ARTICLE 19 calls on the Malaysian government to restore respect for freedom of expression, as the crackdown on independent media, whistleblowers, and protesters intensifies following high-level corruption allegations. The blocking of the website “Sarawak Report” and harassment of its journalists, the suspension of two other news outlets, and the arrests of protesters must be immediately remedied.
“The ‘Sarawak Report’ website blew the whistle on a corruption scandal, which is a topic of legitimate public interest. The disclosures raise questions of serious wrongdoing that the Malaysian government must answer, and must not suppress,” said Thomas Hughes, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19; “Other media bringing attention to these reports, and people reacting to them through protest, should have their rights protected and should not face censure,” he added.
“By targeting the messenger and attempting to silence dissent rather than dealing with the substance of the revelations, the Malaysian authorities are displaying the utmost contempt for international freedom of expression standards,” said Hughes.
The government’s latest targeting of dissent in Malaysia relates to the leaking of documents and reports revealing alleged serious corruption at State-owned development firm 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MBD). The Wall Street Journal has published several of the documents published on the Sarawak Report website.
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib is Chairman of 1MDB’s Board of Advisors, sole Shareholder and Signatory of 1MDB. It is alleged that misappropriated funds from 1MDB may have indirectly supported Najib’s 2013 election campaign.
The Malaysian Constitution guarantees the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, but Malaysia has not signed or ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which 168 States have ratified. The continuing deterioration of respect for fundamental rights is evidence that this must be rectified as a matter of urgency.
Harassment of Sarawak Report
Sarawak Report has faced relentless harassment since its publication of the leaked documents in July. The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) blocked the website on 19 July. In their decision, the MCMC claimed the leaks violated Articles 211 and 233 of the 1998 Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA), which ban the dissemination of information that is “indecent, obscene, false, menacing, or offensive in character with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass any person.” The website remains blocked inside Malaysia.
However, the disclosures clearly concerned whistleblowing on possible violations of the law, and wrongdoing by public bodies. As such, international standards on freedom of expression, including special mandates on freedom of expression recognise that good faith disclosures of confidential or secret information believed to be in the public interest should be protected from legal, administrative or employment-related sanctions. Additionally, in exercising the function of journalism, Sarawak Report also has the right to protect the anonymity of its confidential sources. Authorities must refrain from any attempts to uncover the identity of Sarawak Report’s sources, including through harassment or intimidation.
Moreover, the UN Human Rights Committee in General Comment No. 34 has been emphatic that “all public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority such as heads of state and government, are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition.” Using the CMA to silence the Sarawak Report is clearly contrary to this principle.
In addition, the blocking of an entire news website for any period will rarely be considered necessary or proportionate under international law.
Furthermore, there are more fundamental questions which regard the independence of the MCMC, established under the Communications and Multimedia Commission Act 1998 (CMCA), and the suitability of its powers to block websites. The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression is emphatic that any such powers should be exercised exceptionally, and only by a body independent of any political, commercial, or other unwarranted influences, and with safeguards against abuse, including the possibility of challenge and remedy.
ARTICLE 19 calls for the blocking order against Sarawak Report to be immediately lifted, and for redress to be offered for those affected.
Since ordering the block on Sarawak Report, the MCMC has issued public statements warning other outlets against repeating the website’s claims, threatening legal action. This is a clear attempt to intimidate newspapers and create a climate of self-censorship, and must be publicly retracted, along with an apology.
The newly appointed Communications and Multimedia Minister, Salleh Said Keruak, has indicated the government will further tighten controls over online content, through reforms to the CMA and CMCA.
ARTICLE 19 calls on the government to resist this reactionary measure, and instead reform both acts to bring them in line with international freedom of expression standards, including:
• Substantial revision or repeal of Articles 211 and 233 of the CMA, as they are both ambiguous and enable illegitimate restrictions on freedom of expression;
• Review of the CMCA in order to safeguard the independence of the MCMC, or otherwise strip it of its powers to block websites.
On 4 August, in a further twist, the Malaysian police obtained an arrest warrant against the founder and editor of the Sarawak Report, Clare Rewcastle-Brown. The warrant relates to Sections 124B and 124I of the Penal Code, on “activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy.” Rewcastle-Brown has previously been denied entry to Malaysia, though this move is clearly designed to obstruct any further travel to the ASEAN region. Repeal of these provisions is necessary to protect the right to freedom of expression.
The Human Rights Committee is clear in General Comment No. 34 that restrictions on the freedom of movement of journalists, including on their entry to a foreign country, is incompatible with the right to freedom of expression. Reported travel bans against critical opposition MPs Tony Pua and Rafizi Ramli leaving the country raise similar concerns. These acts are clearly detrimental to the principles of transparency and accountability that underpin democracy – values the government claims to be acting in the protection of.
Attacks on independent media
In addition to the blocking of Sarawak Report, on 24 July the Home Ministry temporarily suspended the publishing permits of the Edge Financial Daily and the Edge Weekly. The Ministry claim the two publications were “prejudicial or likely to be prejudicial to public order, security or likely to alarm public opinion or is likely to be prejudicial to public and national interest,” in violation of Section 7 (1) of the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, amended 2012 (PPPA).
This decision by the Home Ministry amounts to prior censorship, and is a serious violation of the right to freedom of expression. Notwithstanding the impermissibly broad scope of Section 7(1) PPPA, international standards on freedom of expression are clear that news media (both print and online) should not require permits or licenses to operate. Allowing the executive, in this instance the Home Ministry, the power to suspend or revoke permits, allows for abuse, enabling the government to suppress reporting they disagree with. In fact, the ambiguous powers granted by the PPPA actively encourage this kind of arbitrary censorship, in violation of international law.
ARTICLE 19 calls for the lifting of the suspensions on the Edge Financial Daily and the Edge Weekly, and the public retraction of threats against either publication continuing to print. Furthermore, we call for the repeal of the PPPA, and urge the authorities to end registration requirements for any print or online publication in Malaysia, including powers in any public institution or body to suspend or permanently ban any such publication from operating.
Attacks on the right to protest
The crackdown is not limited to independent media, but has extended to repression of those exercising the right to protest.
On 1 August, activists from Gabungan Anak Muda Demi Malaysia (the Coalition of Youth for Malaysia) organized a peaceful protest in Kuala Lumpur, calling for Prime Minister Najib’s resignation in the wake of the corruption scandal.
Three of the protest’s organisers, Adam Adli, Syukri Razab, and Mandeep Singh, were all preemptively arrested in an attempt to discourage others from attending. 29 individuals who did then attend the planned meeting, including one 14 year old, were arrested. They all face charges including “activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy” and organizing “unlawful assemblies,” under Sections 124 and 143 of the Penal Code respectively.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, Maina Kiai, has criticized states, including the United Kingdom, for pre-emptive arrests of organisers and participants in protests, designed to obstruct the exercise of fundamental rights. Additionally, the Special Rapporteur has made clear that participants in peaceful assemblies should never be criminalized for exercising their fundamental rights.
The Malaysian government must guarantee that neither the organisers nor participants in the 1 August demonstration will face any criminal charges.
At the end of August, “Bersih 4” demonstrations are planned to demand institutional reform for greater transparency and accountability in government. ARTICLE 19 calls on the authorities to protect and facilitate the exercise of the right to protest.
Shrinking civic space
The recent attack on independent voices in Malaysia takes place against the backdrop of a sharp increase in criminal investigations and charges under the colonial-era Sedition Act 1948 in the country. This draconian law has been used to intimidate political opponents, lawyers, academics, human rights defenders and artists – prompting UN experts to publicly criticise the government and call for reforms.
Zunar, a political cartoonist, is facing a possible 43 years in prison for a single tweet criticising a Federal Court ruling sentencing opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to prison, on politically motivated charges.
ARTICLE 19 is concerned that the increasing action against dissent is indicative of a willingness of the Malaysian authorities to employ a range of legal measures to silence independent voices. While the Sedition Act must be repealed without delay, fully protecting the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in the country necessitates wholesale reform – encompassing the CMA, the PPPA, and the Penal Code. Malaysia’s ratification of the ICCPR would also signify a positive move to uphold international human rights law.
photocredit: IAR & CT- ‘Sarawak Report editor Clare Rewcastle Brown and colleague’