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Action to improve rights falls far short

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Strict controls are maintained on freedom of expression, assembly and association in Malaysia, observes Human Rights Watch in its annual review.

An anti-ISA protester arrested in Penang last year

Repressive practices by the government show that Prime Minister Najib Razak’s pledge to “uphold civil liberties” was little more than an empty promise, Human Rights Watch said in its World Report 2011.

The 649-page report, Human Rights Watch’s 21st annual review of human rights practices around the globe, summarises major human rights trends in more than 90 countries and territories worldwide. The Malaysian government gagged critics, kept hundreds in detention without charge or trial, and restricted the rights to freedom of assembly and association, despite pledges made during Malaysia’s successful campaign for election to the United Nations Human Rights Council, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Malaysian government is all talk and no action when it comes to human rights,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Prime Minister Najib and his ministers are mistaken if they think that floating ‘trial balloons’ to make badly needed changes to laws and policies is enough to keep Malaysian civil society and the international community at bay.”

In Malaysia, the report says, the government does not hesitate to use draconian laws to harass or gag journalists critical of the authorities, human rights defenders, civil society activists, or members of the political opposition. In a year that marked the 50th anniversary of the Internal Security Act (ISA), promised government action to reform security-related laws permitting preventive detention never materialised. Police regularly dispersed peaceful public assemblies, and the authorities used broadly worded statutes to prohibit publications and bully reporters and writers.

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention visited Malaysia in 2010 and recommended that Malaysia repeal all of its preventive detention laws. The government not only continued to use the ISA but further expanded its definition of what constitutes a security issue by wider application of existing law. The government also continued to use the Police Act 1967 to harass or ban peaceful public protests, marches, or meetings by opposition politicians and activists, Human Rights Watch said.

Freedom of expression faced major challenges from the government during 2010. Officials harassed journalists, confiscated published materials for “review”, banned publications outright or suspended them for activities allegedly beyond the scope of their publishing licence, and suspended publications while annual reviews of licences, required under the 1984 Printing Presses and Publications Act, were negotiated.

The political cartoonist Zunar was charged with sedition and several of his books were banned by the government. Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein claimed Zunar’s books commented in a negative way on the legal system and on religion and were detrimental to public order.

The Home Ministry again denied Malaysiakini, a web-based daily newspaper not afraid to probe government assertions, a licence for a print edition. Malaysiakini has applied and been denied a licence every year since 2002. Power to deny or revoke a licence is granted to Malaysia’s home minster under the 1984 Printing Presses and Publications Act. His decisions cannot be challenged.

Previous government promises to preserve an open Internet took the biggest hit in 2010, Human Rights Watch said. Prime Minister Najib led the way, backtracking from his vision of a media sector where journalists could “report what they see, without fear of consequence”. Yet by September 2010, following a government investigation of websites and social networking pages, Najib’s rhetoric stressed that “those going against the law, whether it is defamation or whether it is inciting racial hatred, religious hatred, then you have to be responsible for your actions.”

Government repression of the media was facilitated by broadly worded regulations on incitement, sedition, and public order that are used for political ends, Human Rights Watch said. The Communication and Multimedia Act 1998, for example, prohibits “content which is indecent, obscene, false, menacing or offensive in character with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass another person”. The Sedition Act 1948 makes it a criminal offence to “excite disaffection against any Ruler or against any Government”; “to promote feelings of ill will and hostility between different races or classes of the population of Malaysia’; or “to to raise discontent or disaffection…amongst the inhabitants of Malaysia.”

Malaysia also hastily drafted amendments to the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act that will likely reduce rather than enhance protections for trafficking victims as well as smuggled migrant workers. Government measures to counter human trafficking fall short of the prevention, protection, and prosecution measures that are necessary to deal with the long-entrenched problem, Human Rights Watch said. Rather than a serious and sustained effort, Malaysian officials have opted for short-term and ill-considered measures, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch called on the Malaysian government to:

  • Revoke the ISA and other arbitrary and preventive detention measures;
  • Rescind the Printing Presses and Publications Act, and narrow the legal definition of sedition;
  • Amend the Police Act to provide for reasonable and negotiated conditions for assembly; and
  • Revoke amendments to the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act that conflate human trafficking and the smuggling of people, and craft legislation that will protect the rights of victims of trafficking, migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.

“Malaysia has a long way to go to be the rights-respecting nation that its government leaders claim it to be,” Robertson said. “The slogan of One Malaysia should apply to respect for international human rights standards, with renewed commitment followed by concrete actions.”

See Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2011 chapter on Malaysia.

Read the Human Rights Watch World Report 2011.

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