Expression

On 23rd April 2021, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released its latest press freedom index. Brunei’s ranking dropped two places to 154 out of 180 countries.

Brunei is an absolute monarchy in which the Sultan, the head of state, exercises executive power and in which there are no elected representatives at national level. The Sultan continues to wield power under a long-standing state of emergency imposed in 1984.

RSF reported that self-censorship is the rule for journalists working for state-owned Radio Television Brunei and for the leading daily newspapers, which are directly owned by the Sultan’s family.

Observers reported prohibitions against covering a variety of topics and not being able to report on topics such as crime until there has been an official press release by the relevant government agency.

The authorities are free to intervene in the activities of journalists, but it is rarely necessary because repressive legislation, rendered even harsher by the introduction of a very strict version of the Sharia, suffices to deter any comments that could be interpreted as blasphemy or criticism of the Sultanate. Publishing any content that adversely affects the “prominence of the National Philosophy” is punishable by three years in prison under the sedition law.

Bloggers who post any independently-reported information risk being prosecuted on a criminal defamation charge even if they deleted the content soon after posting. Any “malicious” comment is punishable by five years in prison.

As previously documented, during Brunei’s review at the UN Human Rights Council in May 2019, states including Norway, Germany, Australia, Portugal and the US called on the Brunei government to review its legislation to effectively guarantee the rights to freedom of expression, to review the Local Newspapers Order (Portugal), lift the state of emergency (France, Spain, UK) and to put an end to censorship of the media (Czech Republic and Slovenia). The government rejected all these recommendations in September 2019.

Brunei’s civic space rating was downgraded by the CIVICUS Monitor to ‘repressed’ in December 2019 due to the the revised Sharia (Islamic) penal code that was enacted in April 2019 that has further increased these restrictions by imposing the death penalty for various offences including insulting the Prophet Mohammed and punishments against individuals for publications against Islamic beliefs.