Transgender Kyrgyz seek unlikely refuge in Russia

Russia is a notoriously difficult place to be gay or transgender, but it’s become a surprising refuge for LGBT people in Kyrgyzstan, who say life is far harder at home, writes Katie Arnold in Bishkek.

Anna knew the internet was a dangerous place to meet clients.

Transphobic hate gangs often scoured the list of sex workers advertising online, looking for their next victim among the faceless pseudonyms.

“I was usually very good at distinguishing who was who, I honestly did not suspect this guy to be dangerous,” Anna said, her hand nervously tugging on the skin around her neck, her eyes focused on an object beyond the horizon.

Three weeks earlier, she says, she was kidnapped by two men posing as clients. They laced her beer with a sedative and then drove her deep into the Tian Shan mountain range that towers over Kyrgyzstan’s capital city, Bishkek.

She awoke to an immense and sudden pain as her attackers relentlessly kicked her in the head and chest. “You were born a man, you should be a man,” she remembers them shouting. Paralysed by the drug and unable to defend herself, Anna begged for them to end her life.

“I was happy to die at that moment,” she says. The two men placed a plastic bag around her bloodied head, burnt their cigarettes on her bruised body and left her for dead.

Anna managed to wrestle herself free of the plastic bag. She found her wig, which lay dishevelled on the cold mountain road, then found her way back to Bishkek, where she sought refuge in the city’s only LGBT shelter.

“I cannot stay in Kyrgyzstan any longer, it is not safe here,” she said. “I am going to live in Russia instead.”

‘Corrective rape is common’

Kyrgyzstan’s LGBT community has lived in the shadows since 2014, when the government drafted discriminatory legislation that would ban the popularisation of homosexual relations and promotion of a homosexual lifestyle.

The proposed law, still awaiting its final reading in parliament, unleashed a campaign of violence and intimidation which continues to this day.

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    A survey conducted by the LGBT organisation, Kyrgyz Indigo, in 2016, found that 84% of respondents had experienced physical violence during their lifetime while 35% were victims of sexual violence.

    “Corrective rape is common among the LGBT community but especially among the transgender community,” said Rudolph, a social worker at the LGBT shelter run by Kyrgyz Indigo.

    Like many of the people interviewed, he preferred not to give his second name for fear of attack.

    “All members of the community will become a victim at some point, we are looking after someone right now who was a recent victim of gang rape.”

    Flight to Russia

    Amid the hostility, most cisgender members of the community – people who identify themselves as having the gender they were assigned at birth – have chosen to conceal their sexuality in public.

    But anonymity has proved difficult for the transgender community, the majority of whom find themselves caught up in the sex industry due to discrimination in the workplace.

    It is against this backdrop of violent transphobia that many members of the community are voluntarily moving to Russia – a country renowned for its hostile attitude towards LGBT people.

    They join tens of thousands of Kyrgyz migrants who travel to Russia each year, searching for employment opportunities in a country where language does not serve as a barrier.

    “Lots of transgender women are migrating,” says Roma, a sex worker and outreach officer for local human rights organisation, Tais Plus.

    “I’ve met 10 who have moved to Moscow in the last few months. The ones I have spoken to since say life is not too bad there.”


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      A newcomer to the transgender community, Roma’s youthful vigour has not yet been tarnished by a violent attack.

      However, like the sex workers he has met though Tais Plus, he too is moving to Russia.

      “I think life will be easier for us in Russia because even though there is legislation against sex workers, the police will not target us because we are transgender. Here the police are filming their encounters with us, threatening us with the footage, and then publicly outing us online,” he said.

      Selling sex in Russia is illegal, however, with a maximum fine of just 2,000 roubles ($35; £26) the law is rarely applied. According to the Sex Worker Rights Advocacy Network, there is a large and open sex industry in many parts of Russia due to widespread police corruption.

      Homosexuality was decriminalised in Russia in 1993. However, prejudice against LGBT people has remained widespread.

      In 2013 a federal statute, widely knows as the Gay Propaganda Bill, criminalised the promotion of “non-traditional sexual relations” to children.

      Like in Kyrgyzstan, these anti-gay laws contributed to a surge in vigilantism across the country, with gay people often lured to meetings where they would be beaten and humiliated.

      “Transgender people face all kinds of violations in everyday life, more than homosexual or bisexual people,” warns Svetlana Zakharova from the Russian LGBT Network.

      “But the problem here is more with society as a whole rather than the police – they do not care if someone is transsexual unless they violate some societal norm by speaking out publicly.”

      ‘What’s the point in caring?’

      This news will come as some relief to Anna as she prepares for a new life in Russia.

      Earlier in the year she was drinking with some transgender friends in a bar often frequented by sex workers. The bar manager took offence to their appearance and started physically attacking the group.

      “We called the police saying that we were being beaten and needed their help, they showed up with a TV crew who broadcast our faces to the country.

      “We don’t have any rights here – no right to safety, privacy, sexuality and the police are the ones encouraging it, that’s just how it is in Kyrgyzstan,” she said.

      The ministry of internal affairs did not respond to these allegations of police abuse, put to them in a formal letter.

      This came as little surprise to Anna, who reported her attackers to the local police but received nothing but defamatory remarks about her appearance in return.

      “What’s the point in caring?” she asked about the police’s inaction. “It will not change the fact that I’ve been abused or stop others from being abused. All I want to do is leave this country and live somewhere I can have a free and easy life.”

      The question is whether Russia will offer Kyrgyzstan’s transgender women the solace they so desperately seek.

      Katie Arnold is a freelance writer

Thai women reject Songkran advice with ‘don’t tell me how to dress’ campaign

When a Thai government official told women to dress carefully to prevent harassment at the Songkran festival, it brought back painful memories for model Cindy Sirinya Bishop.

The Thai-American was just 17 when she was sexually harassed at the New Year celebrations. Dressed in a loose black t-shirt and three-quarter shorts, Ms Bishop found herself cornered by five men after she was separated from her friends.

“They surrounded me and tried touching me. I just ran and managed to get away from them. I haven’t been to Songkran since,” Ms Bishop told the BBC.

The three-day festival, which begins on Friday, is marked by the pouring of water to symbolise washing away misfortune from the previous year.

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    Last month Sutthipong Chulcharoen, Thailand’s director general of the department of local administration, encouraged women to dress appropriately to prevent sex crimes during the water festival.

    In response, Ms Bishop posted some clips on Instagram – along with the hashtags #DontTellMeHowToDress and #TellMenToRespect – and found plenty of people shared her dismay.

    The 39-year-old said the hashtags were “targeting the idea that women are to blame for sexual harassment”.

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    #DontTellMeHowToDress

    It wasn’t long before other women began sharing their own stories.

    “I was out with a friend and a female cousin [during Songkran], wearing a turtle-necked top, sweat pants and a sweater because I get cold easily,” said one user on Twitter.

    After losing track of her friends, she quickly found herself surrounded by a group of boys.

    “They started to corner me… one of the guys grabbed my arm. I burst into tears. Thank god my cousin and friends came back so everything was alright. Since then, I’ve never gone out on Songkran.”

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      Other Thai women began to share their experiences from everyday life that led to harassment.

      “I once wore shorts to a 7-11 store near my house and a security guard looked at my legs and told his friend they were so appealing he wanted to touch them” said a Thai twitter user.

      “I was in junior high then. After that I’ve never worn shorts outside my house. Why do only women have to protect themselves? I’m sick of this.”

      What were you wearing?

      The act of washing away misfortune has seen Songkran evolve into one of the world’s biggest water fights.

      “Songkran is traditionally such a beautiful festival,” said Ms Bishop. “[But] for a lot of Thai women, it has become dangerous because they know they are going to be taken advantage of”.

      A 2016 survey conducted by Thailand’s Women and Men Progressive Movement Foundation found over half the women in a group of 1,650 had experienced some form of sexual harassment during the festival.

      Ms Bishop, who said she “never expected” her posts to attract so much attention, hopes to keep the conversation going beyond Songkran.

      “A lot of times you hear people asking women what they were wearing when [sexual harassment occurs], not just during Songkran,” said Ms Bishop.

      “Across the globe, you have the feminist movement, the #MeToo movement, conversation on this topic is growing and in the same way, I hope in Thailand this movement continues beyond Songkran.”

The ‘good witch’ who wrote Japanese classic Kiki’s Delivery Service

Eiko Kadono’s playful tales about a young witch and her furry companion have entertained generations of Japanese readers, and have now earned her one of the highest honours in children’s literature.

Last month the 83-year-old was awarded the 2018 Hans Christian Andersen Award, sometimes called the Little Nobel Prize for Literature.

The jury described the “ineffable charm” of Ms Kadono’s picture books and novels, deeply rooted in Japan.

She was inspired to write her most famous series – Kiki’s Delivery Service or Majo no Takkyubin in Japanese – after her young daughter drew a picture of a witch with musical notes flying around it.

“I made Kiki around the same age as my daughter was at that time, just between childhood and adulthood,” Ms Kadono said, according to the Asahi Shimbun.

“It’s all about this kid getting to fly with her own magic.”

Late bloomer

Born in Tokyo, Ms Kadono was evacuated from her home at age ten and sent to northern Japan during World War Two.

After the war was over, she attended university in Japan before emigrating to Brazil for a few years.

Some of her works, including Forest of Tunnel and Brazil and My Friend Luizinho, were inspired by her wartime experiences and years in Brazil.

The author describes herself as a “late bloomer”, owing to the fact that she was 35 when her first book came out.

“I was more a reader than a writer. [But] after trial and error, I realised I loved writing,” she told Japanese media at a recent press conference.

“I decided to write throughout my life, even if my works would not be published.”

She has published close to 200 original works, including picture books, stories for young adults and essay anthologies. But her most famous work is undoubtedly Kiki’s Delivery Service.

Silver screen

Originally published in 1985, the story revolves around Kiki, a young witch who travels around on her broomstick with her black cat Jiji.

The series starts with 13-year-old Kiki as she sets out on a year-long apprenticeship for witches in training, and follows her as she tries to find her place in the world despite various setbacks and struggles.

The rest of the series chronicles Kiki as she grows into a young adult and eventually, a mother of two.

Nearly 1.7 million copies of the books have been sold in Japan alone, and the series has been translated into nine languages.

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    It was later adapted into a film by iconic director Hayao Miyazaki of Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli. The movie became one of Mr Miyazaki’s most popular films.

    But what is it about the book that has made it so loved?

    “Kiki’s Delivery Service makes children believe that everyone has [their] own magic,” Tomoko Honobe, Ms Kadono’s editor, told the BBC.

    “The raison d’etre of children’s literature is giving strength of confidence to children, [enabling them] to become mature.”

    And Ms Kadono seems to have some magic of her own.

    “She’s just like a good witch, who has all these charms. She is mischievous, chatty, energetic and young,” said Ms Honobe. “I have to work really hard to keep up with her energy.”

    ‘Words will be your strength’

    Last month Ms Kadono found out she had won the Hans Christian Andersen Award, given by the International Board on Books for Young People.

    The biennial award is presented to an author whose “complete works have made an important, lasting contribution to children’s literature.”

    “I had no idea I could have [such an award],” Ms Kadono said at the award reception.

    “It is such an honour… being read by many people, all over the world.”

    Yet the acclaimed author says her stories do not belong to her, but rather, her readers.

    “The significance of storytelling is, once it is handed to readers, it becomes theirs,” said Ms Kadono.

    “[And as] you read and read, you create your own dictionary in you. And those words will be your strength through your life.”

    Reporting by the BBC’s Sakiko Shiraishi and Yvette Tan

South Korean basketball is cutting foreign players down to size

After South Korea’s basketball league kicked out a foreign player for being too tall, news reports have since emerged of athletes desperately trying to shrink themselves.

A new height limit imposed on the sport has drawn both controversy and ridicule for its attempt to cut foreigners down to size.

What exactly happened?

The Korean Basketball League (KBL) recently angered fans when it announced a significant change in the rules.

Each team in South Korea can have only two foreign players. Starting with the 2018-19 season, one of these players must not be taller than 200cm (6ft 6in), while the other one cannot be taller than 186cm.

This meant that one of the country’s most popular foreign players – an American called David Simon – had to leave. At 202.1cm, he had missed the cut-off by just millimetres.

“I was a little upset,” Mr Simon recently told the BBC World Service’s OS programme.

“Just to be that close and not be able to make it, kind of stinks. Doesn’t look like I’ll be going back there to play unless they change the rule again.”

Simon, who had topped the KBL in the previous basketball season, had to head home to the US, much to fans’ chagrin. A petition was filed to the South Korean presidential office to abolish the KBL’s height rules, and bring back Simon, reported Yonhap news.

Fans then took to social media to bid farewell to departing players.

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Why has South Korea done this?

It’s not the first time this has happened. In fact, Korea has had a height limit for foreign players since 1997, but this is the shortest that has ever imposed.

The KBL has maintained that it has to protect local players who, on average, cannot match the heights of foreign players, mostly Americans.

The league has also said the height limit will lead to better games with higher scores and a faster pace.

“We believe this new height restriction will revive the popularity of pro basketball in the country,” KBL Secretary General Lee Sung-han told Yonhap.

Is South Korea alone in this?

The lack of extremely tall local players appears to be particularly acute in Asia, where for every Yao Ming (229cm) there are many more players of average height.

It’s one reason why the basketball league in the Philippines has had for decades a 200cm height limit for foreign players, as “permitting American 7-footers to play would wreak havoc”, reported Slate magazine.

The debate has long overshadowed the sport. Way back in 1957, Sports Illustrated magazine ran a discussion with both proponents and opponents arguing that either way, a height limit was discriminatory.

“There are advantages and disadvantages both to being taller and shorter,” Donyell Marshall, the men’s head coach of basketball at Central Connecticut State University’s Blue Devil Athletics, told the BBC.

“If you’re taller you can score around the rim better, you can block shots and you can rebound. But smaller players can usually shoot better. They are faster and better dribblers.”

So how do you shrink a basketball player?

It’s a shadowy science. Yonhap reported that the South Korean teams tried lifting weights and jogging before measurement, hoping that dehydration could knock off a few centimetres.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when bouffant hairstyles were popular, Philippine teams would shave their foreign players’ heads to battle height restrictions, reported Slate. Other methods employed over the years include doing shoulder presses and squats, with the idea that this could compress their bones.

If all else failed, some resorted to cheating – slouching, bending their knees ever so slightly, or leaning against the wall during measurement. But officials soon cottoned on – and simply measured the athletes while they lay flat on the ground.

Doctors say it’s almost impossible to shrink your body.

First of all, there hasn’t been much of a market for shrinkage, so there’s hardly been any medical innovations.

“It’s actually very rare… usually people want to grow taller and the technology has been there for that,” says Dr Tan Chyn Hong, an orthopaedic surgeon and a former Singapore national athlete.

“If you want to lose a lot, there is no reasonable way to do that – short of chopping your bones.”

But not all hope is lost.

“Non-surgically, there are things you can do to a very small degree,” says Dr Tan.

“The discs in your spine are composed of water amongst other things, so for example, if you dehydrate yourself, you could perhaps lose a bit of height from the shrinking of the accumulated discs.

“I would say from doing that, and maybe also slouching a bit, it’s possible to lose 1cm – but any more than that is very tough.”

Reporting by the BBC’s Andreas Illmer and Yvette Tan.

Samina Sindhu: Pregnant singer shot at celebration in Pakistan

Musicians have held protests in Pakistan to demand justice for a pregnant woman who was shot dead while singing at a family function on Tuesday evening.

It is not clear exactly what the circumstances were around the death of Samina Sindhu, 28.

A man was reported to have shot her because she would not stand up while singing, but he has said he shot her by accident while firing in the air.

She was eight months pregnant.

It happened at a circumcision celebration in a village called Kanga, near Larkana city in Sindh province.

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    The singer’s husband, Ashiq Sammoo, said in a police complaint that a man at the celebration had pointed a gun at his wife and “threateningly ordered her to stand up and sing”. When she said she was pregnant and could not stand, he said, the man shot her.

    One man has been arrested in connection with the death. Tariq Jatoi told journalists outside court that he had fired in the air in celebration and a bullet hit the singer by mistake. He was remanded in custody.

    Protesters have demanded that two men who were also present at the scene should be arrested as well.

    A video circulated on social media does not clearly show anyone threatening Ms Sindhu. It shows her sitting on a stage, accompanied by musicians, singing, when three men approach the stage and shower her with banknotes as is customary. She stands and keeps singing. Just as the men exit the frame, three shots are heard, and she falls.

    Ms Sindhu was a locally known singer. She had produced at least eight albums of Sindhi folk and Sufi music but her main source of livelihood was to sing at family functions, as is the case for many musicians across Pakistan.

    Results of her post-mortem examination and of a blood alcohol test on Mr Jatoi are expected to be examined in court. Drinking alcohol is prohibited for Muslims in Pakistan.

    Reporting by BBC Urdu’s Riaz Sohail

Syria man ‘stranded at Malaysia airport for weeks’

A Syrian man says he has spent over a month stranded in the transit section of a Malaysian airport, partly as a consequence of his country’s civil war.

Hassan al-Kontar’s plight emerged when he began posting videos of himself at Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2.

He says he was deported from the UAE to Malaysia in 2016, after losing his work permit when war broke out in Syria.

He says he is unable to enter Malaysia, and that his attempts to reach Cambodia and Ecuador were also in vain.

The airport and Malaysia’s Immigration Department did not immediately respond to journalists’ requests for comment.

Speaking on a call over WhatsApp, a worried and distressed Mr al-Kontar told the BBC that he has “lost count” over the number of days he has spent stuck in limbo.

“I’m desperate for help. I can’t live in this airport any longer, the uncertainty is driving me crazy. It feels like my life hit a new low,” he said, adding that he hadn’t had a proper shower and had run out of clean clothes.

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“I flew to the UAE to find work but because of the conflict, I lost both my work permit and my job there and have been on the run since.”

Mr al-Kontar said he was deported by the UAE to a holding centre in Malaysia in 2017 because “it is one of the very few countries in the world which offers visas upon arrival to Syrians like me”.

He was given a three-month tourist visa and he sought a better solution.

“I decided that I wanted to try to go to Ecuador so I saved up enough money to buy a plane ticket on Turkish Airways. But for some reason, they did not allow me on the flight and I found myself back at square one,” he said.

He says he also had to pay a fine for “overstaying” and has been “blacklisted” in Malaysia, and that he is now unable to leave the airport and re-enter the country.

At the risk of overstaying his welcome in Malaysia a second time, Mr al-Kontar travelled to Cambodia but was prohibited from entering. “I was deemed illegal in Malaysia so I chose to fly to Cambodia but they confiscated my passport upon arrival,” he explained.

Officials from Cambodian’s immigration ministry told the Phnom Penh Post that Syrians could get visas on arrival but would be turned back if they failed to meet government “requirements”.

“We need to check what their purpose [of their visit] is,” said director Sok Veasna.

Mr al-Kontar said he was sent back to Kuala Lumpur on 7 March, and has been stuck at the airport since.

At the time of writing, Mr al-Kontar told BBC News that airport customer service officials as well as local UN officials had been in touch.

“The authorities here are interviewing me and I have filled out some reports,” he said. But he remains unsure about what will come next.

“I don’t know what to do. I have no-one to advise me on where I can go. I really need help because I believe the worst is yet to come,” he sighed.

He says he originally left Syria in 2006 to avoid military service, going home once to see his family in 2008. He says he is still subject to an arrest warrant there.

“I am a human being and I don’t consider it right to participate in war. It was not my decision,” he said.

“I’m not a killing machine and I don’t want any part in destroying Syria. I don’t want blood on my hands. War is never the solution but unfortunately, even from where I am now, I am paying the price of its actions.”

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said in a statement that the refugee agency was “aware of this case” and had “reached out to the individual and the authorities”.

Additional reporting by Woon King Chai in Kuala Lumpur and the BBC’s Andreas Illmer in Singapore.

Bao, Pixar’s first short by a woman, is the story of a Chinese dumpling

The story is simple and sweet: an aging and lonely Chinese mother, suffering from empty nest syndrome, receives an unexpected second chance at motherhood when her homemade dumpling comes to life.

Disney Pixar has now released the short trailer and first glimpse of its much-awaited short film ‘Bao’, made by Chinese-Canadian director Domee Shi, the animation giant’s first female director of an animated short .

The veteran storyboard artist (and self-professed eating enthusiast) describes her culinary fable as a “magical, modern-day fairy tale, kind of like a Chinese Gingerbread Man story”.

“It explores the ups and downs of the parent-child relationship through the colourful, rich and tasty lens of the Chinese immigrant community in Canada,” Pixar said in an official statement.

“Mom excitedly welcomes this new bundle of joy into her life. But Dumpling starts growing up fast and she must come to the bittersweet revelation that nothing stays cute and small forever.”

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Ms Shi’s mother, a Chinese-Canadian immigrant, also served as a “cultural consultant” on the film. Her dumpling-making skills were put to superb use, ensuring that the movie’s animated dumpling-making scenes were as accurate as possible.

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Pixar short films generate as much buzz as their feature length offerings and they are pored over in great detail, sometimes proving controversial.

Lava, the short that was screened before the Pixar blockbuster Inside Out, told the tale of a male and female volcano somewhere in the Pacific that fall in love. Many viewers spoke out dismissing the storyline, but its gender representation and even its geological integrity came under fire. Its latest feature animation Coco was also closely examined after years of cartoon stereotypes of Mexicans and Mexican culture.

The question of representation of Asian talent in the entertainment industry has also been a major concern for many. Hollywood has been accused of failing to offer roles to Asian or Asian American actors, even when the part is an Asian character, the so-called “whitewashing” of Hollywood.

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So for fans getting a first glimpse of the trailer on Instagram, the overwhelming expression was one of joy, not least because this was made by an Asian woman, the first to direct for Pixar.

“Very excited for this short because it’s coming from Pixar’s first female Asian director. I can tell that it will be very emotional. Can’t wait,” said fan Abby Berlage.

“Two of my favourite things, baos and babies,” said another Instagram user Lindsey Worley.

One Instagram user observed similarities with another Asian animation. “This new Pixar short reminds me of Huba from Monster Hunt,” wrote Justine Walker, referring to the massive 2015 Chinese hit.

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Others aired their thoughts about the quirkiness of Ms Shi’s edible dumpling baby.

“Cute but terrifying at the same time,” remarked one Instagram user. “What if you were eating soup dumplings (xiao long bao) one day and it suddenly springs to life?”

Others ruefully read the complexity of the immigrant experience into the dumpling fable.

“Prequel: he finds out he is not a pure dumpling. His Dad was a soup dumpling so he doesn’t quite identify with either. Instead, he wants to be a gyoza,” Tracy Almeda-Singian posted on Twitter.

Reporting by the BBC’s Heather Chen.

Will Netflix’s Amo be the Philippine Narcos?

Allegations of historical inaccuracy, character stereotypes and the glamorisation of a drug-fuelled past have long plagued the critically-acclaimed Netflix hit series Narcos in Colombia.

And in early April, the global streaming giant will release another drug crime drama, this time from the Philippines.

Set against the backdrop of President Rodrigo Duterte’s ongoing drug war, Amo – produced in the Philippines and directed by Filipino Brillante Mendoza – tells the story of a troubled teenager named Joseph, who gets pulled into Manila’s underground world.

Traffickers and dangerous drug lords, crooked cops and corrupt government officials all feature prominently in the 12-episode series.

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    Produced by commercial broadcast network TV5, the series will be the first Filipino Netflix Original to be screened globally, starting 9 April.

    Netflix’s vice-president of content acquisition Robert Roy told the BBC it was a “bold and suspenseful show that has the potential of capturing thrill-seeking audiences worldwide”.

    But while there’s some local pride in a potentially breakthrough Philippine show, there’s also concern about the message it will send, not least because Brillante Mendoza is an open supporter of President Duterte.

    Since Mr Duterte launched an all-out campaign to stamp out drugs, rights groups estimate that more than 12,000 people have died.

    Many were shot without trial by police or vigilantes, their bodies left out in the open.

    The strongman leader recently announced plans to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC) after it began examining alleged crimes committed during his war.

    Mendoza denied his programme was Duterte propaganda.

    “As a filmmaker stepping into this project, I want to tell truthful stories. I don’t care about politics,” Mr Mendoza told BBC News in Manila.

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    He said he didn’t know whether the president had seen the series but that his representatives “liked it”.

    “My work speaks for itself and people have to watch Amo first. Just because I did a movie about illegal drugs, people are starting to accuse me of doing a propaganda film.

    His 2016 gritty tale Ma Rosa chronicled the struggles of a mother in Manila forced to sell drugs in order to make ends meet.

    “There are a lot of killings [in Amo],” he said. “I will show both sides of the coin, not just the side of the government but also the side of the victims and the police. There is a lot of corruption among them and they are partly to blame.”

    Critics say the story of the Philippine drug war will be a tricky one to tell.

    In a statement to BBC News, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the show appeared to gloss over “the vicious reality of Duterte’s drug war”.

    “The Philippine government presents a whitewashed view of Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war that paints a ludicrous veneer of civility and lawfulness. They will be well-pleased by the first two episodes of Amo,” said deputy Asia director Phelim Kine.

    “One of the most notably preposterous elements of the show is the significant number of suspected drug users and dealers actually surviving their encounters with the Philippine National Police, which is contrary to what has actually been occurring since the drug war began in 2016,” he added.

    “Any dramatic representation of the drug war should stick to the same facts that have motivated an ICC examination of the killings, rather than provide an airbrushed version which does detriment to the truth while benefiting the Duterte government’s formidable propaganda machine.”

    Narcos, which debuted on Netflix in 2015, won critical acclaim for its documentary-style depiction of Colombian drug lords, with the earlier defining seasons centring on the story of Pablo Escobar.

    But the reception in the country where the series was based has always proven to be mixed. Many native audiences questioned the show’s authenticity and ridiculed its sympathetic narrative towards police officers and politicians.

    In the case of Amo and the Philippines, could native Netflix subscribers view a show about their president’s drug campaign as entertainment?

    “I’d watch it for sure,” said Isabel Sedano. “But I’d expect a strong story that won’t shy away from showing the darker and grittier side of local law enforcement and crime.

    “Fiction personalises issues and I feel that Amo will definitely help in making the drug war feel in even closer to home than it is.”

    Kimberly Koschinger, a 20-year-old student, said she would not want anything “sugar-coated”.

    “The Philippine drug war is anything but glamorous. I’m excited to see how it will be portrayed on Netflix,” she said. “Our country may be known for beautiful beaches and friendly people but if we are going to delve deeper into the darker parts of our country, I’d want to see full disclosure of the subject.”

    Others like Gab Bonifacio expressed stronger sentiments. “What shows haven’t glorified drugs? Just look at Breaking Bad and El Chapo.

    “But do we really think the narrative in Amo will be anti-establishment? I’m sure the scriptwriters will justify all the killings just like they did in Narcos,” he said.

    “Brillante Mendoza did a lot of good stuff before but based on his work with President Duterte, it becomes overwhelmingly obvious that what the show will have is the farthest thing from an objective observer.”

    Additional reporting by Howard Johnson and Virma Simonette in Manila.

Outlaw or ignore? How Asia is fighting ‘fake news’

Everybody is talking about it: fake news.

President Trump decries it every time he sees a critical article, the Pope has condemned it, governments are fretting about its influence, holding parliamentary hearings.

And now Malaysia has passed a law criminalising it, with a penalty of up to six years in jail. Yet no-one has defined what it is.

The term first came to prominence during the 2016 US presidential election campaign. But the problem of deliberately falsified news articles, masquerading as properly-researched journalism, goes back centuries.

However, the Malaysian government’s definition in the recently-passed law is far more sweeping than that.

It has criminalised the dissemination of “any news, information, data and reports, which is or 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”.

Human rights groups have been quick to point out that this could be used against anyone who makes an error in their reporting or social media posts.

Moreover at least one member of the government has already stated that, when it comes to articles critical of Prime Minister Najib Razak, especially over the notorious 1MDB scandal, where billions of dollars of a government-run investment board are alleged to have been misappropriated, any information not verified as true by the government will be viewed as fake news.

The fact that this law has been rushed through right before what is likely to be a hard-fought general election has raised suspicions that its real purpose is to intimidate government critics.

It is not clear anyway that Malaysia has a serious fake news problem.

In a response to the concerns expressed about the new law, the communications and multimedia minister Salleh Said Keruak highlighted the foreign media’s failure to get the sometimes complicated string of official titles for high-ranking Malaysians right – irritating, yes, but hardly a threat to national security.

The article goes on to excoriate mainstream media which have published negative pieces about Mr Najib, calling them fake news, and thus rather confirming suspicions that the law is aimed at them, rather than the manipulation of social media opinion through fraudulent Facebook accounts and automated Twitter bots.

‘Better safe than sorry’

Singapore is the other country which has raised the alarm over fake news, holding 50 hours of parliamentary hearings.

Facebook’s policy director Simon Milner was publicly dressed down by the law and home affairs minister K Shanmugam over his failure to acknowledge the full extent of data taken by the data analysis company Cambridge Analytica when he testified to the British parliament earlier this year.

Academics speaking at the Singapore hearings presented an alarming scenario of disinformation campaigns launched by foreign actors bent on attacking the island state, of cyber armies in neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore working as proxies for other countries in undermining national security.

It also gave Singapore academics and officials an opportunity to snipe at the US belief in free expression, the “marketplace of ideas”, which had allowed the abuse of personal data on Facebook to take place, in contrast to Singapore’s “better safe than sorry” belief in a more tightly regulated society.

  • The (almost) complete history of ‘fake news’
  • ‘Fake news’: What’s the best way to tame the beast?
  • The city getting rich from fake news

    But the actual examples of fake news which have come up during this national debate have mostly been prosaic; a hoax photo showing a collapsed roof at a housing complex, which sent officials rushing unnecessarily to the scene; and an erroneous report of a collision between two trains on the light rail transit line.

    Irritating and worrying for some, for a while, but hardly likely to bring Singapore society to its knees. In any case both Singapore and Malaysia already have plenty of laws capable of penalising false, inflammatory or defamatory comment.

    A poisonous tide

    In the country where social media misinformation has had the most devastating impact, by contrast, there is no clamour for a fake news law.

    Myanmar too has a raft of existing harsh laws sweeping enough to stifle any reporting deemed a threat to the state or society, laws which all too often have been used to jail journalists.

    But these laws have been unable to prevent a poisonous tide of hate speech on social media, which has helped ignite anti-Muslim sentiment.

    • UN: Facebook has turned into a beast in Myanmar
    • Myanmar conflict: Fake photos inflame tension
    • Rohingya crisis: Suu Kyi says ‘fake news helping terrorists’

      Myanmar famously leapt from being a society largely without even old-fashioned telephone lines, to one with more than 40 million mobile phone accounts, in just three years.

      Seventeen million people have Facebook accounts, and as in so much of Asia, this is how most Burmese send messages and get their news.

      Most don’t bother with email accounts. This has coincided with the end of strict military censorship, and the emergence in the mainly Buddhist population of a primeval fear of the small Muslim minority.

      It has been all too easy to find cartoons and doctored photographs on Facebook which depict Muslims in a sinister and derogatory way. Worse still, large numbers of posts about Muslims are completely false, with photographs purporting to show atrocities against Buddhists by Muslims which are from a completely different part of the world.

      The government has done nothing to stem this tide of disinformation, at times appearing to encourage it.

      For example the Facebook page of the Myanmar armed forces still has on it a gruesome photograph with a caption stating that the dismembered bodies of infants, being dragged by apparently Muslim men, are Rakhine Buddhists killed by Rohingya militants in 1942.

      In fact the photograph is from the Bangladesh independence war in 1971.

      When journalists, myself among them, were given photographs in September 2017 during a government-run tour of Rakhine state, supposedly showing Muslims burning down their own homes, backing the assertion by officials that this was the cause of the destruction of Rohingya villages, we were quickly able to ascertain that the perpetrators in the photos were actually displaced Hindus dressed up as Muslims.

      Yet the government spokesman posted one of the photos on his Twitter feed proclaiming “It’s Truth”, although he later removed it. I was told in all seriousness in one Rakhine village that Muslims used to cut up Buddhists and cook them with their beef stew.

      These kinds of stories are circulating unchallenged in Myanmar, creating a tide of fear and hate which then intimidates anyone trying to advocate a more tolerant approach into silence.

      The UN Special Rapporteur to Myanmar Yanghee Lee, who has herself been subjected to vicious online abuse for her focus on human rights in Rakhine, and has now been banned from entering the country, has described Facebook there as “a beast”.

      Facebook says it takes the problem of hate speech very seriously, but has yet to stop the site being used to stir up sectarian conflict.

      The social media game changer

      The other country where social media has had a profound impact is the Philippines, where critics of President Duterte have accused his supporters of “weaponising” Facebook and Twitter to twist public opinion and silence dissent.

      Filipinos are among the heaviest users of Facebook in Asia, with more than one third of the population visiting the social media site regularly.

      This is has made it a potentially game-changing arena for political actors who know how best to use it, in a country which has long had a lively and competitive traditional media.

      Long before the 2016 election which propelled Rodrigo Duterte, a late candidate with outsider status, to the presidency, the internet was already being exploited by public relations experts promoting products and opinions with so-called “click factories”, where thousands of low-paid workers raised the clicks for specific websites, and companies openly offering hundreds of fake Facebook or Twitter accounts in support of the online profile of clients.

      After announcing his candidacy in November 2015 Rodrigo Duterte hired social media experts to craft a strategy which outflanked the usual dependence on endorsement from mainstream newspapers and television channels.

      It worked brilliantly, tapping into a hitherto unarticulated yearning for change among many Filipinos.

      But researchers have also detected what they believe is the use of automated bots and fake Facebook accounts to amplify the pro-Duterte message, something the president’s team has denied.

      The online news site Rappler published a detailed report about this in October 2016, enraging Mr Duterte’s supporters, and, it believes, prompting the ruling in January this year by the Philippines Securities and Exchange Commission that the site is illegally owned by foreign investors, a claim first made by the president last year.

      Rappler also highlighted the way Facebook’s algorithms could be “gamed” to ensure certain content dominates users’ newsfeeds.

      Leaving aside the allegations of social media manipulation, what President Duterte’s supporters have succeeded in doing is using Facebook and other sites to wage a war of words against his critics, or anyone publishing unfavourable reports.

      I experienced this in September 2016 after the BBC published a report on Mr Duterte’s campaign against drugs dealers and users which has resulted in thousands of police and extrajudicial killings.

      • Philippines’ Duterte admits personally killing suspects
      • The human scars of Philippines drug war
      • Why Rappler is raising Philippine press freedom fears

        I received a flood of hostile messages, and a few death threats on my Facebook page, and the BBC complaints site was swamped with almost identical protests over “erroneous and biased” reporting. Maria Ressa, the CEO and founder of Rappler, was at one point getting 90 hate messages an hour.

        In part this militant response has been shaped by Mr Duterte’s own depiction of his presidency, more as an existential struggle to save his country than just another administration.

        Mr Duterte uses emotive and bellicose language to describe his mission, openly threatening to kill those who stand in his way, including journalists, and suggesting he may in turn be killed, by unnamed enemies.

        Having successfully motivated those who voted for him into believing he could be a one-man saviour for the many ailments afflicting the Philippines, he, like President Trump in the US, has also instilled in his supporters a deep mistrust of traditional mainstream news sources, as controlled by powerful vested interests set on ensuring the failure of his presidency – “presstitutes”, in their preferred term.

        Nowhere has the political climate been more polarised than in Myanmar and the Philippines.

        Yet hearings at the Philippines Senate concluded that a specific fake news law was unnecessary, and possibly counterproductive.

        Clarissa David, a professor of mass communications at the University of the Philippines, testified to the Senate about the dangers of an information environment she described as “polluted”, with no one sure any more what is real and reliable, and what is fake.

        But she warned against easy definitions of fake news. And trying to outlaw it, she argued, is not worth the inevitable cost there will be for media freedom.

        Hers is an argument which was made, but lost, in Malaysia.

Philippines to temporarily close popular tourist island Boracay

The Philippine island of Boracay will be closed to tourists for six months following concerns of damage to its once pristine shores.

A spokesperson for President Rodrigo Duterte said the closure would begin on 26 April.

Earlier this year Mr Duterte said Boracay was turning into a “cesspool” and threatened to shut it down.

The island, known for its white-sand beaches, attracted nearly 2 million visitors last year.

The decision has prompted concern for the thousands of people employed in Boracay’s busy tourist trade.

The island is home to around 500 tourism-related businesses, which drew in annual revenue of $1.07bn (£760m) last year. The government said affected companies will receive financial aid.

It’s not clear how the shutdown will be implemented, though the department of trade and industry had earlier proposed closing the island down in phases, saying a total shutdown would be detrimental to businesses and livelihoods.

Damage fears

The move follows growing concern over the island’s environmental health.

Officials had warned businesses had been releasing wastewater into the surrounding waters.

In February, Mr Duterte condemned the island’s hotels, restaurants and other tourist businesses, accusing them of dumping sewage directly into the sea.

“I will charge you for serious neglect of duty [for] making Boracay a fishpond or a sewer pool,” Mr Duterte said at the time.

“Either [you] clean it up or I will close it permanently. There will be a time that no more foreigners will go there.”