Lawyers for Liberty (LFL) refers to the charge under Section 4(1)(b) of the Sedition Act 1948 brought against the Bersatu information chief (who is also the state assembly member for Kijal), Razali Idris, at the Kuala Lumpur Sessions Court on 24 November.
The charge was for allegedly making a seditious statement about the judiciary in relation to the conviction of Muda leader Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman.
We are appalled by the increasing crackdown on freedom of speech against opposition leaders under this “Madani” (civil and compassionate) government. This is a worrying indication of things to come, setting the scene for a return of the oppressive Sedition Act and other laws which stifle freedom of expression.
The colonial-era Sedition Act grossly violates freedom of speech, guaranteed under Article 10(1)(a) of the Federal Constitution. The overly wide terms used in the act provide any government of the day with excessive powers to decide what constitutes sedition – which severely curtails free speech and political freedom in Malaysia.
Furthermore, any speech should not be deemed criminal just because it is alleged to have criticised the judiciary. Should the criticism be excessive, it is the law of contempt that must be invoked and not the colonial-era Sedition Act.
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The threshold for legal restrictions on freedom of expression must remain high, particularly when the speech in question is not hateful, threatening or inciting violence.
Any disagreement on any issues, even controversial ones, should be debated and discussed, not threatened or intimidated into silence.
It is for this reason that the oppressive Sedition Act must be abolished, as the law is overly broad and vague, where almost anything controversial can be construed as seditious.
By prosecuting Razali for his speech criticising the recent judicial decisions of public interest, the government is essentially hindering political discourse and dissent. In a democratic society, everyone in Malaysia should have the freedom to discuss and debate such matters.
In today’s demand for greater transparency and accountability, the judiciary cannot evade public scrutiny of its conduct and judgments, as such scrutiny is integral to its role as the custodian of justice and the Federal Constitution.
Knee-jerk legal action or criminal charges intended to ‘protect’ the judiciary, will only cast a negative light on the institution, prompting additional public scrutiny and criticism.
A mature and democratic government publicly responds to and answers criticism, instead of trying to jail critics.
Given that the Pakatan Harapan-led government has repeatedly promised that the oppressive Sedition Act will be abolished, the Attorney General’s Chambers’ conduct in prosecuting Razali under the Sedition Act is unacceptable.
The attorney general too must remember that he has a duty to uphold the Constitution and all the fundamental rights enshrined therein, including the right of all in Malaysia to freedom of speech. It cannot be overemphasised that the attorney general represents the state, the community at large and the interest of justice, and not just the government of the day.
It is all the more disappointing that many of the then opposition leaders who are now in power have failed to act against the use of the Sedition Act when they themselves are aware of – and some have experienced first-hand – how easily this oppressive piece of legislation was misused to target dissidents and political opponents under the previous administration.
It was as unacceptable and outrageous to use the oppressive Sedition Act against PH and political detractors previously as it is against Perikatan Nasional and its supporters now. That does not change just because PH is in power.
In fact, the improper use of the judiciary, the Attorney General’s Chambers and the police in bringing politically motivated charges under the oppressive Sedition Act against the opposition or dissidents undermines the rule of law and public confidence in the administration of justice.
We therefore urge the attorney general to urgently review and drop the charges against Razali Idris.
In addition, we urge the government to stop using oppressive laws to clamp down on free speech and harass dissenters.
The government also has to fulfil its repeated promises to abolish the Sedition Act and other oppressive laws, which should be communicated clearly to the Attorney General’s Chambers.
Pending the repeal, the government should impose a moratorium on all investigations and prosecutions under the oppressive Sedition Act.
Nabila Khairuddin is a campaign coordinator Lawyers for Liberty