In advance of International Human Rights Day, the civil society Freedom of Expression Cluster (FOE Cluster) announces the establishment of a Legal Defence Fund to support those facing threats because of their exercise of the right to freedom of expression. The FOE Cluster calls on the government of Malaysia to end the pattern of attacks on journalists, human rights defenders and activists that has necessitated the establishment of the Fund.
Legal Defence Fund
The FOE Cluster is launching a Legal Defence Fund in order to promote freedom of expression in Malaysia. The Fund will provide assistance to those who face investigation and prosecution because of their exercise of the right to freedom of expression.
The Fund will cover the legal fees and other expenses incurred by human rights defenders and members of the public facing adverse action by state authorities. Impacted human rights defenders will also be able to apply for additional monetary assistance and support.
Further information regarding the Legal Defence Fund is available in the FOE Cluster’s Policy on Legal Defence Fund. Those who are interested to apply for support from the Legal Defence Fund can obtain an application form by emailing [email protected]. Upon receiving a completed application, the FOE Cluster coordinator will convene a panel consisting of all members of the Cluster to make a decision on the request for support. The Legal Defence Fund is managed by Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights, which will administer the funds once an application has been approved.
Crackdown on Freedom of Expression
The establishment of this Fund is especially important in light of the shrinking of civic space in Malaysia. Malaysians have not only faced a pandemic, but also the fall of an elected government, and the political instability that has followed.
The government appears to be focused primarily on its own political survival and has relegated the reform agenda to the backseat. The low priority given to human rights concerns was evidenced by the government’s recent refusal to debate the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM)’s annual report in Parliament. The government has also utilised criminal proceedings to intimidate government critics and silence dissenting voices.
There has been a serious decline in media freedom in the nine months since this government took power. Journalists and media outlets have faced investigation, arrest and contempt of court charges for reporting on government actions and policies. Al Jazeera employees and journalist Tashny Sukumaran were investigated for their reports on migrant workers; editor Boo Su-Lyn was investigated for reporting on an inquiry into a hospital fire; and online news outlet Malaysiakini was charged in relation to third party comments on its website under an article concerning the judiciary. The media have also faced significant obstacles and shrinking space due to restrictions or access limitations related to COVID-19. Access to the daily COVID-19 press briefings by the Defence Minister is limited to the state media outlets BERNAMA and Radio TV Malaysia (RTM). Similarly, only government-owned media were granted access to parliamentary proceedings in May 2020, and during the current session of Parliament access has only been granted to 15 media outlets.
The government has taken no concrete steps to reform the laws that restrict the right to freedom of expression. Laws that have been used to stifle freedom of expression in Malaysia continue to be in force. The broadly worded Sedition Act, which was meant to be repealed, has been utilised multiple times in 2020. As of October 2020, section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) 1998 has been used to investigate at least 270 cases concerning supposed misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic. It has also been utilised to prosecute those who made remarks deemed ‘insulting’ or ‘offensive’ to religion, royalty or the government. The government has continued to punish critical speech with unnecessary and disproportionate penalties in violation of international human rights law.
Authorities have also cited the pandemic in order to curb protest and restrict freedom of assembly. Authorities have even harassed and charged frontline hospital workers peacefully protesting to the lack of personal protective equipment.
The FOE Cluster calls on the government of Malaysia to halt the harassment and intimidation of its critics and others exercising their right to freedom of expression and to commit to protecting and promoting fundamental human rights. Freedom of expression and access to information are especially important as Malaysia responds to the COVID-19 pandemic. The need for transparent data-sharing is critical to combat the spread of the disease. As the public faces challenging social and economic circumstances, it is more crucial than ever for people to be able to raise concerns and hold the government to account when it fails to fulfil its obligations.
In this regard, we call on the government to:
1. Affirm its commitments to legal reform, including by:
- Imposing a moratorium on the use of the Sedition Act and section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act;
- Repealing the Sedition Act 1948;
- Amending or repealing Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act;
- Repealing the Official Secrets Act and enacting a Right to Information Act to facilitate maximum disclosure by government bodies and access to information;
- Abolishing the Printing Presses and Publications Act and expediting the establishment of an independent Media Council;
- Reviewing the Film Censorship Act and the FINAS Act to end the arbitrary censorship of film and art.
2. Create a safe environment for discussion, criticism and reporting by:
- Refraining from sanctioning those who criticise the government;
- Withdrawing all charges against human rights defenders, media and others who are being investigated or charged merely for exercising the right to freedom of expression.
3. Reaffirm its international and national commitments to promote and protect the human rights of all peoples, including the most marginalised and vulnerable by:
- Setting a timeline for and taking concrete steps towards the ratification of outstanding international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (CMW);
- Creating an enabling environment that promotes critical thinking, healthy debate, and government transparency and accountability.
The FOE Cluster will continue to call for legal reform and defend the rights of everyone in Malaysia to express themselves in accordance with the Federal Constitution and international human rights standards. Following the upheaval we have experienced this year, we call on the government to commit to human rights reform to better protect the well-being and welfare of the people.
Centre for Independent Journalism
Freedom Film Network
Gerakan Media Merdeka
Amnesty International Malaysia
Justice for Sisters
Sisters in Islam
Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM)
Centre to Combat Corruption and Cronyism
GERAK (Pergerakan Tenaga Akademik Malaysia)
*The Freedom of Expression Cluster is a group of civil society organisations working to promote freedom of expression in Malaysia. The cluster is co-chaired by the Centre for Independent Journalism and ARTICLE 19 Malaysia.