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Clampdown a return to Malaysia's 'bad old days'

Government accused of using 'abusive laws' to limit free speech and quell dissent

UCA News reporter, Kuala Lumpur

UCA News reporter, Kuala Lumpur

Published: June 17, 2020 05:02 AM GMT

Updated: June 17, 2020 05:12 AM GMT

Clampdown a return to Malaysia's 'bad old days'

A security guard checks the temperature of a shopper before allowing entry into a shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur on May 4 as Malaysia eases its coronavirus lockdown measures. (Photo: Mohd Rasfan/AFP)

Malaysia’s government is returning to its old ways of seeking to silence dissent with the help of “abusive laws” that limit freedom of speech, rights activists have warned. 

In a newly released statement, Human Rights Watch cites the example of Tashny Sukumaran, a Malaysia-based correspondent for Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post who was questioned by police last month over her reporting.

She was called in for questioning after she had written about a crackdown on migrants and asylum seekers in an area of Kuala Lumpur, ostensibly with the aim of containing the spread of Covid-19.

During several immigration raids hundreds of people were detained, including women and children, and taken to overcrowded immigration detention centers.

In a separate incident, police questioned anti-corruption activist Cynthia Gabriel, a prominent rights activist who is founding director of the Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism.

Police decided to question Gabriel after she had called for an investigation into allegations that the government was trading favors for political support.

The harassment of Gabriel, rights activists say, indicates that the recently installed administration of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin is seeking to browbeat critical voices into silence.

Meanwhile, last month Malaysian police also summoned Xavier Jayakumar, an opposition politician from the People’s Justice Party, after he criticized a government decision about a sitting arrangement in parliament.

Individual cases like this in the spate of just a few weeks are proof that Malaysian authorities are seeking to use punitive laws that limit freedom of speech to silence critics by threatening them with persecution, rights activists stress.

“Like flicking a light switch, Malaysian authorities have returned to rights-abusing practices of the past, calling journalists, activists and opposition figures into police stations to be questioned about their writing and social media posts,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

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“The government should stop trying to return to the bad old days and revise the laws to meet international standards.”

Malaysian authorities have several laws at their disposal to silence critics.

Section 233(1) of the Communications and Multimedia Act makes it an offense to produce online content or make comments online that are “indecent, obscene, false, menacing or offense in character with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass any person.”

Those found to have violated the law can be sentenced to one year in jail and slapped with a fine of 50,000 ringgit (US$11,685).

Section 504 of the Penal Code makes it possible to prosecute anyone who “intentionally insults ... any person, intending or knowing it to be likely that such provocation will cause him to break the public peace.”

Malaysians found to be in breach of the law could face up to two years in prison and a hefty fine, or both.

Meanwhile, Section 505(b) makes it illegal to publish or circulate “any statement, rumor or report with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public, or to any section of the public, whereby any person may be induced to commit an offense against the state or against public tranquility.” It, too, carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison. 

These laws are so broad and vaguely worded that they can easily be wielded by the authorities to try and silence any criticism of the government and its policies, right activists say.

“Malaysians should be able to criticize their government and its policies without fear of facing police questioning and possible criminal charges,” Robertson said.

“Instead of dusting off abusive laws for use against its critics, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s administration should amend or repeal those laws to protect everyone’s freedom of speech in Malaysia.”

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