Malaysia: Blocking of websites, use of sedition law and harassment of protesters, undermines fundamental freedoms
Malaysia’s civic space is still rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. Despite its membership of the Human Rights Council, the government continues to fall short on its human rights protections at home. Among ongoing concerns are the array of restrictive laws especially the Communication and Multimedia Act 1998 (CMA), often used to silence dissent online and the harassment of human rights defenders. Peaceful protesters continue to be hauled in by the police for questioning under the Peaceful Assembly Act. Malaysia has also yet to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
Ahead of its human rights review at the UN Human Rights Council in January 2024, CIVICUS, SUARAM and FORUM-ASIA have submitted a report highlighting the failure to implement recommendations received during the 2018 review on concerns related to fundamental freedoms.
In recent months, news websites and blogs were blocked, an opposition leader was charged with sedition, while the cancellation of a concert was deemed heavy handed and excessive. Police have called up organisers of demonstrations related to labour rights and around a hunger strike protesting a security law. There was also a raid and seizure of Pride watches to intimidate LGBTQI+ persons. An improvised explosive device was found under the car of human rights defender Siti Kasim while a refugee rights activist from Myanmar was abducted with her family.
New websites and blogs blocked
On 28th June 2023, it was reported that the news portal MalaysiaNow was inaccessible to some users and was likely being blocked by certain Malaysian internet service providers (ISPs). According to MalaysiaNow editor Abdar Rahman Koya, the website had been inaccessible at least to service providers Celcom and Maxis users since the day before.
The digital rights advocacy group Sinar Project said it found similar evidence of blocking on service providers Celcom and Digi. Gerakan Media Merdeka urged the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) to come clean, citing findings on an online connectivity tool that the website had been blocked through DNS tampering.
DNS tampering is a common method used in Malaysia to censor “undesirable” online content including pornography, online gambling and violent extremist sites. This has also been used to block legitimate news sites in the past, including Malaysiakini’s election results site during the 14th general election in 2018.
Responding to the development, Communications and Multimedia Minister Fahmi Fadzil reportedly said that “No directive has been given to block any media or news portal”.
On 3rd July 2023, the blog of a political commentator was restricted. Raja Petra Kamarudin, who has been running the Malaysia Today website from the United Kingdom for more than a decade, said he noticed that his website could not be accessed by a large section of readers. Tests on global internet censorship measuring site OONI confirmed that access to Malaysia Today had been blocked for users of at least two ISPs in Malaysia – Maxis and Celcom.
On 25th July 2023, another website critical of the government was blocked. The site is a blog run by former Wangsa Maju MP Wee Choo Keong, who is known for his vocal criticism of the links between big businesses and politicians as well as revelations of corruption in Malaysia's financial sector. The block was confirmed through a message from the server host which said the site was being blocked by the MCMC.
On 7th August 2023, it was reported that the government had blocked access to the website UtusanTV.com to at least some internet users in Malaysia. Attempts to access the website would be redirected to a standard government notice stating: “this website is not available in Malaysia as it violates the national law”.
In a statement, journalist group Gerakan Media Merdeka said the MCMC must have a clear mechanism for blocking online content, especially when news portals are involved. The group said: “the mechanism should also include to provide prior notice or warning to the targeted media, before a block is enforced."
Opposition leader charged with sedition
Prosecutors charged an opposition leader with two counts of sedition under Section 4(1)(a) of the Sedition Act 1948, for insulting the country’s sultans. Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor, a politician with the conservative Islamic party, PAS, appeared in court to face the charges on 18th July 2023. He pleaded not guilty.
Sanusi’s remarks, made in a political speech in early July 2023, questioned decisions taken by royalty regarding the formation of government at the federal and state level. Following his court appearance, Sanusi, who is also the chief minister of Kedah state, accused the government of stifling free speech.
If found guilty, Sanusi faces up to three years in prison and a maximum penalty of RM 5,000 (around USD 1,100).
The colonial-era Sedition Act is routinely abused by authorities to suppress dissent and silence opponents. The law has also been used to stifle discourse concerning racial and ethnic groups, religion and Malaysian royalty. In February 2023, the Home Minister said that there were 367 investigations opened under the Sedition Act 1948 from 2018 to 2022, with only five cases tried in court.
Law and institutional reform minister Azalina Othman said on 25th July that the Cabinet had agreed to review and limit the scope of the country’s sedition law to those who insult royalty. However, Malaysian Bar Council president Karen Cheah said the colonial-era legislation should be repealed as it was archaic and that “the way forward is to enact the national harmony bills.”
Human rights group Lawyers for Liberty said the plan to amend and retain the Sedition Act 1948 is an "unacceptable betrayal of the promise of reform". They added the law “is so vaguely and widely couched that it is near impossible for a member of the public to know which type of comment will be deemed seditious.”
Previously in May 2023, nine civil society organisations wrote an open letter to the Malaysian Minister of Home Affairs and the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Law and Institutional Reform) to urge the repeal of the Sedition Act, which is currently subject to challenge in the Court of Appeals.
Cancellation of concert heavy handed and excessive
On 22nd July 2023, a festival was cancelled by the government after British singer Matty Healy attacked the country's anti-LGBT laws. During the performance by his band The 1975 at the Good Vibes Festival, Healy addressed the audience in a profanity-laden speech before kissing the bass player. The band then ended their set, claiming officials ordered them off the stage.
Five Arts Centre, a dynamic collective of Malaysian artists, activists and producers said that the decision “to cancel an entire festival based on one band’s actions is extremely heavy-handed and reactionary”. The group added that “this follows a dangerous recent trend in Malaysia of authorities shutting down long-standing arts and cultural venues and events based on the actions of individuals in extremely isolated cases”.
Justice for Sisters said “it is important to note that the band’s criticism against the government and their protest is valid. It is the result of the state’s own actions of increasing restrictions on LGBTIQ people.” The group added that the decision to blacklist the band for an indefinite period, cancel the festival and launch an investigation into the organisers under multiple provisions of the Penal Code and the Minor Offences Act are excessive.
Raid and seizure of Pride watches
Home Ministry raids Swatch stores, seize Pride Collection https://t.co/edpVJHqBic— malaysiakini.com (@malaysiakini) May 22, 2023
On 13th and 14th May 2023, Malaysian authorities raided 11 nationwide outlets belonging to the Swiss watch maker Swatch and seized over 100 colourful watches from their ‘Pride Collection”. The Home Minister also allegedly issued warning notices to five other stores. Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has specified that the raids were due to the product line’s association with the LGBTQI+ community. The raids and watch seizures were carried out under the Printing Presses and Publication Act 1984 (PPPA).
ARTICLE 19 said that: “The Swatch raids are a clear warning to intimidate LGBTQ+ persons into hiding, from a government that is threatened by the notion of pride in diverse genders, identities, and sexual orientations. The raids have once again contributed to the existing hostility and discrimination against LGBTQ+ people, who already feel unsafe and at risk of reprisal for expressing themselves.”
Swiss watchmaker Swatch said on 24th June 2023 it had filed a judicial review leave application over the seizure of the watches. It listed as respondents: the Home Minister, the Home Ministry’s chief secretary, the ministry’s enforcement division secretary; and the government.
According to ARTICLE 19, the PPPA is incompatible with international human rights law and standards relating to the freedom of expression and non-discrimination. The law gives sweeping discretion to the Minister of Home Affairs to ban publications, opening the door to arbitrary and discriminatory applications. However, home minister Saifuddin Nasution Ismail has said that “the law is still needed to ensure public peace”.
Improvement in press freedom rankings
On 3rd May 2023, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published their annual World Press Freedom Index showing that Malaysia had jumped 40 spots from the previous year, ranking first among ASEAN countries and 73 out of 180 countries. The authors of the RSF report noted that the induction of a new coalition government in Malaysia had contributed to its leap on the press freedom index.
Deputy Minister of Communications and Digital Teo Nie Ching said that the government was “committed to supporting the right to freedom of expression, especially by the media in news reporting.” Teo said she was supportive of the establishment of the Malaysian Media Council that was mooted since 2018 and the government was now in the process of drafting a bill.
At the same time RSF said the government has “a draconian legislative arsenal to restrict press freedom” and that “the government exerts a great deal of political pressure to deter the media from tackling taboo subjects or from criticising politicians and government officials, and the authorities harass investigative reporters”. The group added that “journalists are rarely the target of physical attacks, but some are subjected to judicial harassment and smear campaigns.”
Labour march faced excessive restrictions while organisers hauled up
On 1st May 2023, at least 400 individuals including from civil society participated in a peaceful march for the annual International Labour Day in the centre of Kuala Lumpur. They met in front of the Maju Junction Mall in Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman. The annual march had been postponed since 2020 because of pandemic restrictions, and this year the event resumed under the theme of “dignified salary and food security.”
The participants’ messages expressed support for a broad range of workers’ rights and social livelihood issues, including enforcing and raising the minimum wage, ending the system of private contracts for government sanitation and security workers, and supporting land rights for agricultural workers.
According to the Asia Assembly Observation Network (AAON), an initiative by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) to ensure independent monitoring of public assemblies in Asia, excessive restrictions were imposed.
Minutes prior to the start of the march, authorities attempted to restrict the progress of the march by limiting it to pedestrian areas. Organisers acted in accordance with the initial agreement to occupy a lane of traffic and conducted the march in a safe manner for both participants and the public. Observers also noted unnecessary surveillance on the participants with the presence of police, including members of its Special Branch, and the deployment of Kuala Lumpur City Council officers during the march which was obtrusive and did not substantially contribute to the safety of the march.
A second rally took place in front of the Sogo Complex in Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman with about 30 supporters seen gathering at around noon.
Following the protest, police said they had opened two investigation papers under Section 9 (5) of the Peaceful Assembly Act (PAA) 2012 on the two separate gatherings and the organisers of the two rallies would be summoned to the police station for questioning.
One of those called up was activist Parameiswary for allegedly not notifying police 10 days before the date of an assembly under the PAA. She said that “the investigation was a waste of time for the police as well as for her” and that the details of the protest had been discussed on 27th April 2023.
Cops to investigate hunger strike by families of security law detainees
On 2nd August 2023, the police said they were investigating a hunger strike outside the Sungai Buloh prison by relatives of those detained under the draconian Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (SOSMA). The law contains various provisions that are inconsistent with international standards related to a fair trial, and human rights groups as well as the Bar Council have called for its repeal.
More than 50 relatives of the SOSMA detainees – including children – went on a hunger strike on 30th July to protest the continued detention of 69 detainees. Some of the detainees have been held for up to three years without trial.
Selangor police chief Hussein Omar Khan said they had opened investigation papers under Section 9(5) and 4(2) of the Peaceful Assembly Act and Section 31 of the Child Act.
The hunger strike ended on 3rd August after Deputy Law and Institutional Reform Minister Ramkarpal Singh met the families. He said efforts to examine and amend SOSMA were ongoing.
Police arrest protesters supporting LGBTQI+ rights
On 31st July 2023, police arrested eight individuals for their involvement in a gathering in front of the Sogo Complex in Kuala Lumpur.
Kuala Lumpur police chief Mohd Shuhaily Mohd Zain said that they were remanded for one day to assist in the investigation under Section 186 of the Penal Code, Section 14 of the Minor Offences Act 1955, and Section 9(5) of the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012.
According to reports, a video on social media showed a group from the ‘Ahmadi Religion of Peace and Light’ gathering in front of the shopping centre holding banners related to LGBTQI+ issues and the Ahmadi teachings. One of the banners read, “No one has the right to judge anyone but God,” and another read, “Gay people are not criminals, being gay is not a crime”.
Those detained could also face legal action and punishment under the Syariah Criminal Offences (Federal Territories) Act 1997.
Improvised explosive device found under car of human rights defender
Siti Kasim decries attempt on life after 'bomb' found on car https://t.co/FYvWCbHAuf— malaysiakini.com (@malaysiakini) July 21, 2023
On 21st July 2023, there was an attempt on the life of lawyer and human rights defender Siti Kasim after a bomb was found under her car.
The object - plastic bottles with wires inside - was found attached to the undercarriage of her vehicle when she sent it for servicing at a workshop in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur. Siti said she did not know when the device could have been fitted on her vehicle, as it was parked in her condominium all the while. The police bomb squad was dispatched to safely remove the IED
Following the bomb squad's test, Brickfields district police chief ACP Amihizam Abdul Shukor confirmed that the two plastic bottles are suspected to be an improvised explosive device (IED).
More than 50 civil society groups condemned the persons responsible for planting the device. They said: “Siti is a lawyer and defender of indigenous rights who is sensitive, proactive and outspoken about various human rights issues, institutional integrity, democracy and political affairs.”
They added that “threats and violence against activists have become more prevalent recently, which is “very worrying” and they urged the police to conduct a transparent investigation immediately and take appropriate action, including bringing the perpetrators to justice.
The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor on 9th August 2023 also called on the government to “effectively investigate the attack & ensure her safety”.
No one has been brought to justice for the crime at the time of writing.
Myanmar refugee rights activist and family abducted
Malaysian police have posted photos of a missing Myanmar democracy activist and her family online to ask the public to help in finding the five who allgedly were kidnapped from their Kuala Lumpur home a month ago. https://t.co/MCrR8KAI8X— Radio Free Asia (@RadioFreeAsia) August 5, 2023
Myanmar refugee activist Thuzar Maung and her family were abducted in early July 2023 and have not been seen since.
On 4th July 2023, unidentified men abducted Thuzar Maung, her husband and three children from their residence in Ampang Jaya, Kuala Lumpur, based on reports from witnesses and CCTV footage. Thuzar Maung is an outspoken supporter of Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW) at about 4:30 p.m. on the day, a car entered the gated community where the family lives. The driver told the security guards they were police. Two hours later, Thuzar Maung was on the phone with a friend, who heard her yell to her husband that unknown men were entering the house, before being disconnected. At about 7:10 p.m., the same car and the two cars owned by Thuzar Maung’s family were seen leaving the compound. Thuzar Maung’s phone and the phones of her husband and children appear to have been immediately turned off, as no calls have gone through since. CCTV footage at the guard booth captured the license plate of the “police” car, which Malaysian police have since identified as fake.
Thuzar Maung is a long-time advocate for democracy in Myanmar and refugee and migrant rights in Malaysia. She serves as chair of the Myanmar Muslim Refugee Community and Myanmar Migrant Workers Committee and has worked closely with Myanmar’s opposition National Unity Government.
Thuzar Maung fled Myanmar for Malaysia in 2015 to escape growing violence against Muslims. All five family members are recognized by the United Nations Refugee Agency as refugees in Malaysia.