Malaysia ‘Criminalizing’ Free Speech, Rights Watchdog Says

BenarNews Staff
151026-MY-rally-1000 A University of Malaya student holds up a placard during a rally at its Kuala Lumpur campus against Malaysia’s Sedition Act, Sept. 10, 2014.

Free speech and public debate are “rapidly narrowing” in Malaysia as the government adopts criminal laws to stifle dissent and criticism of its policies, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) argues in a report that it will unveil Tuesday in Kuala Lumpur.

The report, “Creating a Culture of Fear: The Criminalization of Peaceful Expression in Malaysia,” examines a host of laws relating to free speech, debate and assembly in Malaysia that have been toughened, introduced or revived since Prime Minister Najib Razak took office in 2009 – particularly the Sedition Act, which he had vowed to rescind, HRW said.

The report also highlights a trend of abuses of the legal process, such as unjustifiable remands, and a pattern of selective prosecution, according to HRW.

“Freedom of expression and assembly in Malaysia are currently under attack, aided by the existence of broad and vaguely worded laws that the government can wield to arrest, investigate, and imprison its critics. The recent increase in use of laws that criminalize peaceful expression is a step backward for a country that had seemed to be making progress on the protection of rights,” according to an advance copy of the report released to BenarNews.

HRW is to launch the report during a Tuesday morning news conference at the Park Royal Hotel in Kuala Lumpur.

“Prime Minister Najib Razak and the Malaysian government have repeatedly broken promises to revise laws that criminalize peaceful expression. Instead, Malaysia has gone on a binge of prosecutions of critics,” Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, said in a statement ahead of the release.

“The government is making a mockery of its claims to democracy and fundamental rights by treating criticism as a crime,” he added.

Clamping down on dissent

The crackdown on free speech followed the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition’s loss in the popular vote in the 2013 general election.

It has intensified within the past year amid public criticism over the jailing of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on sodomy charges, a public backlash over a new goods and services tax, and a corruption scandal around the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state fund, which has led to calls for Najib’s resignation, HRW said.

In April, as many as 114 people were jailed for alleged sedition for criticizing the government, in what proved to be the biggest nationwide crackdown on dissent since 1987. Opposition leaders, civil society activists and journalists were among those arrested for sedition.

These included Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, a cartoonist popularly known as Zunar, who now faces a potential 43-year jail sentence on nine counts of sedition, if convicted. A cartoon by Zunar, which was commissioned by Human Rights Watch, illustrates the report’s cover.

Later in April, the Malaysian parliament amended the Sedition Act to include tougher penalties for speech deemed seditious, and speech that could be interpreted as offensive to religion.

Under the amended act, violators can now be jailed for up to 20 years, compared with a maximum of three years stipulated under the act’s older version.


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