By: Our Correspondent

With Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak off on a “working visit” to the United Kingdom, followed by a trip to the Baltic for the Russia-ASEAN summit, the government is working to keep the news positive, or at least to stop unfavorable overseas publicity.

On May 15, Maria Chin Abdullah, the head of the voting reform organization Bersih, was stopped at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on her way to South Korea to accept the Guangju Prize for Human Rights, which is given to individuals for promoting and advancing human rights, democracy and peace. The award was to be given to Bersih and Vietnamese activist Nguyen Dan Que.

“Najib is very insecure,” said Wong Chin Huat, a senior adviser to Bersih. “He is afraid of drawing more attention to Malaysia. His fear is the Guangju Award. It is a message that Bersih is getting recognition in a prestigious forum. I think it was counterproductive. More people  are paying attention now since Maria was blocked.” 

Chin Abdullah and nine other opposition activists were arrested in 2015 and hit with charges ranging from unlawful assembly to sedition. However, no reason was cited for in barring her from leaving the country.

Broad attack on critics

Critics say the decision is one of a broad range of strategies including writing legislation, expected to pass this year, to limit dissent on the Internet, and continuing to take opponents to court on sedition charges.

This week, the government lost in the Court of Appeal in trying to sentence activist Hishamuddin Rais to nine months in prison for sedition. But Hishamuddin is one of at least 91 people who have been charged with the offense since Najib and other government officials have been caught up in the massive scandal over the 1Malaysia Development Bhd. fund, which is backed by the Ministry of Finance.

As much as the government attempts to limit unfavorable publicity, however, major news organizations including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Guardian, Al Jazeera and Australian news media have continued to pound away at a long string of revelations of serious crookedry. Criminal investigations are being pursued in at least five countries, with the US Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York taking the lead in probing charges of money laundering by Najib family members and close friends.

Domestically, a long list of opposition politicians and other figures are awaiting trial for bringing up revelations about the 1MDB fiasco that embarrass Najib. The arrests, charges and investigations for sedition are almost five times as many as during the law’s first 50 years of existence, according to Amnesty International.

Bersih warned

Most of the Bersih leadership was told a year ago that they must check with the Immigration Department before leaving the country, Wong said. However, he said he has traveled overseas several times. Abdullah herself said she had gone to New York, Geneva and London in previous months. Others including former Bersih chairperson Ambiga Sreenevasan received the same warning although most, like Abdullah, have traveled overseas previously.

Sreenevasan, Wong said, had recently flown to Shanghai to visit students there and encountered no trouble. “I think they originally wanted to ban us, but they didn’t because of fear of a backlash. They lifted the ban.”

With the Malaysian parliament reconvening today, May 16, a coalition of nine civil society organizations including the Malaysian Center for Independent Journalism issued a statement of concern that lawmakers will limit freedom of expression on digital platforms.  With the mainstream press in the hands of the major political parties, the internet has become the vehicle of choice for opposition news.

Mahathir’s Promise

In the mid-1990s, in an effort to aid the development of cyber society and attract multinational media organizations to Malaysia, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad famously vowed that the internet would remain unrestricted. That has led to a quandary for the government. Now an estimated 67 percent of Malaysians turn to the Internet for news despite efforts on the part of the government to block access and disrupt content.

Earlier this year, Sarawak Report and Asia Sentinel both were blocked by the Media Development Authority. Malaysian Insider, one of the most influential of the news sites, was blocked by authorities and forced to go out of business when its revenue model failed.

Under the proposed legislation, according to the Center for Independent Journalism, internet businesses would be forced to remove content without a court order. Internet service or content providers would be required to set up data retention information on users.

“Decisions to restrict freedom of information and expression should follow due process of the law and international standards and norms. It should be clear, least restrictive, necessary and proportionate. This at minimum, requires a court order,” the joint statement said. “We call on all stakeholders to defend internet freedom and to keep it free from arbitrary and abusive regulations. We must remind the powers that be that Malaysia committed to no censorship of the internet when the industry started and any policy change must be done with thorough negotiation and consultation with all civil society.”