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Malaysia: Free speech under increasing threat

Surge in police harassment of journalists, activists and protesters

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Malaysian authorities are increasingly using criminal investigations to harass journalists, protest leaders and various other critics of the government, Human Rights Watch said today.

Many are facing potential prosecution and have been subject to police questioning about their work or speech.

Malaysia’s Penal Code, Sedition Act, Peaceful Assembly Act, and Communications and Multimedia Act all contain overbroad and vaguely worded provisions that allow the police to investigate or arrest people for a wide range of activities or speech that the government dislikes.

Recent cases have targeted people for organising public protests, reporting on allegations of police abuse, drawing cartoons and posting an ironic Spotify playlist.

“In a rights-respecting democracy, the government does not view journalism as a crime and accepts criticism and satire as free speech,” Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal adviser, said. “The Malaysian government’s growing use of criminal laws to target critics demonstrates its rapidly declining regard for human rights standards.”

In a recent case, the police have opened criminal investigations into two Malaysiakini journalists for their coverage of allegations that police brutality was the cause of a death in detention. The journalists are being investigated under a broadly worded provision of the Penal Code that criminalises the “spread of rumors that can cause fear and alarm to the public, which could induce a person to commit an offence against the state or to public peace”.

“Reporting on allegations of government misconduct is part of a journalist’s job,” Lakhdhir said. “Rather than investigating the reporters, the Malaysian authorities should be conducting a credible investigation into the allegations of police abuse.”

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On 23 April 2021, the police arrested graphic artist and activist Fahmi Reza in relation to a jealousy-themed Spotify playlist he had created as a satirical response to a controversial tweet by Malaysia’s Queen. He is being investigated under Malaysia’s Sedition Act, which criminalises any speech with a tendency to “excite disaffection” against or “bring into hatred or contempt” members of Malaysia’s royalty. If convicted, Fahmi faces up to seven years in prison.

The authorities have also opened a criminal investigation of political cartoonist Zulfikar Anwar Ulhaque, known as Zunar, over a satirical drawing that mocked the Kedah chief minister for his decision to cancel a holiday marking a Hindu festival. He was questioned on 7 May as part of an investigation under Section 505(c) of the Penal Code, another overly broad provision that criminalises speech “which is likely to incite any class or community of persons to commit any offence against any other class or community of persons” and Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act.

Leaders of recent peaceful protests have also been the target of police investigations. The police have called in for questioning eight people who participated in a “breaking fast” event on 30 April in Kuala Lumpur to protest the continued suspension of Malaysia’s Parliament. The eight, who include several opposition politicians, are being investigated under Section 9(5) of the Peaceful Assembly Act for failure to give notice of the event.

Earlier in May, the police questioned several people, including opposition MP Fahmi Fadzil and Sevan Doraisamy, the executive director of human rights group Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram), over their participation in a solidarity protest for Fahmi Reza outside the Dang Wangi Police station on 24 April, the day of his remand hearing.

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Police also called in for questioning at least four people, including three opposition MPs, for participating in a peaceful protest against the Election Commission’s delay in implementing a reduction in the voting age to 18.

International norms establish that no one should be held criminally liable for the mere act of organising or participating in a peaceful assembly. The imposition of criminal penalties on individuals who fail to notify the government of their intent to peacefully assemble is disproportionate to any legitimate state interest that might be served.

“The investigations are bad enough, but Malaysia has such vague and overbroad laws that the police can go after almost anyone for just about anything they do or say,” Lakhdhir said. “The government needs to stop treating criticism as a crime and amend or repeal the abusive laws being used against critical speech and peaceful protest.” – HRW

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