Malaysia Tightens the Sedition Screws Again

Malaysia is continuing its drastic crackdown on dissent, sentencing student activist Adam Adli Halim to a year in jail for statements he made at a forum in Kuala Lumpur in May accusing the government of voter fraud.

“Adam Adli is the latest victim of this sustained assault against freedom of expression in Malaysia,” according to a statement by Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch in Bangkok. “By throwing people in prison for political speech, Prime Minister Najib and his government are showing the kind of authoritarian tendencies one usually associates with single-party rule rather than democracy."

The darkening picture is one of a government increasingly concerned that, after 50-odd years in power, it is losing its grip although the opposition is in equal disarray from internal dissension. It is also clear that the law is being used selectively, with inflammatory anti-minority statements made by the likes of Ibrahim Ali, the firebrand leader of the Malay supremacy NGO Perkasa, and other Malay supremacists ignored by the authorities.

So far, 14 people have been arrested for sedition over the past year, at least one for statements made as long as two years ago. Another was arrested over comments earlier this year about a five-year-old political controversy.

The first was the former Perak State Governor, Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin, from the opposition Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS, who allegedly defamed Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak in remarks he made in Ipoh in April of 2012 concerning the 2009 Perak political crisis. Critics have accused Najib of bribing three Perak state assembly members to switch from the opposition to independent, allowing the Barisan Nasional to oust the state government won by the opposition in the 2009 election.

The second case involves Dr. Azmi Sharom, a University of Malaya professor who was charged over comments printed in a column in the Malay Mail over the 2009 Perak events. Those who read the column have been unable to figure out just what the charge relates to, illustrating the problem with the law, which critics say is so vague that it can be used against almost any form of speech.

Najib promised to do away with the sedition law, the even more draconian Internal Security Act, which allows for unlimited detention without trial, and elements of the Printing Presses Act which limits the establishment of a free press. However, after the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, and particularly the United Malays National Organization, lost the popular vote in May 2013 to the opposition for the first time since 1969 – although retaining a majority in parliament through gerrymandering – Najib came under a blistering attack from former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his allies, who accused him of weakness in corralling dissent

As a result, while the Internal Security Act was repealed, it was replaced with one almost as strict, much of it based on the US Patriot Act pushed through after the 9/11 attacks. The Printing and Presses Act was modified slightly but it still hamstrings the independent press. The Sedition Act has remained in place and is being used as a weapon to throttle almost any comment by the opposition. Those found guilty face the possibility of five years in prison and a fine of RM5,000.

“The government of Prime Minister Najib Razak should repeal the Sedition Act, which has repeatedly been used to prosecute people for political purposes in violation of the right to freedom of expression,” Human Rights Watch said in its statement. “The government is increasingly using the Sedition Act to instill fear and silence in political opponents and critics."

Four opposition leaders have been charged -- Party Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) Vice President Tian Chua and Democratic Action Party (DAP) Vice President Teresa Kok, along with PKR Vice President N. Surendran and Khalid Samad of Parti Islam se-Malaysia

Surendran was charged after he attacked an appellate court decision against Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim as an “attempt to jail the opposition leader of Malaysia,” saying Prime Minister Najib was responsible. International rights organizations have accused the government of trumping up charges of sodomy against Anwar in an effort to thwart the opposition from coming to power.

A High Court in Kuala Lumpur acquitted Anwar on the basis that physical evidence had been irrevocably tainted, only to have the prosecution appeal the case to the appellate court, where the acquittal was reversed. The Federal Court, Malaysia’s top tribunal, is expected to rule on Anwar’s appeal in late October. The opposition leader is said to be expecting to be jailed again.

In June, authorities charged Kok with sedition for a satirical Chinese New Year video “Onederful Malaysia CNY 2014,” which depicts Kok as host of a talk show program with three volunteers playing characters before a small audience. The video makes no mention of any individual or the government although it is an extremely amateurish attempt to make fun of affairs in Malaysia, with one of the three characters a fat woman who some have suggested was a caricature of Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor.

DAP strategist Chua was charged with sedition for remarks made more than a year ago, on May 13, 2013, accusing the government of vote fraud and suggesting that under current election regulations, the opposition coalition could never win an election.

Others charged include five activists. On September 5, Safwan Anang, former chair of Malaysian Students Solidarity, an activist group, received 10 months in prison, although he was released on RM 15,000 ($4,700) bail pending his appeal. Cases are still pending against activists Hishamuddin Rais, Haris Ibrahim, and Tamrin bin Abdul Ghafar.

As Asia Sentinel reported earlier this month, Susan Loone, a journalist at Malaysiakini, an online newspaper critical of the government and ruling coalition, was arrested and questioned for nine hours on suspicion of sedition for her article that included statements by Phee Boone Poh, a Penang State executive councilor. Police had earlier detained Phee because of his role as chairman of the Penang People’s Voluntary Patrol, an auxiliary force connected with the state government that the inspector general of police alleges is illegal. Loone’s story reported Phee saying that during four hours of police questioning he was “treated like a criminal.”

The government has also investigated several senior opposition politicians but ultimately charged them under sections of the penal code that severely restrict expression, according to Human Rights Watch. On August 28, the authorities charged Rafizi Ramli, a senior PKR member of parliament, with “intentional insult with intent to provoke a breach of the peace” after he suggested that UMNO was trying to undermine the PKR leadership in Selangor State by using policies emphasizing race and religion.

“The Malaysian government has apparently decided that its vaguely worded Sedition Act is its new catch-all charge against its most vocal critics,” Human Rights Watch’s Robertson said. “Prime Minister Najib should realize that throwing activists and opposition leaders in jail for what they say is a slippery slope to authoritarian rule.”