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Free speech dying in Malaysia

By Murray Hunter - posted Friday, 28 May 2021

Malaysia’s shaky, deeply unpopular government is seeking to regain control of the narrative in the internet age via dramatic use of police power to harass and investigate activists, journalists, and social media users. Foreign news reports from investigative journalism websites Asia Sentinel and Sarawak Report have been blocked periodically by the Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission.

Local media rarely issue critical reports out of fear of prosecution.  Blogs, like Mariam Mokhtar’s Rebuilding Malaysia are suffering periodic distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, in which targeted websites are flooded with tens of thousands of responses, overloading the websites and crashing them.

That has led to a fall in Malaysia’s position on the World Press Freedom Indexby18 positions to 119th of 180 in the Reporters Without Borders 2021 annual report, the largest fall by any country in the history of the index, and in stark contrast to a rise by 22 places in the last annual report, which coincided with the arrival of the ousted Pakatan Harapan government in power.


In addition, the Freedom House annual country reporthas now classified Malaysia as only partly free on its index measuring civil rights, freedom of expression, and civil liberties. Human Rights Watch annual report on Malaysiadescribed the country as existing within “a culture of fear, where peaceful expression is criminalized.”

The government has historically played up the need to avoid discussion on so-called “sensitive issues” including race, religion, the royalty, education, and citizenship, on the pretense that such issues will inflame community relations. Prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong, Al-Sultan Abdullah Shah, and the former police commissioner Abdul Hamid Bador, have all warned the public not to raise these “sensitive issues” in order to maintain peace and harmony within the country.

A network of laws designed to restrict freedom of speech has been put in place. The draconian Sedition Act, which the former Pakatan Harapan government vainly promised to repeal, is being used to prosecute satirists. In 2015, the act was widened to include social media comments. Graphic artist Fahmi Reza Mohd Zain was arrested over his ‘Dengki Ku’ Spotify playlist, posting a jealousy theme, over comments made by the queen in regards to vaccinations. Cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, known popularly as Zunar, was summoned by policefor his satirical cartoon over the Kedah Chief Minister cancelling the Hindu Thaipusam holiday, in the Malaysiakini news website.

(Speaking out forbidden on instructions from prime minister)

Journalists are often summoned for questioning for long periods, as recently happened to two Malaysiakini journalists, Rusnizam Mahat and Aedi Asri Abdullah, over their reporting of police brutality in the detention and subsequent death of a prisoner. This was after several Al Jazeera journalists were summoned to police headquarterslast year for investigation of sedition and defamation over the documentary about Malaysia’s treatment of undocumented workers was aired on television.


Police investigations also use the framework that the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) which forbids any improper use of computer and network facilities, and bans the dissemination of statements, rumors, or reports that may cause public mischief. This act is also used to block news websites that are critical of the government, report corruption, or have comments posted by readers which authorities deem offensive.

The popular news portal Malaysiakini is currently appealing a convictionand RM500,000 fine for contempt of court over comments made by five readers on their platform which were almost immediately erased after authorities brought them to editors’ attention. Several people have been prosecuted under this act for insulting the Malay rulers on social media. This act appears to be used as a de facto lèse-majesté law over the past 12 months.

Although the Anti-Fake News Act 2018 was repealed in 2019, the penal code and Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA), offers many provisions to prosecute. Former Pakatan Harapan deputy minister Fuziah Salleh has been charged with putting up “fake news”on her Facebook account last year, under the penal code and CMA. Fuziah has claimed trial over the charge.

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This article was first published in Asia Sentinel.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis. He blogs at Murray Hunter.

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