Updated at 2:02 p.m. ET on 2015-04-10
Malaysia’s parliament early Friday morning (local time) passed an amendment to the Sedition Act that authorizes the government to punish seditious speech more strictly.
Authorities can now jail violators for up to 20 years, compared with a maximum of three years stipulated by the act under its previous version. People accused of sedition can be denied bail, and a court can seize their passports and other international documents.
"If I could quote someone who said this yesterday, by POTA and amendments to the Sedition Act, the government is declaring war on its people and I want to know why they are doing that," Ambiga Sreenevasan, a former Bar Council president with the Movement to Abolish the Sedition Act, told Channel News Asia.
She was alluding to the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), which parliament passed Tuesday. That amendment to Malaysia’s anti-terrorism laws allows authorities to detain suspects indefinitely without trial for renewable two-year periods.
Focus on religion
According to a summary of the proposed amendment to the Sedition Act, published by the state-run Bernama news agency, the change to the 67-year-old law shifts its focus from speech that criticizes the government to speech that offends religion.
Under the amendment, the “tendency to evoke feelings of malice, hostility and hatred on religious grounds is an offense,” whereas acts that arouse hatred, contempt or dissatisfaction against the government are not,” Bernama said.
The amendment allows the state to obtain a court order to censor publications and websites that incite hatred in the multi-racial and multi-religious nation.
"The Sedition Act is not just for Muslims; it is for the protection of all Malaysians. It is aimed at preventing any person who promotes feelings of hostility between persons or groups on the grounds of religion – whether the religion attacked is Christianity, Hinduism, Islam or any of the other faiths Malaysia is proud to be home to," Prime Minister Najib Razak said in a television interview that aired Thursday night (local time), The Star Online reported.
"We will not and cannot stand for the incitement of racial or inter-ethnic conflict. We have come too far to harm the progress that we have made. And that is why the government decided to keep the Sedition Act and amend it to make it a better and more suitable law," he added.
In recent months, Najib’s government drew criticism from at home and abroad for clamping down on such acts. The police swept up scores of opposition politicians, activists, journalists and others, accusing them of seditious speech.
The amendment to the Sedition Act is a tweaked version of the one that the government proposed, when it introduced the bill in parliament on Tuesday.
When lawmakers from within the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition complained that the proposed amendment was too harsh, Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi agreed to tweak the bill, BN members of parliament told The Star on Wednesday.
The government then added the clause about how acts that “arouse hatred, contempt or dissatisfaction against the government” would no longer be considered offenses.
Into the night
Thursday marked the last day of parliament’s current session.
The Dewan Rakyat (House of Representatives) debated the proposed amendment throughout the day and into early Friday morning, when lawmakers passed it by voice vote. Their deliberations were broadcast live on state-run television.
The opposition bloc had wanted the government to repeal the Sedition Act outright, as Najib promised to do in 2012 before scuttling that move last November.
On Thursday, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein expressed concern over the erosion of freedom in Malaysia following the passage of POTA and looming revision of the Sedition Act.
“The United Nations Human Rights Office has long urged Malaysia to either repeal the 1948 Sedition Act or to bring it in line with international human rights standards,” he said in a prepared statement.
“It is very disappointing that the Malaysian Government is now proposing to make a bad law worse.”
Zeid went on to say: “Silencing dissent does not nurture social stability, but an open democratic space does. Curtailing the legitimate exercise of human rights in the name of fighting terrorism has been shown, time and again, to backfire and to only lead to festering discontent and a strong sense of injustice.”
An earlier version of this story gave incorrect information about the number of years that offenders could be sentenced to jail under the amended Sedition Act.