Human Rights Watch, in a hard-hitting 147-page report, has accused the Najib government of creating a “climate of fear,” citing a long litany of incidents in which government critics and the press are under attack from authorities using broad and vaguely worded laws use to arrest, harass and intimidate them.
The report, delivered at a Kuala Lumpur press conference this morning (Oct. 27) by Human Rights Watch’s Asia director Brad Adams and the author, Linda Lakhdhir, relates in punishing detail how government intimidation has cascaded upwards along with the use of religious tension in the always-fraught ethnic equation that has plagued the country for decades.
“Prime Minister Najib Razak and the Malaysian government have repeatedly broken promises to revise laws that criminalize peaceful expression," Adams said in a prepared statement. "Instead, Malaysia has gone on a binge of prosecutions of critics. The government is making a mockery of its claims to democracy and fundamental rights by treating criticism as a crime. After the ruling coalition lost the popular vote in the 2013 elections, a crackdown on its critics began. That repression has intensified in the past year in the face of critical media coverage and rising public discontent over issues ranging from the imposition of a new Goods and Services Tax, to the government’s response to a spiraling corruption scandal involving the government-owned 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), whose board of advisers is chaired by Prime Minister Najib.
Use of draconian laws to shut down dissent has been a concern since 1987 when former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad ordered a roundup of opposition politicians, reporters and other critics under what was called “Operation Lalang” and jailed them under the colonial-era Internal Security Act.
Use of these laws has gone into overdrive with the stubborn double scandals of the state-supported 1Malaysia Development Bhd. and the prime minister’s own questionable bank accounts, which refuse to go away.
In recent weeks, Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamadi has announced that Mahathir, Prime Minister Najib Razak’s most persistent critic, himself is under investigation for criticisms made against the government during a September rally demanding a government cleanup and hinted that the nonagenarian former premier could be jailed as well.
“The recent increase in use of laws that criminalize peaceful expression is a step backward for a country that had seemed to be making progress on the protection of rights,” according to the report.
The report, titled “Creating a Culture of Fear,” was the result of 18 months of investigations in which the New York-based NGO interviewed 38 lawyers, opposition politicians, journalists, activists, members of civil society organizations, some of them multiple times, in Malaysia and London.
The cover of the report is a cartoon by Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque – commonly known by his pen name Zunar, who has been threatened by nine counts of sedition and faces up to 42 years in prison, ostensibly for complaining about the imprisonment of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, but more likely for lampooning Najib and his portly wife, Rosmah Mansor, and her expensive habits.
Hundreds of copies of Zunar’s cartoon books have been confiscated, printers have been threatened with loss of their publishing licenses and those who work with him have been threatened. Zunar continues to publish regularly in Malaysiakini, the independent news website, which itself is under constant attack by government officials.
The report calls on the Naib government to drop all pending charges against individuals and cease what it called abusive investigations and prosecutions for critical speech and participation in peaceful assemblies. It accuses the government of using the legal process to harass and detain critics, and demands amendment or repeal of laws that impose criminal penalties for speech or assembly to bring those laws into line with international standards.
Najib’s first term between 2009 and 2013 cemented an international reputation as a reformer – a reputation always in danger of close inspection. It was characterized by the rescission of several laws including the draconian Internal Security Act which was used by Mahathir in Operation Lalang and which allowed for indefinite incarceration without trial. That reputation, which got Najib invitations to the White House in Washington, DC and golf with President Barack Obama, didn’t last. Now Najib ranks as an embarrassing Washington miscalculation.
Although Najib had promised to repeal the notorious Sedition Act, after the 2013 general election, he strengthened it under fire from hardliners in the United Malays National Organization to shut down dissent. A 2012 replacement for the ISA, the Security Offences and Special Measures Act, has been used along with the sedition law with increasing frequency and almost the same effect as the ISA.
“Faced with declining popularity and rising public discontent on a range of issues, the prime minister has responded by cracking down on critics and supporting new laws, such as the 2015 Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), that replicate many of the flaws in the laws that were repealed,” the Human Rights Watch report charged.
The spiraling corruption scandals have led the government to block websites and suspend newspapers reporting on them and to announce plans to strengthen its power to crack down on speech on the Internet. While the original focus of the crackdown appeared to be mainly opposition politicians, as public criticism of the government has spread, students, journalists, civil society activists and ordinary citizens have all been caught up in the wave of repression.
Among those arrested, according to the report, was student activist Adam Adli bin Abdul Halim, who has been hauled in six times for participating in peaceful protests against the government and for calling for others to do the same. In September 2014, he was convicted of sedition for a speech protesting the 2013 general election and sentenced to a year in jail.
Another is Chua Tian Chang, vice-president of Malaysia’s opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat, who faces sedition charges in one case and is being investigated for sedition in another, while the government is appealing his acquittal of sedition charges in a third case.
The weapon most frequently used in this crackdown, as the Adli and Chua cases illustrate, has been the Sedition Act. At least five opposition members of parliament have been charged for criticizing the government, government officials, or the judiciary since the elections, and three have been charged under other criminal laws. If convicted and sentenced to more than a year in prison or fined more than RM2,000 (approximately US$482), they would be disqualified from serving in parliament for five years after their release from any term of imprisonment. The police have investigated, and in many cases arrested and held in custody for several days, at least 20 opposition politicians since August 2014, some of them multiple times.
Maria Chin Abdullah, chair of the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (Bersih), has been charged with participating in an illegal “street protest” in February, when she attended one of a series of rallies protesting a Federal Court guilty verdict for opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. The charges were filed a week after Bersih held a 34-hour rally calling for institutional reforms to combat corruption and for Prime Minister Najib to explain his handling of 1MDB or resign.
The Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) has been used to limit the number of printed newspapers, suspend publication of newspapers that report on corruption, deter printing presses from printing books critical of the government, and even to ban the Bersih logo. The Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) has been used to block websites reporting on corruption, penalize radio stations for airing discussions of matters of public interest, and arrest and prosecute users of social media.
“Laws that impose criminal penalties for peaceful expression are of particular concern
because of their chilling effect on free speech,” Human Rights Watch said. “As the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression has stated, with such laws in place, individuals face the constant threat of being arrested, held in pretrial detention, subjected to expensive criminal trials, fines and imprisonment, as well as the social stigma associated with having a criminal record. Comments on the government’s handling of religious issues have also resulted in arrests and sedition charges.
Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder Steven Gan of Malaysiakini told Human Rights Watch he routinely has to deal with lawsuits, as well as other forms of harassment, including having the police come to the office at least once a month. In March, three editors, the chief executive, and the publisher of The Malaysian Insider online news portal were arrested for sedition and violation of the Communications and Multimedia Act for reporting that the Malaysian Council of Rulers had rejected a proposal to amend federal law to allow the implementation of Sharia-based punishments in the state of Kelantan, which the Council of Rulers denied.
“The government crackdown on speech in Malaysia has affected not only politicians and
activists, but also ordinary citizens, particularly those who use social media,” the report continued. “As the project coordinator for Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram), a highly respected Malaysian human rights organization that has been documenting the increased use of the Sedition Act, observed: Last year they started with politicians, then branched out to lecturers and activists. People started realizing that it affects not just political people but also ordinary people.”
Unknown numbers of ordinary citizens have been charged with sedition or violation of the security offenses act for a wide variety of reasons.
“Faced with rising public opposition, the Malaysian government is also cracking down on
individuals involved in protests,” the report continues. “The government initially did so by invoking section 9(5) of the Peaceful Assembly Act (PAA), which makes it a criminal offense to hold a public assembly without giving the government 10 days’ advance notice. Despite the fact that this provision was held unconstitutional by the Malaysian Court of Appeal on April 25, 2014, the government continued to invoke section 9(5) when arresting protesters until as late as April 2015, while also adding charges of “unlawful assembly” under section 143 of the penal code.