Seditious times for Malaysia’s media

Malaysia’s press freedom has been on a steady decline but the tightening of the vice on freedom of expression has come via the draconian Sedition Act, writes Jim Nolan. 

In his 2012 book, The Dictators Learning Curve, William J Dobson bracketed Malaysia with Russia, China, Venezuela and Egypt as among the world’s authoritarian regimes keen to disguise themselves as democracies. 

A Malaysian Lawyer holding a placard outside the Parliament house during a rally to repeal the Sedition Act in Kuala Lumpur. The increased use of the Sedition Act against government critics has created a "climate of fear" and has had a "chilling effect" on freedom of speech in Malaysia, observers and activists say. AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN

A Malaysian Lawyer holding a placard outside the Parliament house during a rally to repeal the Sedition Act in Kuala Lumpur. The increased use of the Sedition Act against government critics has created a “climate of fear” and has had a “chilling effect” on freedom of speech in Malaysia, observers and activists say. AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN

Events in 2015 have confirmed Malaysia’s place in that dubious company with the extension of sedition laws, the arrest of three editors and two executives of ‘the Malaysian Insider’ news portal on accusations of sedition and – most seriously – the charging on April 3 of cartoonist Zulikiflee Anwar Ulhaque (also known as Zunar) with nine counts of sedition for critical tweets he posted in February. If convicted, Zunar faces up to 43 years in prison. Zunar’s trial is due to commence on May 20.

Malaysia’s increasingly desperate slide to the bottom of the press freedom rankings stands in marked contrast of the soothing words of a few years ago where it touted itself as the coming ‘Multimedia Super Corridor’, which would provide a ‘bill of guaranteesfor high-tech companies to locate there, free of any fear of state intrusion. Far from its promise to establish a ‘conducive legal and regulatory framework of intellectual property and cyberlaws’, its behaviour now stands that promise on its head. 

Principle 7 of the Bill of Guarantee was headlined ‘to ensure no censorship of the internet’ and its objective to ‘realise the vision for Malaysia to be a major global ICT hub’. The caveats and qualifications on this ‘guarantee’ and the recent acts of the government show exactly how hollow these assurances really are. Ominously, it stated ‘laws prohibiting dissemination of, for example, indecent/obscene or other illegal materials will continue to apply. The revival of old colonial era laws and now the amendments to new ones show that ‘censorship of the internet’ is the only real ‘guarantee’ that the government now offers.

So embarrassing has this state of affairs become that it merited a special feature article in this week’s Economist (April 11, 2015) which describes the Najib regime as ‘lurching to illiberalism’.  Already besieged civil liberties have suffered another serious blow.  Like many other opportunist authoritarian counties, Malaysia has utilised the ‘war on terror’ as a useful shield behind which self-serving stripping of further freedoms will occur.  As the Economist points out, this is a particularly thin excuse – many more Belgians have gone to fight in Syria with ISIS than have Malaysians and the internal security challenges faced by Thailand and the Philippines are not shared by Malaysia.

In reality these moves are all about squashing political opposition and the inevitable victim of such measures is the free press – or in Malaysia’s case, what is left of one.

An international campaign to repeal the new laws and to release Zunar and drop the changes against him may now be expected.  Perhaps the opposition will also reach out to corporations who signed up to the ‘Multimedia Super Corridor– and who must surely now be feeling decidedly uneasy – to pressure Najib to live up to his government’s promises.  After all, a special mention in the Economist – up there with Russia, Iran and other authoritarians – must rankle.

So much for Najib’s 2012 pledge to repeal the 1948 Sedition Act. His newly self-assigned promotion on that ‘dictator’s learning curve’ is bad news for press freedom not only in Malaysia and for Malaysians, but for the entire region.

Jim Nolan is a pro-bono legal consultant for the IFJ Asia-Pacific