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Malaysia: Crackdown On Critical Speech Intensifies


Malaysian authorities are increasingly responding to criticism of the government by initiating criminal investigations, Human Rights Watch has said. 

Journalists, civil society activists, and ordinary people have all recently faced police questioning for peaceful speech under broadly worded laws that violate the right to freedom of expression.

“Malaysia’s Perikatan Nasional government is increasingly responding to public criticism by carrying out abusive investigations on specious charges,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin should recognize that everyone has a right to criticize their government without fear of investigation or prosecution.”

The most recent target of the government’s ire is Al Jazeera, which produced a video segment discussing Malaysia’s treatment of migrant workers during the Covid-19 pandemic. After denouncing the documentary as “deceptive and unethical,” Defense Minister Ismail Saabri said that Al Jazeera should “apologize to all Malaysians.” The police subsequently announced that they were investigating Al Jazeera for sedition, defamation, and violation of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA).

In an apparent case of retaliation, the Immigration Department announced that it was looking for one of the migrants interviewed in the report, and the department’s director general warned that foreigners who “make inaccurate statements aimed at sullying the country” would face potential revocation of their visas or work passes. In the documentary, Al Jazeera reported that it had reached out to the government and sought interviews with senior officials, but those interview requests had been denied.

On June 6, 2020, Boo Su-Lyn, editor of the health news portal CodeBlue, announced that she was being investigated under the Official Secrets Act and the penal code for a series of articles about the findings of an independent investigation into an October 2016 hospital fire that killed six patients. Boo Su-Lyn stated that the findings on which she based her articles had been declassified. 

In another case targeting the media, the attorney-general filed contempt proceedings against the online news portal Malaysiakini and its editor, Steven Gan, based on comments posted by the outlet’s readers. On July 3, the Federal Court rejected an application to set aside the decision permitting the attorney general to initiate contempt proceedings, holding that the government had made a prima facie case that Malaysiakini had “published” the comments and that the comments impugned the judiciary. The court will hear arguments in the case on July 13. 

The defense argued that media should not be held responsible for comments made by readers, noting that Malaysiakini had removed the comments as soon as it was alerted about them. The Committee for Independent Journalism and the Malaysian Bar Council are among those who have expressed concern about the implications of the case for media freedom.

Activists and ordinary people are also facing criminal investigation for speech critical of the government. On July 7, the police questioned the director of the nongovernmental organization Refuge for the Refugees about a social media post alleging mistreatment of refugees at immigration detention centers. 

The activist, Heidy Quah, is being investigated for defamation and violation of section 233 of the CMA and was required to surrender her phone to the police.

On July 3, a retiree was fined RM2,000 (US$470) for posting “insulting” comments about the health minister on social media, even though the court noted that the criticism “was not overboard or malicious in nature.” He will have to serve a month in jail if he fails to pay the fine.

Other recent investigations include:

  • The ongoing investigation of Bersih 2.0 chair Thomas Fann under the Peaceful Assembly Act for a Facebook post in February calling for people to protest the change in government;
  • The investigation of journalist Tashny Sukumaran after she reported on immigration raids in an area under an enhanced movement control order due to the presence of Covid-19; 
  • The questioning of Cynthia Gabriel, the founding director of the Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4 Center), about a letter calling for an investigation into allegations that the government was trading favors for political support; and
  • The questioning of an opposition member of parliament, Xavier Jayakumar, after he criticized the government’s decision to limit the recent sitting of Parliament to a speech by the king.

While none of those investigations have yet resulted in criminal charges, others have been prosecuted for peaceful speech, including:

  • Patrick Teoh, who is facing charges under section 233 of the CMA for social media comments allegedly insulting to the Crown Prince of Johor. The 73-year-old was held for five days in May before being released on bail. He has denied the charge and the case is awaiting trial;
  • R. Sri Sanjeevan, the head of the nongovernmental organization Malaysian Crime Watch Task Force, who was charged on June 5 with two counts of violating section 233 of the CMA for allegedly posting “false” information about the police on social media; and
  • A businessman who was charged on May 8 with violating section 233 of the CMA and section 505(b) of the Penal Code for social media comments criticizing the government for prosecuting individuals who violated the movement restrictions put in place due to Covid-19.

All of the laws cited in these investigations are overly broad and subject to abuse, and have been used by prior administrations against critical voices, Human Rights Watch said. Under international human rights standards, governments may only impose restrictions on freedom of expression if they are provided by law and are necessary for the respect of the rights or reputations of others, or for the protection of national security, public order, public health, or morals. Restrictions must be narrowly drawn to limit speech as little as possible, and sufficiently precise that an individual can understand what is made unlawful. None of the laws at issue meet these standards, Human Rights Watch said.

“Since the new government took office, freedom of speech and the press have faced renewed threats in Malaysia,” Robertson said. “The government needs to stop treating criticism as a crime and take immediate steps to amend or repeal the abusive laws being used against critical speech.”

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