The government’s recent actions against human rights defenders and peaceful critics suggests a declining respect for freedom of expression in the country and the risk of a return to a climate of fear and authoritarianism, Amnesty International Malaysia said today.
“The government must respect the right to dissent and cease intimidating activists, opposition leaders and ordinary Malaysians,” said Preethi Bhardwaj, Amnesty International Malaysia’s Interim Executive Director. “No one should be subject to harassment, threats and prosecution for exercising their right to peaceful expression.”
On June 10, police questioned Centre to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4) founding director Cynthia Gabriel for her 14 March statement criticising the manner in which the current government was formed. On the same day, police also questioned opposition member of parliament R Sivarasa over a statement he made in November last year on the arrests of alleged supporters of Sri Lanka’s defunct Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Opening investigations into statements months after they were issued suggests that the authorities are conducting a clampdown against critics of the government in an effort to silence them.
The investigation into Gabriel and R Sivarasa come a day after a blogger was charged under Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) for two posts critical of the prime minister and the king. Combined, these developments are examples of the increasing levels of intimidation and harassment faced by civil society leaders and the opposition in recent months, beginning with police questioning of over 20 activists in March for protesting the change in government.
Since then, a journalist has been investigated by police for reporting on immigration raids; a member of parliament was investigated for criticising the May parliamentary session for not permitting debates; and countless ordinary Malaysians have been convicted for a variety of social media postings, including criticising the enforcement of quarantine orders under the Movement Control Order (MCO).
These actions by the government suggest a worrying rise in intolerance towards dissenting views. Most recently, founder of refugee support organisation Refuge for Refugees Heidy Quah received vicious attacks online after she shared the experience in a detention centre related to her by an asylum seeker currently in custody. Her 5 June posting on social media was met with hateful remarks and personal threats. Following the immigration department’s 8 June rebuttal that named Quah and implied she fabricated the contents of her post she has faced even more harrassment online.
“The government must urgently change the perception it does not respect freedom of expression in the country. It must also commit to pursuing reforms including the repeal of draconian laws such as the Sedition Act and Section 233 of the CMA that have been used to stifle free speech,” said Bhardwaj.
“The country and its people have come too far to so quickly go back to the dark days of living in fear of expressing their views. Two years ago, Malaysia was viewed as a beacon of hope for human rights change in the region. It must once again reclaim that,” concluded Bhardwaj.
Between 2013 and 2016, under the government led by Prime Minister Najib Razak and the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), approximately 170 sedition cases were investigated by the police. In 2015 alone, approximately 91 people were arrested, investigated or charged for sedition.
In its 2018 election manifesto, the Pakatan Harapan coalition promised to repeal laws restricting freedom of expression, including the Sedition Act and the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA), but failed to do so.
Malaysian authorities have repeatedly used laws such as the Penal Code, the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) and the Sedition Act to target government critics.
The Sedition Act criminalizes a wide array of acts, including those “with a tendency to excite disaffection against any Ruler or government” or to “question any matter” protected by Malaysia’s Constitution. Those found guilty can face three years in jail or be fined up to MYR 5,000 (approximately USD 1,570).
The law does not comply with international human rights law and violates the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, which are enshrined in Article 19 and 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and also guaranteed in the Malaysian Constitution.
Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 broadly defines the offence of “improper use of network facilities or network service.” Those found guilty under this provision face a maximum fine of RM50,000 or imprisonment of up to one year or both.