[Malaysia] Statement: CIJ calls for upholding of freedom of expression both online and offline

The Centre for Independent Journalism Malaysia (CIJ) views with deep concern the detention of a man under Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) for insulting Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Section 233 of the CMA has notoriously been used to silence critique against the authorities by the previous ruling regime. In 2017 alone, it was used in 22 cases to address alleged insults against the Prime Minster, police, AG and political party and leaders.

Section 233 of the CMA is deeply problematic for its over-broad definitions accompanied with heavy punishment that infringes upon the constitutional right to freedom of expression. It allows for persons to be imprisoned for up to one year and fined up to RM50,000 for posting offensive content that annoys another person. This goes far beyond the legitimate restrictions allowed on the freedom of expression such as preventing incitement to violence or for national security.

Limits on the freedom of expression in law must be clear and narrowly defined, and serve a well-defined public interest function. The expression in section 233 including “to annoy” is vague and subjective. Limits on the freedom of expression must also be necessary and proportionate. Criminalising content that could potentially annoy another is grossly disproportionate to any legitimate aim of protecting public order.

CIJ welcomes Tun Dr Mahathir’s statement that he disagrees with the arrest and that this law will be studied when Parliament reconvenes. However, the use of this law in the meantime must be halted to prevent furthering its chilling effect that can silence political commentary, dissent or critique. It is critical at this juncture for the Pakatan Harapan coalition government to commit to defending a vibrant space for public discussion as the nation is headed towards transformation, to enable greater public participation in this process. This include clearly and unequivocally defending the right to freedom of expression, whether offline or online.

If there were online posts that threatened violence against our Prime Minister, and caused him to fear imminent harm, there are sufficient laws under our Penal Code that can be used to deal with such instances. CIJ calls for Section 233 of CMA, and other related and problematic sections in the Act, to be repealed immediately in accordance with our Federal Constitution and international standards on freedom of expression.

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