The Malaysian government should stop treating criticism as a crime and drop all charges against those being prosecuted for exercising their rights to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly, says John Sifton.
Malaysian authorities have brought new criminal charges against critics of the government and are showing no signs of easing this year’s intensifying crackdown on free expression, Human Rights Watch has said.
Malaysia, currently the chair of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean), the East Asia Summit, and a member of the United Nations Security Council, will host several high-profile summits this week involving the leaders of Asean, as well as United States President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, among other leaders.
“The Malaysian government has revealed itself as petty, vindictive, and brittle when thrust into the limelight on the eve of important state visits,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Going after activists, journalists, and opposition leaders are not the actions of a confident government committed to promoting respect for human rights, and visiting leaders need to say so.”
On 27 October 2015, Human Rights Watch issued a 140-page report on the intensifying repression in Malaysia, outlining a long series of legal cases against critics of the government, from opposition leaders to cartoonists.
Since mid-October, Malaysian authorities have charged two opposition members of parliament, an opposition activist, and two rally organisers with criminal offenses for exercising their free speech rights. They have also threatened criminal charges against other critical voices and raided the offices of two online news portals reporting on corruption investigations.
These cases cast a chill on civil society and critical reporting by the media, and should top the agenda of bilateral concerns with Malaysian officials. The recent actions include:
- The authorities charged opposition Members of Parliament Sivarasa Rasiah and Ng Wei Aik with sedition, the latest in a string of opposition politicians charged under the outdated and draconian Sedition Act – at least five others are currently awaiting trial. Sivarasa was charged with sedition on 20 October for a statement he made at a March 2015 rally criticising the sodomy conviction of former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Wei Aik was charged on 6 November for a similar statement made at a rally in February 2015. If convicted and fined more than RM2,000 (US$456), or sentenced to more than one year in prison, these parliamentarians would be discharged from office and disqualified from taking part in politics for five years after their term ends;
- Police detained activist Khalid Ismath and charged him with three counts of sedition and 11 counts of violating the Communications and Multimedia Act for social media posts that the government alleges are insulting to the sultan of Johor. He was denied bail for more than three weeks. The government responded to opposition parliamentarian Hanipa Maidin’s criticism of the attorney general for opposing bail for Ismath by opening a sedition investigation of Hanipa;
- The authorities criminally charged Maria Chin Abdullah, chair of the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (Bersih), and Jannie Lasimbang, vice-chair of Sabah Bersih, with failing to give the police 10 days’ notice for the 34-hour rally that was held peacefully on 29-30 August. The rally called for institutional reforms to provide governmental accountability to address corruption, and specifically for Prime Minister Najib Razak to explain his handling of the scandal-rocked, government-owned 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). If convicted under section 9(5) of the Peaceful Assembly Act, the two activists could be fined up to RM10,000 ($2279). Beyond the fact that Bersih twice met with police prior to the rally, thus giving notice, imposing criminal penalties for failure to provide notice of a rally is contrary to international standards for the right to peaceful assembly;
- The authorities questioned blogger Mohamed Safi Yassin for criminal defamation and criminal intimidation after he posted a warning to the police that abusive police tactics at the then-upcoming Bersih rally would harm their reputation; and
- The government raided the offices of online news portals Malaysiakini and The Star on 6 November, continuing a trend of harassing media that report on corruption. According to Malaysiakini, the raids were in response to an article published on 2 November about the transfer of a deputy prosecutor in the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission. After a complaint by the attorney general’s chambers, authorities opened an investigation for criminal defamation by the news portals, raided their offices, and seized computer equipment. The government raided Malaysiakini’s office a second time on 7 November. The government in July had suspended publication of two newspapers for three months for their reporting on the 1MDB scandal. That suspension was overturned by the Malaysian High Court in September.
Visiting leaders, including Obama, should press Malaysia’s government to stem the latest round of repression, Human Rights Watch said. They should call on Najib to end the use of criminal defamation, sedition, and other laws to criminalise dissent.
“Exposure of corruption and criticism of the government are essential elements of a rights-respecting democracy,” Sifton said. “The Malaysian government should stop treating criticism as a crime and drop all charges against those being prosecuted for exercising their rights to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly.”
John Sifton is Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.