigenous peoples and values apart from the lens of colonial social structuring.” The artist explores this topic through the mediums of ceramics, fiber, steel, video and sound, and social collaboration. Among his notable works are the Mirror Shields used in the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which also invited the public to participate in the project by creating their own mirror shields.

After a Canadian minister suggested that around 4,000 women have gone missing or been murdered in Canada alone, an estimate more than 3 times that of the police, Luger latched onto that number. The portrait will be made out of 4,000 beads, each one meant to represent a victim.

These 4,000 cases are part of a greater pattern of violence towards indigenous women. A study from 2016 showed that greater than four out of five American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime, and the results showed that over 730,000 American Indian and Alaska Native women experienced violence in that year. Still other activists, those working for the ‘Walk 4 Justice’ initiative, collected the names of indigenous women who are missing or murdered but stopped once they reached 4,232 in 2011. All too often, authorities award little attention and effort into investigating the crimes.

Luger’s project began as an individual undertaking but soon developed into an opportunity for social engagement. To make it more accessible for communities and non-artists in other parts of the country, he simplified the bead-making process, and in December uploaded a tutorial video. In more than twenty communities ranging from California, to Oklahoma, to New York, groups rolled two-inch beads for his project. Luger, in an Instagram post, celebrated that he had received 3,921 beads for his project, proving this involvement is more than just ‘clicktivism,’ and provides real tangible action to support the cause.

Luger is not alone in his call to attention and action on this issue. Women in Washington state have lobbied politicians to introduce bills to address missing indigenous women. To get a grasp on the scale of the problem, the first step these advocates urged for is a full investigation into precisely how many women are missing or murdered. Numbers are hazy since there is a pattern of police either ignoring reports or filing them as accidental deaths. Next, they suggest that policy for law enforcement should be addressed, with the hope of creating requirements of full reports and investigations into the murders, disappearances, and violence against indigenous women.

The portrait will come together during this month. The inspiration for the portrait is a photograph by queer indigenous Canadian photographer Kali Spitzer, depicting an unnamed woman whose own sister is one of the over 4,000 missing or murdered indigenous women. The portrait will premiere at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs Galleries of Contemporary Art at the end of April, and then tour the US. Luger’s project, he says, humanizes numbers and policy. “The data is numbers, but the numbers represent lives. These are human lives.” The bead-making workshops reached wider audiences, bringing in non-indigenous community members, an example of how art is used to draw attention to the issues of marginalized communities, and lift up their voices in memory of loved ones and in protest of a society that allows this to fall by the wayside. The portrait will continue, as it travels the country, to tell the story of many through the story of one.


Thousands of Pashtuns Rally for the Right to Live Without Fear

Photo: Pashtun women from a tribal region of Pakistan hold pictures of missing family members at a rally in Peshawar. AP.

Tens of thousands of Pashtun and Pakistani activists rallied recently in the city of Peshawar, demanding an end to decades of political mistreatment, the removal of military checkpoints in tribal areas, and the release of their friends and relatives who they assert have been taken as political prisoners by the Pakistani government. Radio Mashaal, a branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, reported approximately 60,000 in attendance, despite a near-complete blackout of reporting by most Pakistani media.

The movement’s leader, Manzoor Pashteen, has affirmed that the demonstrations are both nonviolent and constitutional. “Pashtuns who have raised their voices against atrocities are being labelled as foreign agents … But we are simple people talking about peace and harmony. Our agenda is peace, and if their agenda is that atrocities should continue, this is wrong.”

In February, the movement staged its first mass demonstration as a response to the killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud, an aspiring Pashtun model, in an allegedly staged encounter. The government stated that Mehsud was a member of the Pakistani Taliban, but this remains entirely unsubstantiated. What the killing did prove, however, was that this young generation of ethnic Pashtuns would continue to be assaulted by the government, as in this extrajudicial killing, but that they were not prepared to so easily accept this systematic abuse. Although education rates remain lowest in Pashtun territories, this generation of the ethnic group is more politically aware than ever.

Mistreatment by the Pakistani government is extreme, long-enduring, and thoroughly systematic. Critically, the Pashtun tribal lands fall outside the jurisdiction of the normal Pakistani judicial system. They are governed rather by the Frontier Crimes Regulations, an outdated system left over from the colonial era. This creates an unjust, inhumane structure and a sharply reduced set of rights for Pashtun citizens. What’s more, Pashtun regions have the lowest literacy rate in the country, there are few employment opportunities, health infrastructure is poor, and communication systems are completely insufficient.

Beyond the systematic oppression, the Pashtun region underwent further tragedy during the height of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda’s clash with Pakistani security forces. Sandwiched between these warring groups, the tribal peoples’ houses were destroyed and businesses devastated in the name of anti-Taliban operations, their mosques were bombed, and their elders were brutally targeted with bombs and beheadings. The Pashtun people were uprooted from their historic villages and for years they were forced to live in tents through both brutal winters and scorching summers.

The protests in Pashtun have brought some victories, but in the fight for equal rights, there is a long road ahead. Earlier this week, the government conceded to escalate its de-mining efforts, with the goal of eventually eradicating the land mines that still plague the Pashtun region. They additionally agreed to remove some, but not all, of the military checkpoints instated there after the rise of terrorism. At the same time, however, police are formally targeting Pashteen and using harsh intimidation tactics on other Pashtun leaders. In spite of this, Pashteen affirmed in an interview with NPR that the movement is underway, with him or not. “No longer will Pashtuns be like tissues that the Pakistani state uses – and then throws away.”

India’s Dalit Protest Dilution of Act Protecting Them Against Class Crimes

Photo: The Supreme Court’s ruling sparked country-wide protests this week. (BBC)

Thousands took to the streets this week after a Supreme Court ruling weakened the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989, which had afforded protections to Dalit against the abuses of power by authorities. The Dalit are in the lowest caste in India, marginalized by society and frequent victims of attacks. The protests had been intended to be peaceful, branded as “bandh” or shutdown, and much of the protest was nonviolent, consisting of sit-ins and gatherings. Some were not, however, and many politicians have called for peace in the streets. Leaders of political parties have expressed solidarity with the Dalit and their grievances, but condemn the violence of the protests.

The act was instituted nearly two decades ago, as a new and improved version of the Protection of Civil Rights Act of 1955 that had fallen short of successfully protecting the Dalit from atrocities. Parliament therefore passed the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act in order to emphasize a commitment to the safety of the Dalit. It distinguishes that the perpetrator must be a non-member of the Dalit, and the victim must be of this caste. Importantly, it introduced punishments for neglect from officials who are obligated to respond to reports of violence. This was in response to a trend of low arrests, low criminal charges, and often inaction by police departments.

The Supreme Court ruling said the act was “rampantly misused,” claiming that over 16% of claims were false, merely citizens using the laws as a forum to “settle personal scores and harass adversaries.” The courts’ revisions would stop requiring immediate arrests of those accused of anti-Dalit violence. Furthermore, any arrests made must be approved by a senior police official, and if a public official is be arrested, it must be with the written permission of that official’s own department.

These changes, the Dalit fear, will allow officials in the castes that so often commit the atrocities to turn a blind eye to the crimes of others in their social group. The protests across the country have led to the deaths of approximately 10 protesters. The crowds in various locations threatened shopkeepers, burned tires, confronted police, and blocked trains and traffic in the cities. In Punjab state the army and paramilitary forces were placed on standby, a curfew was imposed in locations around the country, and hundreds of protesters were detained.

A review petition has been introduced to the Supreme Court, to be advocated by government counsel. Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the government was not involved in the court’s decision, and that the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment disagrees with the court’s reasoning, having filed every comprehensive review and determined that fewer than 10% of cases filed were for personal gripes.

Civil society organizations are expected to function as watchdogs and monitor individual cases and regional situations.  Citizens are also empowered to informally audit the performance of the state institutions, but encouraged to consider interfering in cases only when civil society is strong enough to protect the victims from any backlash. CSOs produce fact sheets and “report cards,” and track cases that arise. They publicize cases and track areas prone to high rates of caste violence. Online resources provide a calendar for monitoring the mandatory provisions of the Act, applicable to every year and including a panel to be held every three years. It is expectations like this that demand continuous vigilance, to lend longevity to the protections.

The advancement of human rights doesn’t have an endpoint. It must be monitored and improved upon, strengthened every time rights are endangered. The rapid response of the Dalit, mobilizing across the country in unity, goes to show that a staggering amount of people come together to stand up for their safety and rights.

New Malaysian Bill Against Fake News Isn’t Solving Any Problems

Photo: An advertisement in a public transit terminal reminds commuters not to spread fake news online.

It’s no secret that in this modern age of fast and easy communication, fake news has become a serious threat to justice and democracy. Each country has reacted differently to this new challenge, with some fighting it full force and others embracing it to their own advantages. One of these strategies in particular attracted the world’s attention this week, though, when the Malaysian government introduced its controversial “anti-fake news bill”. The new policy could charge offenders with up to six years in prison for spreading “any news, information, data and reports which are wholly or partly false, whether in the form of features, visuals or audio recordings or in any other form capable of suggesting words or ideas.”

At first, this plan may seem as though it could have some merit. Fake news is, after all, a grave and near universal problem today. A recent Freedom House report found that online manipulation tactics, including fake news, played a significant role in more than 18 elections last year. This, on top of the other ways that fake news affects and shapes society, also led to a fall in global internet freedom for the seventh consecutive year. All this is to say that the world simply has not figured out how to address this serious threat.

Malaysia’s strategy does seem to attack fake news directly, and it would perhaps be a good tactic if the articles themselves were the primary issue. As is demonstrated by the Freedom House report, however, the critical challenges are rather the intentional manipulation of information and the world’s diminishing internet freedom. These are therefore the standards by which Malaysia’s new policy should be measured.

Examining the “anti-fake news bill” through this lens, it quickly proves problematic. The government’s definition of fake news, for example, includes unverified speculation or conclusions by reporters. With upcoming elections in August, and with Prime Minister Najib Razak currently in the midst of a multibillion-dollar corruption scandal, the bill comes at a distinctly opportune time. The country’s Deputy Communications Minister last week declared that any information about the corruption scandal not confirmed by government would be considered “fake news” and subject to punishment under the new policy. In this way, the bill is a direct assault on free expression and transparency.

“The vague and broad definition of ‘fake news’, combined with severe punishments and arbitrary arrest powers for police, shows that this is nothing but a blatant attempt to shield the government from peaceful criticism,” said James Gomez of Amnesty International. Human Rights Watch similarly condemned the bill, adding that “The Malaysian government has no monopoly on the truth, but it’s attempting to be the arbiter of what can and can’t be said and written.”

The heavy criticism by national opposition and international critics unfortunately holds little promise for stopping the bill from being passed. Although the government did lower the proposed sentence to a maximum of six years imprisonment, from the original maximum of ten, it has simultaneously denied any attempts to stifle debate or prevent discussion of the prime minister’s corruption scandal. The bill will nevertheless achieve these ends, even if violators do end up serving a somewhat shorter prison sentence.

Malaysia’s “anti-fake news bill” addresses neither of the issues that pervasive fake news presents to the world today. On the contrary, by both decreasing internet freedom and deliberately manipulating the information available to its citizens, this bill is effectively propagating the very crisis that it was allegedly written to combat. The people of Malaysia must therefore continue to fight for transparency, the media must continue to investigate serious national scandals, and on a broader global scale, the battle against fake news must rage on.

Vietnam’s Own Lady Gaga Detained Post Album Promo

Photo: Mai Khoi holding up a sign during Donald Trump’s visit to Vietnam last November. Bennett Murray. The Guardian.

Mai Khoi Do Nguyen, often called Vietnam’s Pussy Riot or Lady Gaga, was detained at Noi Bai airport in Hanoi Tuesday morning. She had just returned from Europe, where she was promoting her newest album “Bat Dong,” or “Dissent” in English. Human Rights Watch attests that many Vietnamese activists have been prohibited from traveling abroad, but Mai Khoi has not yet been subject to this travel ban and able to travel to promote her music.

Many political activists fled the country during a government crackdown last year, but Mai Khoi stayed, and was seen last November during Trump’s visit to the country with a sign reading “Piss On You Trump.” She is one of dozens of activists on a watch list for her strong criticisms of the government, and she and her husband have been evicted from their homes three times. The most recent eviction was following her anti-Trump demonstration when “agents from Vietnam’s secret police claiming to be employees of the building’s owner” first barricaded her inside her apartment, then demanded she and her husband leave. With this arrest, her husband worries in a Facebook post about the conditions of her detention and whether they will be evicted again. At least 120 others are currently being held in Vietnam for dissent against the government.

Mai Khoi has used her music to criticize the authoritarian rule in Vietnam and to call for free speech and the promotion of human rights. In 2016 Mai Khoi joined the ranks of approximately 25 activists trying to claim seats in the Communist party dominated National Assembly. Running as independents, the activists failed to claim any seats after the authorities refused to approve their candidacies, despite the local support they had. Also that year, former US President Barack Obama visited Vietnam, giving Mai Khoi the opportunity to meet and plead with him to pressure Vietnam to uphold its human rights obligations.

Mai Khoi’s music itself is rooted in advocacy: its roots, she says, stem from traditional and ethnic music. It doesn’t follow the contemporary western style of music, a conscious choice on her part against cultural dilution. For her, music “open[s] new ways of thinking and acting, making the unthinkable thinkable and the unspeakable speakable.” She wants to bring the focus of Vietnamese citizens from its bloody history to instead its current issues. “Bat Dong” was launched last week at an event attended by US diplomats, western expats, a documentary crew, and the elite of Vietnam’s artistic scene. “I only know of one other album so politically explicit that has been released in Vietnam since the end of the war. Just the fact that we managed to release it is a political victory in itself,” she said.

Although Mai Khoi was released later in the day, her husband had been unable to contact her for hours, and multiple embassies had reached out to various authorities, all of which claimed to have no knowledge of the detention. It remains unclear who exactly was holding her and why. Thus far, Mai Khoi’s fame and high profile have protected her as she has continued to publish critical albums and give diplomats her opinions, but in an interview last year, she said that she had been facing a “deepening pattern of intimidation.” This detention shows, however, that protection is not ensured for activists under a regime intent upon consolidating its power.