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.