Malaysia: Amendments to the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 must not restrict the right to freedom of expression online

This week, the Malaysian Parliament is considering amendments to the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (CMA), some of which could lead to severe restrictions online freedoms.

ARTICLE 19 is concerned that the proposed amendments are politically motivated, with the intent to place greater legal restrictions on online civic space, and to silence those who are critical of the government. ARTICLE 19 urges all members of Parliament to reject any amendments to the CMA that would further limit the right of freedom of expression and freedom of information on the Internet.

The proposed amendments have yet to be publically shared with Malaysian civil society. The lack of transparency in this process is undemocratic and emblematic of a larger trend in recent years of the Malaysian government amending laws to further crackdown on free speech rather than promote and protect the right.

On the basis of information available, ARTICLE 19 is concerned that amendments to the CMA include:

  • the registration of political blogs and websites,
  • an increase in penalties for offences related to undesirable content,
  • broader powers for the Internet regulatory body – the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) – to take down online content without proper oversight.

If confirmed, these amendments would be in clear breach of international standards on freedom of expression:

  • The UN Human Rights Committee has made it clear in its General Comment no. 34 that the registration of journalists or bloggers is incompatible with Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (para.44). Equally, the special mandates on freedom of expression have made it clear that in their Joint Declaration of 2005 that “no one should be required to register with or obtain permission from any public body to operate an Internet service provider, website, blog or other online information dissemination system, including Internet broadcasting”.
  • Undesirable content should not be equated with unlawful content or content that can legitimately be restricted under Article 19 (3) ICCPR. In any event, the Human Rights Council has confirmed that the same rights that people have offline must be respected online (A/HRC/Res/26/13). Accordingly, online content should not be more severely punished than offline content.
  • Leaving aside that blocking access to content is an ineffective measure that should be avoided, and consistent with the recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression (A/HRC/17/27 at para. 31), any blocking should only be ordered by a court or an independent adjudicatory body rather than a government body like the MCMC. At the very least, any order made by the MCMC should be subject to a right of appeal by the organisations targeted by the order. Moreover, any such order should be the least restrictive possible in order to protect freedom of expression.

ARTICLE 19 is very concerned that the proposed changes, if introduced and passed by Parliament, would have the effect of entrenching censorship in an environment already heavily regulated for the media and publishing.

We call on the Malaysian government to refrain from adopting any of the proposed amendments (if confirmed), in line with the international  principles on freedom of expression, which are part of customary international law.