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Peaceful expression 'criminalized' in Malaysia

Rights group says Prime Minister Najib Razak government's is tightening the noose on anyone expressing political discontent

Peaceful expression 'criminalized' in Malaysia

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak during the 14th ASEAN-India Summit in Vientiane, Laos on Sept. 8. Those criticizing his administration or commenting on the government's handling of a major corruption scandal have been particular targets of the country's Sedition Act and the Communications and Multimedia Act. (Photo by AFP) reporter, Kuala Lumpur

October 13, 2016

The Malaysian government's bid to hang on to power by any means necessary is putting the country in reverse gear, said a Human Rights Watch report released Oct. 12.

Prime Minister Najib Razak and his government are cracking down on free speech to silence allegations that he has looted the country, the organization said in the 40-page report.

"The government's actions signal an ever-broadening crackdown on freedom of expression and assembly in the country," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

"Criminalizing peaceful speech appears part of the Malaysian government's larger effort to tighten the noose on anyone expressing political discontent," he said in the report, Deepening the Culture of Fear: the Criminalization of Peaceful Expression in Malaysia.

"The authorities should cease prosecuting people for criticism or perceived insults, and the government should urgently revise its laws to meet international free expression standards," said Robertson on the Human Rights Watch website.

Malaysians expressing their dismay of the country's lack of direction on social media are also being targeted, Human Rights Watch claims.

Since Human Rights Watch's Oct. 2015 report, Creating a Culture of Fear, the Malaysian government has done little to improve the situation.

Individuals who have criticized the Najib administration especially on the corruption scandal involving the government-owned, 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), or made comments on social media deemed insulting to Najib or Malaysia's royalty, have been threatened.

Public assemblies and protests have been curbed. Inflation has risen and the value of the local currency is dropping daily.

The government has also gone to great efforts to keep controversial information out of the public domain, using the Official Secrets Act to embargo reports on the 1MDB scandal.

The report included the case of artist, Fahmi Reza, who is facing two criminal charges for posting a clown-face image of Najib on social media, with white powder on his face, arched eyebrows, and a blood-red mouth.

In June, a court sentenced Mohammed Amirul Azwan Mohammad Shakri, 19, to one year in prison under the Communications and Multimedia Act after he pleaded guilty to "insulting" the Sultan of Johor on social media.

When he appealed against his sentence, the court ordered that he instead be sent to reform school until age 21. 

Cases first examined in the Oct. 2015 report have been updated in the latest document. For example, the government has advanced the prosecution of six people charged under the Sedition Act for speeches made at a May 2013 forum protesting the outcome of the 2013 general election.

Five have so far been convicted and sentenced. In each case, the prosecution pressed for significant prison sentences. In the most recent case, Tian Chua, the vice president of the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat party, was convicted and sentenced to three months in prison and a fine of RM1,800 (US$433).

During the past year, the Malaysian government has also used the Official Secrets Act to shield the auditor general's report on the 1MDB scandal — a matter of great public interest — and to prosecute a lawmaker who allegedly disclosed information from that report.

Faced with new leaks of information, the government has also threatened to increase penalties for those convicted under the Official Secrets Act to life in prison.

Human Rights Watch reiterated its call for the government to halt the crackdown on peaceful criticism and protect freedom of expression and assembly.

"As Prime Minister Najib's political fortunes fall, Malaysia's intolerance of critical speech seems to rise. Malaysia's future as a rights-respecting nation shouldn't become hostage to defending the Najib government's reputation," Robertson said.

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