Malaysia Invokes Sedition Act As It Goes After Journalists, Others

150401-MY-cartoonist-620 Malaysian cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque poses with handcuffs in Kuala Lumpur, Feb. 14, 2015. [AFP]

As Malaysia this week escalated a crackdown on newspapers, opposition politicians and other dissenting voices, a famed satirical cartoonist said he would be charged Friday under its Sedition Act for criticizing the government.

“The use of the Sedition Act comes as no surprise for me as in a corrupt regime, the truth is seditious. Najib’s regime is mentally corrupted and morally bankrupt,” cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque – popularly known as Zunar – said Wednesday in a statement posted online.

He was referring to Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose government reportedly arrested as many as 114 people in March alone for alleged sedition.

“I would like to reiterate that the use of Sedition Act will not silence me. I will keep exposing the corruption and wrong-doings of the BN government,” Zunar added in his statement, printed on the website of Aliran, a Malaysian human rights group.

Najib’s United Malays National Organization (Umno) party leads the National Front (BN) coalition that governs Malaysia.

The cartoonist said he was to be charged at the Kuala Lumpur High Court under a section of the act that carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison, a fine of 5,000 ringgit (U.S. $1,361), or both.

Zunar has often lampooned Najib’s policies in his biting cartoons.

But it was a Feb. 10 tweet, where the cartoonist spoke out against the jailing of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, which landed him in jail for three days in February. The imminent charge against him stems from that arrest.

Journalists in black

Zunar’s announcement came amid a series of arrests this week, in which police took five prominent media figures into custody for a day on suspicion of sedition.

They included three editors of The Malaysian Insider (TMI), its chief executive officer and its publisher.

“There is no tolerance for activities that promote sedition,” Police Inspector-General Khalid Abu Bajar tweeted, The Star Online reported Tuesday.

In a show of solidarity with TMI, fellow members of the media from rival English-language publications The Star and Malaysiakini wore black as they covered Wednesday’s parliamentary proceedings, TMI reported.

The TMI editors were arrested over an article published March 25.

It reported that the country’s Conference of Rulers – a body of sultans and governors that meets to discuss religious matters – had rejected a proposal to amend federal law so that an Islamic criminal code could be enforced in Kelantan state.

The next day, an official representing the conference filed a police report denying that the sultans had deliberated on the issue, or that they had issued any statement about the hudud law.

The Edge group also had been publishing stories about a financial scandal afflicting Najib’s government over its handling of a state-run investment fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad, which is strapped with billions of dollars in debt, Fairfax Media reported.

On Tuesday, the Center for Independent Journalism and the Southeast Asia Press Alliance issued a joint statement calling the arrests an assault on media freedom.

“In the wake of multiple arrests and detentions of those seen to be critical of the government, it is even more important for the media to continue to play its part as the fourth estate to hold the pillars of government accountable and to keep the public informed,” the statement said.

'Acting maliciously'

The arrests of the five media people followed the weekend arrest of three high-profile opposition figures for organizing a march protesting Anwar’s imprisonment.

“This is an abuse of the sedition law, and an abuse of everything. The government is acting maliciously,” Agence France-Presse quoted MP Tian Chua, vice president of Anwar’s People’s Justice Party, as saying before his own arrest on Saturday.

Some of the government’s critics are comparing the crackdown on journalists, opposition politicians and others to Operasi Lalang (Operation Weed) in 1987, when the government of then Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir arrested 106 dissenters under the Internal Security Act.

“The question can be legitimately asked whether the country is seeing a replay of the [1987] dragnet,” senior opposition leader Lim Kit Sing – who himself was arrested under Operasi Lalang – said, according to AFP.

Human rights advocates are warning that the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) introduced in Malaysia's parliament this week could be used to stifle dissent, since it would enable the government to detain suspects without trial for years at a time.

Government officials say that POTA would only target terrorists.

“Only acts of terrorism come under the Act. Conflicting political views are not covered by this law,” Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said, according to the Borneo Post.

By BenarNews staff with details from news reports.


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