XPA 2017 country profile: Malaysia

Civic Space 10 min read
ARTICLE 19

Population:

30.7 million

System of Government:  

Federal constitutional monarchy with elective monarchy. Ruling government/coalition has remained unchanged for 60 years. 

Legislative Structure:

Parliament is the national legislature. Parliament has two chambers: the popularly elected House of Representatives and the appointed Senate. The Monarch is the Head of State.

Freedom of expression: key legislation and instruments

Freedom of expression is guaranteed under Article 10(a) of the Malaysian Constitution.

Malaysia has not signed or ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which guarantees the right to freedom of expression under Article 19. No progress has been made towards ratification of the ICCPR.

In 2012, the Prime Minister pledged to repeal the Sedition Act 1948, but no noticeable step has been taken since then to repeal the Act.[1]

Legislation, such as the Sedition Act 1948, Communication and Multimedia Act 1998 (CMA), and Censorship Act, are being challenged in the courts by some of the individuals who have been prosecuted under these laws.

Major political developments 2016 /17

2017 marked a year-long celebration of the 60th anniversary of Malaysian independence.[2] However, rather than celebrating progress in terms of protection of freedom of expression and information, there has been regression in many areas and freedom of opinion, expression and information both on- and offline continued to be curtailed in Malaysia.

After the general elections of 2008 and 2013, the government has further restricted and closed down civic space and, despite promises of repeal, has steadily increased its use of the Sedition Act to censor voices deemed critical of the government.

In April 2017, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, speaking at the WAN-IFRA 16th Asian Media Awards, stated that “free speech is thriving in Malaysia”, and appeared to lay blame on foreign activists for creating the “perception” of crackdowns on free speech in the country. But in practice, human rights defenders, journalists, opposition politicians, artists and social media users continue to face arrest, investigations (which often lead to no further action and can be viewed as harassment), criminal charges and protracted trials for merely exercising their right to freedom of expression. Further, there have also been instances of human rights defenders and cartoonists being barred from entering and leaving the country, like Zunar, who has been facing a travel ban since June 2016.

Key freedom of expression issues

Repressive legal framework

Laws such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, the Official Secrets Act 1972, Sedition Act 1948, CMA, and the Film Censorship Act 2002 are part of the powerful legal machinery that represses freedom of expression and information in Malaysia.

In the last 10 years, many human rights defenders, journalists, opposition politicians, cartoonists, artists and social media users continue to face arrest, investigations, criminal charges and protracted trials for merely exercising their right to freedom of expression under all these legislations that we mentioned above.

Legal harassment of human rights defenders

There are several notable cases of use of the Sedition Act, including Adam Adli, who was charged in 2013 for calling a street demonstration after the General Election[3]; cartoonist Zunar, who faces nine charges under the law from 2015[4]; and Khalid Ismath who was charged with three counts under the Sedition Act and eleven counts under the CMA[5] for criticising the Johor royalty.

Lena Hendry is the first human rights defender to be prosecuted and sentenced under the Film Censorship Act 2002. Hendry was originally charged in September 2013 for screening No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka, a documentary about the Sri Lankan armed conflict. In March 2016, the Magistrates Court of Kuala Lumpur dismissed the case, but the dismissal was overturned in September 2016 by the Malaysian High Court. The judgment has set a dangerous precedent for the right to freedom of expression in Malaysia, where screening a film on a human rights issue considered sensitive to the government without their permission can be met with imprisonment or a serious fine several years after the screening took place. 

Defamation and social media

Section 233(1)(a) of the CMA criminalises the “improper use of network facilities or services”, creating an extremely vague offence which is invoked to target social media users who post comments allegedly offensive to national leaders.[6] The provision has been regularly used by law enforcement authorities and the Attorney General to arrest, investigate, and charge individuals expressing progressive or dissenting views.

In May 2017, a new “advisory for group admins” released by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission attempted to co-opt social media users to censor third-party content which the government considers “inappropriate”.[7]

Undermining media freedom

Lack of media pluralism compounds the legal restrictions and closure of civic space. Ownership and control of all mainstream media is held by the component parties of the ruling coalition that is known as Barisan Nasional (National Coalition).

Media personnel continue to face obstacles while performing their duties, particularly when reporting on public interest cases such as corruption scandals that implicate the government, or issues deemed ‘sensitive’, such as religion. Journalists reporting from parliament also face restrictions due to a recent decision by Parliament Speaker, Pandikar Amin Mulia, to ban media from operating in the lobby of Parliament.[8] The ban that was issued by the Speaker is supposedly an attempt to stop MPs from being misquoted by journalists during interviews. The ban impacts the ability of journalists to freely approach lawmakers to discuss issues concerning governance and parliamentary proceedings. This latest ban is part of an ongoing crackdown on journalists accessing information.

Laws including the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 and the Sedition Act 1948 are regularly invoked against members of the press, as can be illustrated by charges made against the CEO of Malaysiakini, a popular alternative online media portal,[9] and investigations against journalists from The Star newspaper.[10].

In 2015 and in 2016, the government blocked news sites such as Sarawak Report and Asia Sentinel which have criticised Prime Minister Najib. There are ongoing lawsuits against media companies such as Malaysiakini. In March 2016, the arrest and deportation of two Australian Broadcasting Corporation journalists for asking questions to Prime Minister Najib related to the 1MDB corruption allegations signified a worsening crackdown on media freedom. This was also seen during the 2016 Sarawak state election when a UK Channel 4 News journalist was barred from a post-election press conference attended by the Prime Minister.

Prospects for change

In 2018, Malaysia will go through its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) cycle at the UN Human Rights Council. In September 2017, the formal visit of UN Special Rapporteur on cultural rights was a positive step taken by the government as a result of its engagement in the UPR process. After 2018, with civil society continuing to voice clear demands, there may be positive outcomes with regards to official invitations to UN Special Rapporteurs.

An election is likely to be held in 2018. More challenges to freedom of expression and information can be expected, particularly in the context of election-related repression and attempts to further limit civic space in Malaysia.

 

[1] The Malay Mail Online, http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/sedition-act-will-go-pm-promises-again

[2] The Federation of Malaya achieved its independence in 1957. In 1963, The Federation of Malaya was joined by Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore to form “Malaysia”. Singapore was later expelled from the Federation in 1965.

[3] The Star, https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2013/05/23/adam-adli-claims-trial-to-sedition-charge/

[4] Zunar was charged with 9 counts under the Sedition Act 1948 for his cartoons

[5] He was denied bail and held in solitary confinement for close to 3 weeks and subsequently charged under the Sedition Act 1948 (4 counts) and the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (9 counts)

[6] Malaysiakini, https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/392368

[7]Malaysiakini, http://www.malaysiakini.com/letters/381718

[8] Article 19, http://www.ifj.org/nc/news-single-view/backpid/33/article/malaysian-journalists-banned-from-parliament-lobby/

[9] Article 19, https://www.article19.org/resources.php/resource/38750/en/malaysia:-drop-charges-against-independent-news-portal-malaysiakin

[10] Article 19, https://www.article19.org/resources.php/resource/38773/en/malaysia:-cease-investigations-of-the-star-newspaper-and-its-journalists