Activist convicted for satirical caricature of prime minister

Expression

Activist and artist Fahmi Reza was convicted and sentenced to a month’s jail and fined RM30,000 (USD 7,600) on 21st February 2018. This was for posting a clown caricature of the prime minister Najib Razak on social media and criticising him for his involvement in a corruption scandal involving billions of dollars.

He was prosecuted under the Communications and Multimedia Act which has been systematically misused to criminalise online criticism or satire against the government. National human rights organization, Suaram, has documented at least 38 cases in 2017 where the law has been used to prosecute individuals for online criticism of the authorities or royalty.

Sedition Law

On 22nd February, the Malaysian Federal Court gave the government leave to appeal the Court of Appeal’s landmark ruling in November 2017 that Section 3(3) of the Sedition Act was unconstitutional and a violation of the constitutional right to freedom of speech. Under Section 3(3), the prosecution does not have to prove that a person had intended to commit sedition, only that their remarks or actions had seditious tendency. However, the Court of Appeal found that this did not meet the test of proportionality and that there was no valid justification for the section, considering that even cases of more heinous crimes still require proof of intention.

The use of the sedition law has skyrocketed since the 2013 general elections to harass, detain and prosecute government critics including human rights defenders, lawyers and opposition politicians.

Travel Ban

On 29th November the High Court decided to maintain the travel ban on political cartoonist Zunar (full name Zulkiflee Anwar Ul Haque). The ban, in place since June 2016, is part of a campaign of judicial harassment against Zunar for his satirical cartoons that are sharply critical of the government. Zunar is also facing nine counts of sedition for his tweets in 2015 criticising the judiciary.

Proposed legislation against 'fake news'

Human rights organisations have raised concerns about proposed legislation to curb "fake news". The government has said that the new law was necessary as "fake news could potentially threaten the country’s political stability, undermine public order and disrupt national security" but critics fear it is being rushed through so it can be used to stifle dissent before the general elections due to be held before August 2018.

The head of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Asia-Pacific desk criticised the proposal saying:

“It is not the government’s job to determine the truth of the reporting that is the product of journalistic work…parliament must roundly reject this bill because it contributes nothing new to the fight against the dissemination of deliberately false information and would pose an additional threat to media freedom, which is already drastically suppressed by existing laws. The concept of ‘fake news’ used in this bill is much too vague to be subject to such heavy penalties.”

Malaysia is ranked 144 out out of 180 countries in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index.

Assembly

Student Asheeq Ali Sethi Alivi failed in his bid to challenge the disciplinary action imposed on him for taking part in a rally against corruption in August 2016. The court of appeal dismissed his appeal on 22nd February 2018.

The peaceful rally was organised by a coalition of students and youth groups calling for the arrest of the person named “MO1” in a United States’ Department of Justice’s civil suit linked to the corruption scandal around the Malaysian state fund 1MDB. “MO1” is the acronym used in the DoJ’s suit for Malaysian Official Number 1 which is believed to be the Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Asheeq was fined RM200 (USD 50) and was suspended for one semester by the National University of Malaysia (UKM) for violating Section 15(3)(b) of the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971. The provision "prohibits a student of a university from doing anything to show sympathy or support, for any society, organisation, body or group which the board determined to be unsuitable to the interest and well-being of the students or the university."

Asheeq's lawyer had argued that Section 15(3)(b) of the Universities and University Colleges Act was unconstitutional because it prevented students from exercising their rights to freedom of speech and expression and to assemble peacefully.