[Malaysia] Tightening restrictions on press freedom and free expression

The past year has seen continuing pressure on the Prime Minister over corruption scandals in which he has been implicated. This has led to two major outcomes. First, on a positive note, Malaysians seem more willing to speak out and risk major fines or imprisonment to voice dissent. However, the authorities are reacting in an increasingly heavy-handed fashion.

Politically, the Prime Minister seems immune to challenges from both within and outside his party, apparently strengthening his hold on power. The (Federal-level) Opposition has split, as the Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS) has moved closer to the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional, and in particular, closer to the major party within the coalition, United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). New parties and initiatives seem set to further divide the Opposition.

This has led to discussions on whether religion has replaced race as the cogent divide in Malaysian politics, a view bolstered by court decisions that show increasing unwillingness to prevent injustice if it is perceived to have a religious (in particular Islamic) flavour.

Major developments this year include an increase in the number of newspapers whose licenses have been suspended and the unprecedented use of the Sedition Act to quell dissent; and in early 2016, a massive swell in the number of websites blocked, resulting in the closure of news site The Malaysian Insider by its owners, apparently on commercial grounds, though in Malaysia the commercial and political are often intertwined.

In terms of the media reaction, while the distinction between licensed (print and broadcast) media and unregulated (online) media remains pertinent, the increasing number of attacks on print journalism and print journalists has helped to strengthen solidarity across the different platforms. While this is a reassuring trend in some ways — that it has been prompted by heightened repression detracts from its potential positive outcome.

Legal pressures

The Prevention of Terrorism Act, which reinstates detention without trial in a manner reminiscent of the previously repealed Internal Security Act, has been the major piece of legislation passed this year. In the same week in April 2015, the Parliament passed amendments that increased penalties under the broadly-defined Sedition Act, which now allows for detention for up to 20 years. In February 2016, the Attorney-General has proposed that this be further amended to life imprisonment.

The manner in which existing laws are used has been broadened, with the courts interpreting legislation — particularly fundamental freedoms guaranteed under the Constitution — in an increasingly narrow fashion.

In January 2016, a Special Committee to Combat Abuse of Social Media was established. Since then, the number of websites blocked by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) has more than doubled, from 146 in February 2016 to at least 339 in March 2016.

One important development has been the increase in the use of the Sedition Act. While this is not a new law, it seems likely that there have been more prosecutions under this Act over the 15 months covered in this report than in all the preceding years of Malaysia’s existence.

Among the most notable cases are:

  • The multiple prosecutions of cartoonist Zunar (Zulkiflee Anwar Haque, Sedition)

Zunar faces 43 years in prison as a result of various tweets, primarily criticising the judiciary for jailing Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

  • Academic Azmi Sharom (Sedition)

Azmi Sharom’s charges are based on giving his legal opinion on a Constitutional crisis in 2009, which involved the state government of Perak changing hands from the Pakatan Rakyat (Federal Opposition) to the Barisan Nasional. After months of harassment, the charges were dropped in February 2016.

  • Opposition parliamentarian Nurul Izzah (Sedition)

Daughter of jailed Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, Nurul Izzah faces sedition charges for a statement, by her father, that she read in Parliament. While Parliamentary privilege exists in Malaysia, the Sedition Act is exempt.

Others involved in Sedition cases over the past 15 months include lawyer Eric Paulsen; deceased politician and lawyer Karpal Singh; Opposition members of parliament (MPs) Nga Kor Ming and Rafizi Ramli; State assemblyperson Afif Bahardin; The Malaysian Insider chief executive Jahabar Sidek and editors Zulkifli Sulong, Lionel Morais and Amin Shah Iskandar; The Edge publisher Ho Kay Tat.

The Defamation Act is also being used to silence dissent, with the Prime Minister using it against Democratic Action Party (DAP) publicity chief and MP Tony Pua and Media Rakyat portal owner Chan Chee Keong.

CIJ demands the repeal of both the Sedition Act and the Prevention of Terrorism Act, both of which deepen divides in the country and primarily prevent dialogue, rather than terrorism.

The reaction against these moves has been wide — the outcry is not just confined to civil society members or the Opposition parliamentarians. This has been most evident online. For example, the threat to arrest activist-artist Fahmi Reza for drawing the Prime Minister as a clown generated a large number of posts including memes.

Government interference

Both online and traditional media were targetted this year.

Blogger Milosuam (Yusuf al-Siddique Suratnam) was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for publishing a statement likely to cause fear or alarm the public, under Section 505(b) of the Penal Code.

In March 2015, three editors of The Malaysian Insider were arrested in connection with their report on the Kelantan state enactment on hudud (Muslim law), an article that was reportedly disputed by the Conference of Rulers.

Following almost a month of intimidation over their reports on the 1MDB scandal, The Edge newspapers were handed a three month suspension on 27 July 2015. In a related case, the MCMC warned internet users not to discuss the case or to disseminate related information, and blocked the news site Sarawak Report, and later blocked Edge-owned The Malaysian Insider.

Within the same period, government officials appeared to blame social media for a mob attack at a shopping mall, and called for greater internet controls following the violence.

Journalists from selected outlets, particularly the online news site Malaysiakini.com, were regularly banned from government events. This is part of an ongoing trend which crosses the party divide.

Safety and protection of journalists

Two photographers and a journalist were attacked in a brawl at a shopping centre in July 2015 (see above). Sin Chew Daily reporter Chan Woei Looi was taken to a clinic for treatment, while two photographers were treated on-site. Nobody has been charged for these assaults.

Radio journalist Aisyah Tajuddin faced sexualised threats, including death and rape threats, after a satirical video. Rather than investigating the threats to the journalist, police investigated the content of the video.

In January 2015, an unnamed female journalist with a Tamil newspaper in Penang was reported to have been the victim of death threats.

The Star‘s chief executive officer Wong Chun Wai was investigated by police following apparently frivolous reports. No charges were laid.

On free expression

The PAS’ research director was attacked while in his car outside his home. The assailants asked him “why so insolent” as they attacked him, according to local news reports. The assailants have not been arrested or charged.

State assemblyperson Chong Eng was accused of “questioning Islam” over comments she made on rape and incest. The implication that to question a religion and its implications or interpretations is criminal severely curtails freedom of expression. The context also shows that this is particularly disconcerting from a gender perspective.

Suppression of dissent

Generally, the situation in Malaysia is extremely worrying. There is greater polarisation combined with suppression of dissent, in particular, of critique or questions raised towards the Prime Minister. The greater suppression of freedom of expression online seems set to worsen, with announcements that the already overbroad Communications and Multimedia Act will be amended.

Urgent progressive legal reform is needed, with sustained efforts to build a culture of dialogue and debate. Unfortunately, all legislative agenda seems to be moving towards greater control.

This is not helped by the international situation. The move in the so-called “War on Terror” to focus on the Islamic State group has seen Malaysia painted as a moderate Muslim nation, despite internal repression and the increasing use of Islam as a weapon to silence dissent and debate.

By holding Malaysia up to international standards in human rights in general and freedom of expression in particular, the international community stands to gain a more stable and more democratic member.