Black day for democracy as Malaysia extends sedition law online

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and its affiliate the National Union of Journalists, Peninsular Malaysia (NUJM) strongly deplore the latest amendments to Malaysia’s Sedition Act (1948) which effectively expand the powers of the 1948 legislation to also prosecute and censor online media.

Malaysian cartoonist Zulkifli Anwar Ulhaque, popularly known as Zunar, poses with handcuffs prior to a book-launch event in Kuala Lumpur on February 14, 2015.  Zunar, one of Malaysia's best-known political cartoonists, was arrested for sedition over a Twitter posting that criticised the jailing of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, the artist's wife said.  AFP PHOTO/ MANAN VATSYAYANA

Malaysian cartoonist Zulkifli Anwar Ulhaque, popularly known as Zunar, poses with handcuffs prior to a book-launch event in Kuala Lumpur on February 14, 2015. Zunar, one of Malaysia’s best-known political cartoonists, was arrested for sedition over a Twitter posting that criticised the jailing of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, the artist’s wife said. AFP PHOTO/ MANAN VATSYAYANA

The expansion of the Act passed through Malaysia’s Dewan Rakyat (Parliament) on Friday, April 10 and has followed a series of increasingly intimidatory tactics by Malaysian authorities to crack down on freedom of expression and free speech under the guise of sedition. The IFJ and NUJM call on the Malaysian government to immediately repeal the amendments which extend the maximum jail term from the current three years to 20 years.

The Sedition Act amendment makes it illegal to incite religious hatred and now allow authorities to ban and block online media deemed to be seditious in the eyes of the government. The passing of the amendments followed 14 hours of debate, which government opposition said was “a black day” for democracy and freedom of expression in Malaysia.

The last law amendment comes at a time when Malaysia’s freedom of expression is increasingly under threat:

  • On April 3, cartoonist Zulfiki ‘Zunar’ Anwar Uljaqur was charged with nine counts of sedition following his arrest on February 10 for tweets and cartoons he published following the sodomy case against Anwar Ibrahim. Zunar is currently in jail, with bail set at 13,500 RM (USD 6,207) and could face 43 years imprisonment if found guilty. This is the second time Zunar has been charged under the Sedition Act, after he was charged in 2010.

 

  • On March 30 and 31, five journalists, including Ho Kay Tat, publisher of The Edge, Jahabar Sadiq, chief executive of The Malaysian Insider, Lionel Morais, managing editor of The Malaysian Insider, Amin Shah Iskandar, the Bahasa news editor and Zulfiki Sulong, the analysis editor, were arrested under Section 4 of the Sedition Act over the news portals reporting of Islamic criminal laws (hudud). Each were released after been held in custody for 24 hours.

 

  • On March 31, Aisyah Tajuddin, a radio journalist with BFM 89.9 received death and rape threats via social media after a video aired where Tajuddin questioned PAS-led (Pan Malaysian Islamic Party) Kelantan government attempts to implement Islamic criminal laws (hudud) when many in the state are still suffering from the 2014/2015 floods.

 

  • Last year, on September 4, Malaysiakini journalist, Susan Loone was arrested after she wrote an article including quotes from Penany Exevcutive Councillor, Phee Boon Poh, criticising his treatment in police custody. Loone was questioned and interrogated for nine hours and released on bail.

Malaysia’s press freedom has been on a steady decline for a number of years under Prime Minister Najib Razak of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) the leading party in Malaysia’s ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition. In 2012, Razak said in his election campaign that should he be re-elected he would repeal the draconian Sedition Act. However, following his 2013 victory the Malaysian leader has instead increasingly used the Sedition Act to silence government critics under the guise of unity and national security and to “to protect the sanctity of Islam”.

Freedom House listing Malaysia’s press as ‘not free’ for 12 consecutive years and in 2014 the country’s press freedom index with Reporter’s Without Borders plunged to its lowest level 147 out of 180.

Schave de Rozario, general secretary of the NUJM said: “NUJM strongly calls for the ruling leaders to think of the repercussions they are deciding on and respect the rights and dignity of their citizens. There are just too many issues going wrong and we ask the government to stop unnecessary punishments on its people and rethink their strategy and values.”

The IFJ said: “This colonial era sedition law and these amendments are clearly being used to  intimidate and threaten journalists and stifle freedom of expression in Malaysia.  The introduction of excessive jail terms and questionable motivations for sedition charges in Malaysia places puts the country back in the dark ages in terms of press freedom as the government backpedals on its past promises and uses everything in its power to silence critics and oppositional voices.”

Both the IFJ and NUJM call on the Malaysian government honour the commitment made in 2013 to repeal the Sedition Act and to respect constitutional commitments to a free and independent media. The IFJ and NUJM also call for all current charges against independent journalists to be withdrawn and urgently call for the release of the cartoonist Zunar.

For more on the sedition law read the IFJ blog here.