Malaysia: Bookstores raided, news portal blocked, activists criminalised and sedition law used to stifle dissent
Malaysia’s civic space is 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) and the Sedition Act, often used to silence dissent online and to harass human rights defenders. Critical news websites and blogs have been blocked. 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).
On 14th September 2023, the Malaysian government agreed in principle to enact the Freedom of Information Act, aimed at establishing clear guidelines and parameters for granting public access to government and public agency information. Simultaneously, the government announced plans to amend the Official Secrets Act 1972 which historically restricted access to government-related information.
In November 2023, during the 10th Asian Human Rights Defenders Forum organised by the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) in Malaysia, government minister Chang Lih Kang emphasised that the government “recognises human rights defenders and civil society organisations for their role in advocating for the rights and concerns of marginalised communities”. He added: “These dedicated individuals and groups act as watchdogs, exposing injustices, discrimination, and human rights violations that might otherwise go unnoticed. Their collective efforts serve as a crucial counterbalance, helping to stop the abuse of power while promoting transparency, accountability and good governance.”
Despite this, one year on since the Anwar Ibrahim government came to power there has been a lack of progress by the authorities in undertaking concrete human rights reforms and civic space restrictions continue to be documented..
In recent months, the authorities have blocked a new website, raided bookstores and seized books and revoked a media pass. They also arrested an editor and charged an opposition politician with sedition. The police also attempted to restrict protests, harassed protest organisers and arrested land rights defenders blocking an eviction of farmers.
Home Ministry raids bookstores and seizes books
In August 2023, the Home Ministry raided Toko Buku Rakyat, a bookstore owned by local author and educator Benz Ali.
Malaysiakini reported that the officials raided the store at Wisma Central on 19th August and confiscated two books: Marx Sang Pendidik Revolusioner, a Malay translation of Karl Marx: The Revolutionary as Educator by Robin Smalls, and Benz's own book Koleksi Puisi Masturbasi (Collection of Masturbatory Poems). None of them are on the banned books list.
Benz was reported saying authorities took one copy of each of the two titles, citing the Printing Press and Publications Act 1984 (PPPA).
On 23rd November 2023, a Home Ministry enforcement team confiscated eight locally published Chinese-language books that contained "communist elements", sold by independent bookstore Gerakbudaya. None of the books was on the Home Ministry's list of publications banned under the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 (PPPA).
At least five of the books appear to be a series about the history of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), while another two are memoirs written by CPM members. The nature of one book is unclear.
Human rights groups have noted that the PPPA is incompatible with international human rights law and standards relating to freedom of expression. The law gives sweeping discretion to the Minister of Home Affairs to ban publications, opening the door to arbitrary and discriminatory application.
Arbitrary suspension of news website critical of the government
There have been reports of the censoring and blocking of online portals that are publishing articles critical of the government.
On 18th August 2023, news website TV Pertiwi claimed that the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), a regulatory agency supervised by the Ministry of Communications and Digital, had blocked the website. The company received no notice of the alleged block. The MCMC also ordered the media to remove six pieces of content from its website on vague grounds that it allegedly incited “hatred towards the royal institution as well as ethnicity and religion which could potentially disrupt public peace and harmony within the country’”, but the TV Pertiwi staff refused to comply with this injunction. Its Tik Tok account was also permanently banned.
This is just the latest incident of censorship. As previously documented, in June 2023 the news portal MalaysiaNow was inaccessible to some users and was likely being blocked by certain internet service providers (ISPs). In July 2023, the blog of political commentator Raja Petra Kamarudin was restricted and the website of former parliamentarian Wee Choo Keong, critical of the government, was blocked. In August 2023, the government blocked access to the news website UtusanTV.com to at least some internet users.
On 29th August 2023, a group of senior journalists issued a joint statement denouncing the MCMC for “censoring or blocking portals and online news content.”
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said it was "very concerned by this wave of suspensions by Malaysian authorities, without any explanations nor judicial control, of news websites critical of the government. We urge the Minister of Communications and Digital, Fahmi Fadzil, to put an end to these acts of censorship which can only have a negative impact on Malaysia’s democracy.”
Court ordered Wan Ji to serve jail sentence for sedition
Who is Wan Ji Wan Hussin the preacher who begins serving a 9 month sentence over a 2014 sedition case linked to the Selangor Sultan?— malaysiakini.com (@malaysiakini) September 26, 2023
We share this Malaysianskini feature story from 2016 in which we talked to the independent preacher.
Full story: https://t.co/AzaTS7KtBF pic.twitter.com/PvbG5c5JlF
On 25th September 2023, the Court of Appeal ordered independent speaker Wan Ji Wan Hussin to begin serving his nine-month prison sentence for sedition for publishing offensive words and insulting the Sultan of Selangor via Facebook, in 2012.
This followed a unanimous decision by a panel of three judges to reinstate the Shah Alam Sessions Court’s decision, made on 9th April 2018, to sentence Wan Ji to nine months in prison for the offence, and dismiss his appeal against the conviction and sentence. In reinstating the Shah Alam Sessions Court’s decision, the Court of Appeal also set aside the decision of the Shah Alam High Court in July 2019 which sentenced Wan Ji to one year in prison.
Human rights group Lawyers for Liberty (LFL) slammed the decision. Its executive director, Zaid Malek, said: “It is appalling and unacceptable that Wan Ji has now fallen victim to the repressive Sedition Act 1948, an act notorious for its infringement of freedom of speech. Adding salt to the wound is that his imprisonment is under a Harapan-led government, which previously championed the abolition of the Sedition Act.”
Three years after book ban, cops arrest editor for alleged sedition
Now in Australia, Malaysian author Kean Wong talked about his book "Rebirth" that was banned three years ago in Malaysia and led to his arrest in October 2023 https://t.co/iiIFO8LhGZ pic.twitter.com/pxeAGx3Q0M— Andreas Harsono (@andreasharsono) November 21, 2023
An Australian-based journalist was briefly detained and is under investigation after editing a book that was later banned by the government.
The book edited by journalist and editor Kean Wong entitled Rebirth: Reformasi, Resistance, and Hope in New Malaysia focuses on Malaysia's domestic politics. The book was banned by the government in 2020 under the Printing Presses and Publications (Control of Undesirable Publications) Order 2020, six months after its release on the pretext that its cover, which features a caricature of the national coat of arms, was insulting and “prejudicial to public order".
Wong was detained on 17th October 2023 while trying to renew his passport. He was held at the Dang Wangi district police headquarters for 24 hours and is being investigated for sedition. Wong’s phone was seized by the police during the investigation.
Wong is a contributor to BBC, The Economist, and ABC, and is also the co-founder of the Malaysian Center for Independent Journalism (CIJ). He had recently returned to Malaysia from Australia.
Opposition newspaper reporters’ media passes revoked
On 7th November 2023, it was reported that the government had revoked the official media pass of Harakah, a publication owned by the opposition Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) party.
PAS information chief Ahmad Fadhli Shaarim condemned the action, saying that they had received a letter from the Information Department requesting its reporters to return their media passes. Without media passes, Harakah journalists will be unable to enter government premises such as Parliament to report on events there.
While Fadhli did not elaborate on why Harakah was punished, Malaysiakini learned the action had to do with an article published by the PAS mouthpiece. According to a copy of the Information Department letter, the authority cited a 6th November 2023 article that accused the government of being “timid” in its support for the Palestinian cause.
Opposition politician charged with sedition
Opposition politician Razali Idris was charged on 24th November 2023 for making a seditious statement about the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC).
The Bersatu party information chief and Kijal assemblyman is alleged to have committed the offence on 10th November 2023 at Padang Astaka in Chukai, Terengganu, during the launch of Perikatan Nasional’s election machinery for the upcoming Kemaman by-election. He is alleged to have said that “the government controlled MACC and the judges.”
Idris was charged under Section 4(1)(b) of the Sedition Act 1948, which provides for a fine of up to RM5,000 (USD 1,068) or imprisonment for up to three years, or both, upon conviction.
Razali is the second opposition leader to be charged with sedition after Kedah state chief minister Sanusi Nor was charged in July on two counts of making seditious statements against royalty.
Police sought to block protest by opposition
In September 2023, police tried to block a protest by opposition groups dubbed ‘Save Malaysia’ (Selamatkan Malaysia) against Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s discharge not amounting to an acquittal (DNAA) in his corruption case.
The police kept demanding publicly that the organisers ‘apply for a permit’ despite the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 (PAA) only requiring the organisers to give notice.
Despite this, the peaceful protest – in which around 800 people participated – went ahead on 16th September 2023. Protesters took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur and marched from the Kampung Baru Mosque to the Dang Wangi district police station, more than a kilometre away, shouting, “Prosecute Zahid, reformation is dead”.
Following the protests, police said they were going to question at least 25 people under the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 (PAA).
Police harass protest by farmers and supporters at parliament
1. PSM was blocked by the police during its march from Taman Tugu to Parliament.— BFM News (@NewsBFM) September 12, 2023
It intended to march with a group of farmers to submit a memorandum to PM Anwar Ibrahim, in an effort to prevent the eviction of hundreds of farmer families in Perak.pic.twitter.com/cKTTitr1fP
On 12th September 2023, a group of around 50 farmers from the state of Perak – supported by Lawan Lapar, a movement aimed at ensuring food security, and members of the Malaysian Socialist Party (PSM) – gathered near parliament to protest against land eviction measures that were affecting their livelihoods.
They had planned to hand over a memorandum but were blocked by the police. Despite this, they continued and met representatives from the government as well as parliamentarians outside parliament.
Following this, police opened up investigations into the protest under Section 186 of the Penal Code for ‘obstructing civil servants from performing their duties.’ On 18th September, three PSM leaders were hauled up for police questioning, including PSM deputy chairperson S. Arutchelvan, treasurer Soh Sook Hwa and youth member Ayman Hareez. According to reports, the questions asked had nothing to do with what the three were accused of.
Former student activist found guilty over convocation protest
📢 @forum_asia & @SUARAMtweets condemn the conviction of #youth activist Wong Yan Ke. This reflects #Malaysia's shrinking #civicspace, esp. for youth #defenders. We call on the govt. to overturn the conviction & safeguard rights to assembly and expression!https://t.co/CmsOjO9pPw— FORUM-ASIA (@forum_asia) October 18, 2023
Former student activist Wong Yan Ke was found guilty under Section 504 of Malaysia’s Penal Code (intentional insult with intent to provoke a breach of the peace) on 9th October 2023, following his actions during the university’s convocation ceremony in October 2019. He was subsequently fined RM5,000 (approx. USD 1,068). The court ordered that he spend three months in jail should he fail to pay the fine. He is appealing the sentence.
According to ARTICLE 19, Yan Ke raised a placard and shouted slogans during the ceremony, accusing the Vice Chancellor of the university of making ‘racist’ remarks during the Malay Dignity Congress and calling for the official’s resignation. In response, the university filed a complaint with the police, leading to Yan Ke’s charges being brought on 26th February 2020. Wong Yan Ke currently works as a human rights defender at Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM), a leading human rights organisation.
Arrest of land rights defenders
1. Three PSM members and a farmer were arrested today when they attempted to stop the eviction of farmers in Kanthan, Chemor in Perak.— BFM News (@NewsBFM) October 24, 2023
PSM activist Chong Yee Shan was also injured earlier after allegedly being shoved by an officer from the Land and Mines Office. pic.twitter.com/5qglD6Qlp5
Three land rights defenders and a farmer were arrested for trying to block a forced eviction by the Perak state government in October 2023.
The farmers in the Kanthan area in the state of Perak have been cultivating vegetables and fruit and farming fish for decades. In 2012, they were promised replacement land by the authorities if they moved out, which the state government has yet to deliver on. The farmers were still in negotiations with the state when on 13th October 2023 they were suddenly given an eviction notice.
On 24th October 2023, dozens of officials from the Perak State Land and Minerals Office (PTG) were mobilised to forcibly evict the farmers with bulldozers and excavators. When the farmers, supported by activists from the Malaysian Socialist Party (PSM), tried to block them from entering the area, the police arrested four of them, including the activists Dr. Jeyakumar Devaraj, Karthiges Manickam and Kesavan Parvathy as well as farmer Ho Pon Tien. The four were released on police bail.
Another PSM activist, Chong Yee Shan, who has been working with the farmers to defend their land rights, was shoved by an officer from the Land and Minerals Office when she tried to stop the eviction. The incident was captured on video. She suffered injuries to her nose and mouth, as well as wounds on her legs and hands and required medical treatment.
Human rights groups ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS said they were disturbed by the way the authorities conducted the eviction and the use of force against a human rights defender. The groups said that the “arrest was purely to intimidate and create a chilling effect for those seeking to halt the forced eviction.”
Human rights defenders in Malaysia, especially those working on land and environmental rights issues, face various challenges for undertaking their work, including judicial harassment from the state as well as non-state actors.