KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 8 — Civil society and fundamental freedoms in Asia took a bashing during the pandemic, a report by a global research collaboration showed.

In its “People Power Under Attack 2020” annual report, Civicus Monitor said that “civic space” ― where people can organise, participate and communicate with each other freely, and in doing so influence the political and social structures around them ― declined.

Out of 25 countries in Asia, four ― China, Vietnam, Laos and North Korea ― are rated “closed”, nine “repressed” and nine “obstructed” with Malaysia being one of them.

South Korea and Japan are rated “narrowed” while Taiwan is the only country rated “open.”

“Our research shows that civic freedoms, including the freedoms of expression, assembly and association, continue to be violated across the region. The percentage of people living in Asian countries with closed, repressed or obstructed civic space is nearly 90 per cent,” said Josef Benedict, Asia-Pacific Civic Space Researcher for Civicus.

The report documented that “following the change of government in early March 2020, activists including students have faced judicial harassment from the police for their activism.”

“Restrictive laws such as the Communications and Multimedia Act have been used to prosecute online criticism of religion and the monarchy while parody accounts have been probed. A book on the 2018 elections was banned due to its cover,” said the Civicus Monitor report.

The report also highlighted several instances where authorities in Malaysia “harassed” journalists for their critical reporting.

Examples included the Attorney General filing criminal contempt proceedings against local news organisation Malaysiakini and its editor-in-chief Steven Gan for comments posted on one of its articles that allegedly insults the judiciary.

Then there was the incident where foreign journalists from Al-Jazeera and a whistleblower Mohammad Rayhan Kabir were forced to leave the country following a documentary on the the treatment of undocumented migrants during the pandemic.

To capture this data, Civicus partnered with over 20 organisations to provide an evidence base that tracks trends in 196 countries.

Together, the research partners posted 516 civic space updates on their website from November 12, 2019 to October 31, 2020 which form the basis for the analysis presented in this report.