Updated at 11:30 a.m. ET on 2016-10-13
Malaysia’s government is escalating a crackdown on “peaceful” speech to shield Prime Minister Najib Razak from criticism such as public discontent over a looming corruption scandal, Human Rights Watch says in a new report.
The government is resorting to laws to criminalize dissent as Najib’s government comes under international scrutiny over the scandal around state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), among other controversies, HRW says.
“As Prime Minister Najib’s political fortunes fall, Malaysia’s intolerance of critical speech seems to rise,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch (HRW), said in a statement issued with the report. “Malaysia’s future as a rights-respecting nation shouldn’t become hostage to defending the Najib government’s reputation.”
Malaysian government officials dismissed the report following its release at a news conference in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday.
Paul Low, a minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, told BenarNews he didn’t believe that there was a rise in the number of cases filed under the Sedition Act – one of the laws cited in the HRW report.
It “has been used less and less during the last year,” the minister said but without giving any figures to back up his assertion.
According to HRW, Najib’s government has been using the Sedition Act, the Official Secrets Act, and the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) to target people who have criticized Najib, including those who have called on the prime to resign over the 1MDB affair and other scandals.
“Rather than treating such statements as normal give-and-take in a democratic society, the Malaysian authorities have treated such speech as criminal, investigating those involved for sedition,” according to a copy of the report seen by BenarNews.
Since July 2015, Najib has been under pressure to step aside amid allegations that nearly U.S. $700 million in funds linked to 1MDB wound up in his private banks accounts. Najib has refused to resign and has denied allegations of wrong doing, saying the money was a donation.
In July 2016, the U. S. Department of Justice filed court papers seeking to recover more than $1 billion in assets and properties that were paid for with money allegedly stolen from 1MDB.
The report calls on Malaysia to repeal the Sedition Act in its entirety and amend the CMA and the Official Secrets Act.
No limits to state secrets?
HRW says the government has used the Official Secrets Act to quell leaks about a report that the government issued in January on its investigation into the 1MDB scandal.
The watchdog’s report cites the case of the arrest of opposition MP Rafizi Ramli, who was investigating the government’s alleged failure to make pension payments to retired veterans and who challenged it to confirm that the army fund’s investments in 1MDB did not affect its ability to make payments.
Rafizi claimed he had received a document from the auditor-general’s report that supports his concern that 1MDB owed money to the fund, HRW says.
Rafizi displayed the document at a news conference on March 28, but did not provide copies to reporters. A week later, police arrested Ramli and charged him with two counts of violating the Official Secrets Act and one count of criminal defamation. He faces a trial on the charges.
According to the HRW report, the Communications and Multimedia Act “has become the government’s weapon of choice against those criticizing or satirizing the government or Malaysia’s rulers.”
Salleh Said Keruak, the minister of Communication and Multimedia, took issue with this point. He told BenarNews that the law’s provisions were “applicable to all” people and broad range of issues, and not just for “malicious and harmful content on the prime minister.”
The government has used the act to block websites, despite pledges by Najib in 1996 and 2011 to not censor the Internet, according to HRW.
HRW specifically names four websites – Sarawak Report, Medium, Malaysia Chronicle and Asia Sentinel – that have been shut down over critical reporting of the 1MDB scandal and other political issues.
“But of course if you are talking about websites … if you tell the truth, it shouldn’t be a problem. There is some news put up by some portals that is not true,” Low told BenarNews.
Melati A. Jalil in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.