Protesters face judicial harassment while restrictions to freedom of expression persist in Malaysia

Protesters face judicial harassment while restrictions to freedom of expression persist in Malaysia
Protest in Malaysia over the hike in the price of goods and the rising cost of living (Photo: Twitter/@lamkanahraf)

The 21st of August 2022 marked Prime Minister Ismail Sabri’s first year in office, following the resignation of his predecessor Muhyiddin Yassin. During the year there were systematic attempts by his government to restrict and undermine fundamental freedoms, especially freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

As documented by CIVICUS and ARTICLE 19, the government repeatedly used Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) 1998, to target online expression, often in conjunction with other laws, such as the Sedition Act. These laws were used to investigate, arrest, charge and convict individuals who criticised government officials, institutions or Malaysian royalty or shared opinions about sensitive issues such as race or religion.

Despite statements by Prime Minister Ismail Sabri that the media should carry out their duties with freedom and without interference so as to ensure freedom of expression, the government continued to restrict and silence journalists and whistle-blowers.

The police also sought to block or restrict protests and systematically harass protesters throughout the year. Many were hauled in for questioning by the police for violating Section 9(5) of the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012, which criminalises the organiser’s failure to give five days’ notice before a gathering.

in July 2022, Parliament passed the Independent Police Conduct Commission Act, a weak law that leaves the police oversight commission lacking in independence and adequate powers to ensure effective police oversight. Further, questions have been asked by civil society about the opaque appointments of the new commissioners for the national human rights institution, SUHAKAM, in the same month.

In recent months, the police continued to harass organisers and participants of protests, including activists and politicians, related to the rising prices of goods and the cost of living, around a combat ship scandal, the situation in Iran and around the election date. At least four people have been charged under the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012. The authorities have also criminalised politicians and a comedian for their expression and are investigating a book by the former Attorney General. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) found a company to have violated the freedom of association of its workers, while a gender-diverse gathering was raided by the authorities.

Peaceful Assembly

Police summon youth and politicians over price hike protest

Eight youths involved in a demonstration on 2nd July 2022 in the capital Kuala Lumpur over the rising prices of goods were summoned by police for questioning.

The protest, organised by a coalition of youth activist groups, Gabungan Gerakan Mahasiswa, held at the Pasar Seni LRT station, saw the gathering of about 100 students and youth activists who aired their grievances over the government’s alleged lack of substantive action in handling the spike in the prices of goods. The hour-long event was carried out under the watchful eye of some 50 police officers in plain clothes and uniform, including police from the Criminal Investigation Department.

On the same day, political party AMANAH took to the streets in a brief protest outside Masjid Jamek in Kampung Baru on the same issue. Police subsequenly called in ten political leaders who participated in the protest, with an investigation being launched under Section 9(5) of the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012.

Police block protest and charge activists

On 23rd July 2022, a group calling itself “Turun Malaysia” staged a protest over the hike in the price of goods and the rising cost of living. About 500 people had gathered at the Sogo shopping complex from 2pm. The five key demands by the protesters were for ministers to take a pay cut, government subsidies to be continued, control on the price of goods, to check the issue of food security and to provide proper assistance to the people.

Police blocked vehicles from entering the vicinity in anticipation of the protest. Police also formed a human barricade along Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman to stop the protesters from marching towards Dataran Merdeka. Protesters attempted to negotiate with the authorities to continue their march but were unsuccessful. The protesters started dispersing shortly after 3pm when the police barred them from marching further.

Following the protest, police recorded statements from 27 individuals, comprising politicians and student activists. Subsequently, charges were laid under Section 9(5) of the Peaceful Assembly Act against Youth Chief of the AMANAH party, Hasbie Muda, International Islamic University Malaysia Student Union president Aliff Naif and finally the PKR party Youth Chief for Batu, Lestari Yahya.

Protesters questioned and charged for protest on combat ship scandal

On 14th August 2022, police said they would question 13 individuals allegedly involved in the #ManaKapalLCS protest in Kuala Lumpur over the government’s handling of the Navy’s littoral combat ship (LCS) project. Dang Wangi police chief Noor Dellhan Yahaya said police had opened investigations under Section 9(5) of the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012.

Close to 200 people protested the government’s mishandling of the LCS project. The protest ended after an hour and a half and saw protesters shouting slogans while police kept a watchful eye but did not intervene. Several speakers criticised the government for spending RM 6 billion (USD 1.32 billion) of taxpayers’ money on the project to build six combat ships, which had not been delivered even after the deadline had passed. The protest followed the release of a report on the project by Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, in which recommendations were made for the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission to take legal action against those responsible for the alleged scandal.

On 26th August 2022, Amir Hariri Abd Hadi, the MUDA party secretary-general was charged in the magistrates’ court in connection with the protest. Amir, 31, pleaded not guilty to the charge. According to the charge sheet, as the organiser of the gathering, Amir had failed to inform the officer in charge five days before holding the assembly in front of the Sogo Complex. The charge was framed under Section 9(1) of the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012, with the offence punishable with a maximum fine of RM10,000 (USD 2,200) under Section 9(5) of the same Act, upon conviction.

Four questioned over vigil for Iranian who died in police custody

Four activists were hauled in by police on 29th September for investigations into the candlelight vigil held on 25th September over the death of 22-year-old Iranian Mahsa Amini, which has spurred extensive protests in the republic.

The candlelight vigil organised by SUARAM on 25th September saw over 100 Iranians and local human rights activists gathering to protest peacefully in front of the Iranian embassy. The candlelight vigil ended after an hour and the crowd dispersed peacefully without disturbing traffic flow.

Among those summoned were human rights group Suaram representatives Wong Yan Ke and Liau Pin Chun, and Iranian national Davood Afkhami Zabol, as well as lawyer Siti Kasim. The group is being investigated under Section 9(5) of the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 for failing to notify police of the gathering.

Police to summon organiser of rally around election date

A group of protesters led by political party MUDA gathered outside the Sogo shopping complex in Kuala Lumpur on 24th September urging the government not to hold the general election this year, in view of the impending monsoon season. The group of 50 people, which included members of NGOs and other opposition parties, urged Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob not to hold the elections until next year.

Under the watchful eye of the police, protestors chanted while carrying banners and placards with the same slogan. The groups spoke about the difficulties the people will face if an election is held during the flood season.

Ahead of the day, police warned the public against joining a protest as it had not received any notification of the rally and the organiser’s failure to inform police of planned rallies did not comply with provisions in the law. The Peaceful Assembly Act 202 currently falls short of international standards and criminalises spontaneous protests. Following the protest, the police said they had opened an investigation paper on the rally under Section 9(5) of the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 for holding an assembly without notice. Police said they would also summon the organiser of the rally.

Expression

Police hauls up politician over price hike flashmob video

Parti Amanah Negara president Mohamad Sabu was called up by the police in July 2022 over a video announcing a series of flashmobs to protest price hikes in the country on 16th July. The Kota Raja member of parliament, popularly known as Mat Sabu, was called in for questioning at the Bukit Aman police headquarters, with the session lasting some two hours.

Mohamad Sabu was investigated under Section 505(b) of the Penal Code for allegedly ‘publishing or circulating any statement with intent to cause fear or alarm to the public’, and Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) for allegedly abusing network facilities. Both these provisions have been used by the authorities to criminalise freedom of expression.

The police also confiscated Mohamad Sabu’s mobile phone in the process despite objections that it was unreasonable to do so because the video has no link to the latter's device. The phone was later returned but he believed attempts were made by the police to extract data from the device.

The police also warned people from participating in the demonstration and promised stern action against participants and organisers who disobeyed the law.

Comedian arrested while club shut down

under Section 4(1) of the Sedition Act and Section 233 of the CMA. According to ARTICLE 19, police stated the arrest was for three videos of him performing stand-up comedy that touched on racial stereotypes. The police had applied for a four-day remand but were only granted one day. Rizal was released on the evening of 15th July.

Four days later, the Crackhouse Comedy Club was vandalised with paint splashes on its sign and entrance, affecting neighbouring establishments as well. In addition, Rizal lodged a police report on 19th July after his wife received death threats in calls made to her mobile phone.

On 22nd July, Rizal was charged with three counts under Section 233(1)(a) of the CMA for the offence of improper use of network facilities to make an obscene posting with the intent to annoy another person. One of the videos that was cited in the charge sheet was a video posted by Rizal on Facebook on 4th July of a short clip of his stand-up comedy set in which he jokes about his mixed-race heritage and Malay stereotypes.

On 17th August 2022, it was reported that the Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) had decided to revoke the Crackhouse Comedy Club’s licence effective from 30th July and permanently blacklisted its owner from registering any businesses for any premises inside the city.

PM orders criminal investigation around former attorney general’s book

On 30th September 2022, Prime Minister Ismail Sabri directed an immediate investigation against former attorney general Tommy Thomas over his book titled ‘My Story: Justice in the Wilderness’. The prime minister said this was based on the report of the special task force investigating the matter, which was presented to the Cabinet.

After Thomas published the book in January 2021, more than 100 police reports were made against him, most of which were by ruling UMNO party members.

In a statement, Ismail Sabri said the investigations will be conducted under Sections 124(I) and 203A of the Penal Code, Section 4 of the Sedition Act 1948, Section 8 of the Official Secrets Act 1972, and Section 3 of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Act 2009. Among the issues to be investigated were allegations against the judiciary; the disclosure of government information and secrets; wrongful acts, abuse and negligence; as well as seditious statements.

In response, Tommy Thomas filed a suit against the special task force and the government, alleging that their publication of a report on his memoir was a breach of law and his constitutional rights.

The Economist edition with article on royals banned

In September 2022, it was reported that the latest edition of British weekly The Economist was banned in Malaysia. The reason behind the ban was not disclosed. However, the edition contained an article that touches on Southeast Asian royals, including those in Malaysia.

Among other things, the article comments on misconduct by the region's royals, including charges of assault against the late-Sultan Iskandar Sultan Ismail of Johor while he was the crown prince. The article also mentioned that the late Johor monarch's actions were the reason why the government revoked the monarchy's immunity from prosecution in the 1990s.

Association

ILO rules that company violated freedom of association

On 23rd August 2022, the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association (CFA) concluded that the dismissal of five union leaders from Malaysian company HICOM, supplier to Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz and Mitsubishi, was a violation of freedom of association.

In February 2016, HICOM dismissed 32 members of the National Union of Transport Equipment and Allied Industries Workers (NUTEAIW) for attending a union briefing outside company premises after working hours. The briefing was about a stalemate in collective negotiations, and the corporation accused the employees of "tarnishing the company's image" and "attracting undesirable public attention."

27 union members were reinstated following mediation discussions at the industrial relations department. However, the corporation declined to reinstate the remaining five local union leaders. After exhausting all domestic legal routes and all courts failing to protect the unionists' freedom to participate in legitimate union activities, NUTEAIW filed a complaint with the ILO in May 2021, emphasising the Malaysian government's failure to address HICOM's anti-union behaviour.

The ILO CFA concluded in its report that the employer's conduct constituted intimidation and reminded the government that employees have the right to organise peaceful meetings and that the employer should not interfere with union operations. The ILO urged that the government support mediation to examine options, including the reinstatement of union leaders.

Police raid social gathering attended by gender-diverse persons

On 29th October 2022, in the wake of Halloween celebrations, the Royal Malaysia Police (PDRM), the Federal Territories Islamic Religious Department (JAWI) and the Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL), conducted a joint raid of a social gathering attended by people of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions (SOGIE), including LGBTQ persons.

The raid resulted in the arrest and interrogation of at least 24 gender-diverse persons. Those arrested were alleged to have committed vaguely defined violations such as “encouraging vice” and “indecent acts”; the use of “illegal substances”; and for freely exercising one’s gender expression. All those arrested have been released on bail and awaiting further action.

During the raid, the attendees were segregated based on religion and gender: gender-diverse persons identified as Muslims were targeted, vilified, mistreated, misgendered, and slapped with charges for violating the Syariah Criminal Offences Act. Trans and gender-diverse people reportedly experienced degrading and humiliating treatment while undergoing urine tests by the police.

There has been rising and systemic discrimination and persecution faced by LGBTQ persons in the country. The Malaysian government continues to criminalise and persecute LGBTQ persons in both its civil law, specifically the colonial remnant that is Section 377 of the Penal Code (commonly referred to as the anti-sodomy law), and state-Syariah Laws.

Following this, 66 civil society organisations expressed concern over the raid and the shrinking civic spaces for LGBTQ persons in Malaysia.