One year after Ismail Sabri took over as the Prime Minister of Malaysia, ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS are concerned about systematic attempts by his government to restrict and undermine fundamental freedoms, especially freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
As with the previous Perikatan Nasional government, the current government does not tolerate criticism, scrutiny, accountability, or dissenting opinions. In the past year, the Sabri government has repeatedly suppressed freedom of expression and assembly. There is an active campaign of repression against human rights defenders, civil society actors, artists and cartoonists, LGBTQI communities, refugees, migrants, and opposition political parties that seek to promote and protect human rights through prosecution under Malaysia’s many repressive laws. Attempts to peacefully assemble have been repeatedly thwarted by the Sabri government, while media and whistleblowers have faced restrictions on their work or legal harassment.
As a member of the UN Human Rights Council, the government’s actions to stifle freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are inconsistent with the country’s international human rights obligations and commitments made to the international community. We urge the government to halt the ongoing clampdown on civic space and take steps to reform laws and policies used to stifle dissent.
Use of restrictive laws to stifle freedom of expression
Since it was adopted in 1998, the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) has emerged as one of the greatest threats to freedom of expression in Malaysia; in the past year, authorities have repeatedly used Section 233 of the law to target online expression, often in conjunction with other laws, such as the Sedition Act, but also at times as a standalone offense. The colonial-era Sedition Act is routinely abused by authorities, with the Sabri government no exception, to suppress dissent and silence opponents. The law has also been used to stifle discourse concerning racial and ethnic groups, religion, and Malaysian royalty. Further, Sections 298 and 298A of the Penal Code criminalise alleged blasphemy and are often used to restrict expression permitted under international human rights law.
These laws have been used to investigate, arrest, charge, and convict individuals who have criticised government officials, institutions, or Malaysian royalty or shared opinions about sensitive issues such as race or religion. It is common for authorities to use multiple laws to investigate individuals but for the investigation to result in charges under only one (if any) law. Alleging criminality under multiple different laws is a frequent intimidation tactic of the Malaysian authorities, creating a threatening environment that chills freedom of expression.
Prosecution of Political Expression
Over the last year under Ismail Sabri’s government, human rights defender and graphic artist Fahmi Reza has continued to face systematic harassment for his satirical work, which critiques the government and government officials.
On 4 October 2021, police arrested Fahmi under Section 233 of the CMA for his caricature of Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob under the slogan ‘Keluarga Malaysia’ (meaning ‘Malaysians are all family’). The Prime Minister had used this slogan during his first speech in August 2021. Fahmi was freed the same day on bail. On 10 February 2022, authorities charged Fahmi under Section 233 of the CMA for a satirical graphic he had posted on social media a year earlier featuring a caricature of former Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr Adham Baba, who is the current Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation. The following week, on 17 February, authorities again charged Fahmi under Section 233 of the CMA for another satirical graphic, posted on Facebook on 1 June 2021. On 14 April, the Classified Criminal Investigations Department arrested and investigated Fahmi under Section 233 of the CMA and Section 4 of the Sedition Act for a satirical graphic of an ape dressed in attire similar to that worn by the royalty. He was remanded at the Dang Wangi Police District headquarters for one day, but no formal charges were levied. On 23 April, the Federal Police Headquarters put Fahmi on an international travel blacklist and prohibited him from renewing his passport. The bans were lifted the following month.
On 21 May, the police initiated an investigation against Lim Kit Siang, the Member of Parliament for Iskandar Puteri from the Democratic Action Party (DAP), over a tweet. The investigation was opened under Section 233 of the CMA and Section 505(c) of the Penal Code on the allegation that the tweet contained a comment that could disrupt public order and harmony of the country. Kit Siang had voiced concerns on his blog that Malaysia (referring to the crisis in Sri Lanka) might become a failed state in the next three or four decades.
On 28 May, the Petaling Jaya district police headquarters initiated an investigation under Section 233 of the CMA into a woman for a viral video that she posted on her social media allegedly slandering the police department for being selective when conducting checks at roadblocks.
In August 2021, authorities charged housewife Nur Faziah under Section 4(1) of the Sedition Act and under Section 233 of CMA for allegedly making offensive communications about the King and cabinet ministers. On conviction, the Sessions Court fined her RM 10,000 (approximately 2,500 USD).
In April 2022, Johor police arrested a campaign worker for the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) for sedition in relation to his comments on a Facebook post that allegedly encouraged ethnic Indians not to vote for the Malaysian Indian Congress, a party that is part of the ruling coalition.
Prosecution of expression regarding the race, religion, and the royalty
Over the past year, Malaysian authorities have continued to investigate individuals for expression relating to race, religion and the royalty (the 3Rs) under Section 298A of the Penal Code, Section 233 of the CMA, and the Sedition Act.
On 14 July, Rizal Van Geyzel, co-founder of Crackhouse Comedy Club, was arrested under Section 4(1) of the Sedition Act and Section 233 of the CMA. Police stated the arrest was for three videos that touched on racial stereotypes. Rizal was released on the evening of 15 July. On 22 July, Rizal was charged with three counts of violating Section 233(1)(a) of the CMA. One of the videos cited in the charge sheet was a video clip of his stand-up comedy set in which he jokes about his mixed-race heritage and Malay stereotypes.
In early July, Malaysian authorities arrested Siti Nuramira Abdullah and her partner, Alexander Navin Vijayachandran, in relation to a video of Siti that was uploaded to two of the couples’ joint social media accounts—on 5 June on Instagram and 16 June on YouTube. The video shows Siti performing at Crackhouse Comedy Club, a stand-up comedy venue, where she is wearing a hijab and a baju kurung. She gradually takes these off to reveal a miniskirt underneath. While undressing she remarks that she has memorised parts of the Quran. Authorities charged Siti under Section 298A(1)(a) of the Penal Code and charged Alexander under Section 233(1)(a) of the CMA.
Over the last month, two other individuals have been charged for allegedly insulting Islam through videos posted online—Mohd Nor’muzil Mohd Razalli and Syaidinar Abu Bakar. Both have been convicted under Section 233(1)(a) of the CMA.
Throughout 2021, authorities opened 105 cases for investigation over insults to the royal institution, leading to 23 arrests. Between January and May this year, 11 cases have been opened and so far, two individuals have been arrested for alleged royal insults.
In May 2022, Prime Minister Ismail Sabri said the media should carry out their duties with freedom and without interference as to ensure freedom of expression in Malaysia. However, the government’s actions throughout the year are an alarming contradiction, with media workers and journalists under constant scrutiny.
In the past year, the government has restricted and silenced journalists and whistleblowers. For example, for the first Parliament sitting after the change of the government on 13 September 2021, only 16 media agencies were allowed to cover the proceedings from inside Parliament and the Speaker of the Dewan Rayat (Lower House) failed to provide any reasonable explanation for imposing the restriction.
In January 2022, journalist Sean Augustin from media outlet Free Malaysia Today was called in for questioning by the police over an article in which he stated that the armed forces had to rescue flood victims amidst rising waters without waiting for the approval from the disaster management agency. The same month, the chief of the Malaysia Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) Azam Baki demanded investigative journalist and whistleblower Lalitha Kunaratnam issue a public apology, pay RM 10 million in damages, and delete articles in which she questioned Baki’s business ties and claimed he owned shares in two companies.
Restriction and harassment of protesters
Police have also sought to block or restrict protests and systematically harass protesters throughout the year. Many were hauled in for questioning by the police for violating Section 9(5) of the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012, which criminalises the organiser’s failure to give five days’ notice before a gathering.
In January 2022, police attempted to block a protest demanding MACC Chief Azam Baki resign by obtaining a seven-day court order to block all public protests at an area in downtown Kuala Lumpur. When this failed to deter the protesters, police diverted traffic and suspended several train services into the area where the protest was being planned. A briefing held a day ahead of the protest was also raided by the police. Following the protest, authorities hauled in for questioning more than 40 activists under Section 9(5) of the Peaceful Assembly Act, Section 505(b) of the Penal Code, as well as Regulations 10 and 17 of the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Regulations.
In March, protest organisers were summoned after holding an anti-war protest related to the war in Ukraine and for protests that took place outside Parliament calling for the passage of an anti-party hopping law and an Independent Police Complaints Commission. In April, police summoned three representatives from Lawyers for Liberty (LFL) to give a statement on a protest the group organised outside the High Commission of Singapore; another two lawyers, New Sin Yew and Yohendra Nadarajan, were called for an investigation for attending a candlelight vigil at the High Commission of Singapore to oppose the execution of a Malaysian in Singapore; and police investigated protesters from the Socialist Party of Malaysia for partaking in a Workers’ Day rally despite briefing the police of their plans before the event.
On 17 June, police blocked a planned march by lawyers to Parliament to hand over a memorandum on judicial independence. Following the protest, police said an investigation had been opened and that they would be calling in all the participants of the protest for investigation under the Peaceful Assembly Act.
On 18 August, two members of different political opposition parties (Hasbie Muda and Sabda Suluh Lestari Yahya) and a student activist (Aliff Naif Mohd Fizam) were charged under Section 9(5) of the Peaceful Assembly Act for each organising a peaceful protest in July against the rise in the price of goods. All three were released on bail of RM-3,000 to RM7,000 (approximately 750 – 1,750 USD).
Challenges to freedom of association
The legal framework governing the operations of civil society organisations and political parties, in particularly, the Societies Act 1966 remains unduly restrictive and overly burdensome, and the Sabri government has exploited this legal framework to obstruct registration of civil society organisations. In addition to long-standing issues with excessive wait times and vetting by Malaysian Special Branch, in January 2022, the RoS rejected the registration of Parti Aspirasi Sains Malaysia (Sains), the first scientific-based political party in Malaysia, without providing any reason.
Weak oversight and accountability mechanisms
Human rights groups have continuously raised concerns with successive governments about torture, ill-treatment, and deaths in custody. Despite this, in July 2022, Parliament passed the Independent Police Conduct Commission Act, a weak law that leaves the police oversight commission lacking in independence and adequate powers to ensure effective police oversight. Further, questions have been asked by civil society about the opaque appointments of the new commissioners for the national human rights institution, SUHAKAM, in July 2022. Many of the new commissioners lack any experience of working on human rights and have even taken anti-rights positions in the past.
Human rights obligations
The actions by Ismail Sabri’s government are inconsistent with Malaysia’s human rights obligations to respect and protect fundamental freedoms as well as constitutional guarantees under Article 10 of the Malaysian Constitution for freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. Further, during Malaysia’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in 2018, the government made commitments to repeal the draconian Sedition Act, Peaceful Assembly Act and other laws that restrict fundamental freedoms. However, nearly four years on no progress has been made on these commitments.
During the Human Rights Council pledging session on 8 September 2021, H.E. Dr Ahmad Faisal Muhamad expressed Malaysia’s unequivocal commitment to advancing human rights for all, noting the domestic legislation in place to enable citizens to “exercise rights and freedoms responsibly and not to suppress them.”
The government has also yet to sign and ratify key international human rights treaties including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Despite this, it is bound by customary international human rights law, including the obligation to respect the right to freedom of expression.
To demonstrate its commitment to human rights as a member of the UN Human Rights Council, ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS make the following recommendations to the Malaysian government:
- Ratify the core human rights instruments and their optional protocols, including the ICCPR, and rescind reservations to existing treaties that are contrary to their objectives and principles;
- Implement all recommendations made by UN Member States during the previous cycle of Malaysia’s UPR, in particular those relating to civic space;
- Repeal the Sedition Act 1948 and Sections 298 and 298A of the Penal Code;
- Reform the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, in particular Section 233, to ensure it fully complies with international freedom of expression law and standards;
- Cease the harassment and arbitrary criminal investigations and proceedings against human rights defenders, protesters, activists, media workers, or opposition political figures;
- Take measures to foster a safe, respectful, and enabling environment for civil society, including by reviewing the Societies Act and removing legal and policy measures that unwarrantedly limit the right to freedom of association; and
- Reform the Independent Police Conduct Commission Act to ensure that the body is independent and has adequate powers to ensure effective police oversight and for transparent processes in the appointment of SUHAKAM commissioners—with parliamentary oversight and consultation with civil society—in accordance with the Paris Principles.