Malaysia: Repeal publications law to promote freedom of expression

On 13 February, Malaysia’s Court of Appeal took an important step to defend the right to freedom of expression and the right freedom of religion or belief by overturning a ban on three books published by a think tank promoting moderate Islam, said ARTICLE 19. The Malaysia government should follow suit by repealing or reforming the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 (PPPA), the repressive law that was used to impose the ban.

“The Court’s decision is a step forward for free speech and religious freedom in Malaysia,” said Matthew Bugher, ARTICLE 19’s Head of Asia Programme. “The fact that books promoting moderation and tolerance could be blacklisted for more than two years underscores the grave danger of discretionary censorship regimes. The government should take a cue from the Court and implement broader reforms to promote the rights of all Malaysians to express their opinions, even if they are controversial.”

In September and October 2017, the Ministry of Home Affairs imposed a ban on 22 publications, including three books issued by the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF): a Malay translation of Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty by progressive Turkish scholar Mustafa Akyol and two volumes of IRF’s Wacana Pemikiran Reformis series. The IRF includes among its aims ‘advanc[ing] … understanding of a compassionate and democratic Islam’. ARTICLE 19 joined 62 other organisations and 146 individuals in condemning the ban and a broader government crackdown on academics and intellectuals in 2017.

The Ministry invoked Section 7(1) of the PPPA in its decision to ban the books. Section 7(1) gives the Minister of Home Affairs ‘absolute discretion’ to ban media that is ‘in any manner prejudicial to or likely to be prejudicial to public order, morality, security, or which is likely to alarm public opinion, or which is or is likely to be contrary to any law or is otherwise prejudicial to or is likely to be prejudicial to public interest or national interest’. The Ministry’s announcement of the ban indicated that the IFR publications ‘promote the idea of liberalism’ and ‘deviate from the true teachings of Islam’.

In April 2019, the High Court ruled in favour of the Ministry in a case brought by the IRF challenging the ban. IRF subsequently appealed to the Court of Appeal.

ARTICLE 19 has repeatedly warned that PPPA is incompatible with international human rights law and standards relating to freedom of expression. The law gives sweeping discretion to the Minister of Home Affairs to ban publications, opening the door to arbitrary and discriminatory application. Moreover, the vaguely defined criteria established by Section 7 fail to comply with the requirement under international human rights law that restrictions on expression be formulated with specific precision to allow individuals to regulate their behavior—the requirement of legality—and be narrowly tailored to address a legitimate state objective—the requirement of legitimacy.

While campaigning prior to the 2018 general elections, the Pakatan Harapan government made strong commitments to reform laws and policies that restrict freedom of expression. The PPPA was among several laws that Pakatan Harapan expressly promised to revoke. However, since coming to power, the Pakatan Harapan government has backed away from some commitments and has been slow to implement others.

“For more than three decades, the Printing Presses and Publications Act has been a vehicle for suppressing public discourse and trampling on religious freedoms”, said Matthew Bugher. “The Malaysian government should reward the trust of voters by following through on its commitments to reforming repressive laws and promoting freedom of expression.”