(Bangkok) – The Malaysian government should cease using the country’s sedition law to arbitrarily arrest opposition lawmakers, activists, and critical academics, Human Rights Watch said today. Since 2013, at least 14 people have been charged under the Sedition Act 1948 for criticizing the government or government officials. Those found guilty face up to five years in prison and a fine of RM 5,000 (US$1,600).
The government of Prime Minister Najib Razak should repeal the Sedition Act, which has repeatedly been used to prosecute people for political purposes in violation of the right to freedom of expression.
“The Malaysian government is increasingly using the Sedition Act to instill fear and silence in political opponents and critics,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Prime Minister Najib’s crackdown on free expression has shown his true rights-abusing colors.”
The Sedition Act prohibits vague offenses such as uttering “any seditious words” without defining what constitutes “sedition” or “seditious words.” It broadly outlaws any “seditious tendency” that would “bring into hatred or contempt or excite disaffection against any Ruler or against any Government.”
In the period before the general election on May 5, 2013, Prime Minister Najib repeatedly said that he would lead an effort to repeal the Sedition Act and replace it with a so-called Harmony Act. However, following the election, in which the ruling coalition the Barisan Nasional retained power despite major losses in the national parliament, he retreated from his pledge.
Malaysian authorities have used the vaguely worded act to charge four opposition members of parliament with sedition, including Party Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) Vice President Tian Chua and Democratic Action Party (DAP) Vice President Teresa Kok.
On August 19, 2014, the authorities charged PKR Vice President N. Surendran with sedition in connection with a statement to the media attacking the decision of the appeals court. A second sedition charge was brought against him on August 29 for alleging that the renewed sodomy charges against his client, the parliamentary opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, were “an attempt to jail the opposition leader of Malaysia,” and that Prime Minister Najib was responsible.
On August 26, the authorities charged Khalid Samad, a member of parliament from the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), with sedition for allegedly critical remarks he made regarding the Selangor state sultan and the State Islamic Affairs Council. Khalid had called for reviews of laws after the state council failed to abide by the attorney general’s decision that Iban and Malay-language Bibles seized by the Selangor Islamic Religious Department must be returned to the Bible Society of Malaysia.
In June, authorities charged Kok with sedition for her Chinese New Year video “Onederful Malaysia CNY 2014,” which depicts Kok as host of the program with three volunteers playing characters before a small audience. The video makes no mention of any individual or the government.
The DAP Penang State Assemblyman R.S.N. Rayer was charged on August 27 for allegedly saying “celaka celaka UMNO” (“damn, damn UMNO”) to several state assemblymen of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) during an assembly session in May.
On September 3, the authorities brought sedition charges against David Orok, a politician from the state of Sabah, claiming that he defamed Islam and the Prophet on Facebook. He has pleaded not guilty and apologized on his Facebook page, but the authorities confiscated his passport and the court released him on RM 7,000 ($2,200) bail.
The authorities charged five activists and Tian Chua with sedition for remarks made on May 13, 2013, at the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall. The group had accused the government of pervasive voter fraud and suggested that under current election regulations, the opposition coalition could never win an election. On September 5, 2014, a Kuala Lumpur sessions court sentenced Safwan Anang, former chair of Malaysian Students Solidarity, an activist group, to 10 months in prison, although he was released on RM 15,000 ($4,700) bail pending his appeal. Cases are still pending against Tian, the activists Hishamuddin Rais, Haris Ibrahim, and Tamrin bin Abdul Ghafar, and the student leader Adam Adli.
The government is also prosecuting academics and journalists under the Sedition Act. On September 1, Dr. Azmi Sharom, a University of Malaya professor, was charged with sedition for comments related to a political event five years ago. On September 10, a group of academics and students organized a public rally on Azmi’s behalf and to decry the threat the Sedition Act poses to academic freedom. The Attorney General’s Chambers announced that it would review the sedition charge against Azmi and possibly others.
On September 4, the authorities arrested Susan Loone, assistant editor at Malaysiakini, an online newspaper critical of the government and ruling coalition, on suspicion of sedition for her article that included statements by Phee Boone Poh, a Penang State executive councilor. Loone was held and interrogated for nine hours before being released on bail. Police had earlier detained Phee because of his role as chairman of the Penang People’s Voluntary Patrol, an auxiliary force connected with the state government that the inspector general of police alleges is illegal. The story reported Phee saying that during four hours of police questioning he was “treated like a criminal.”
The government has also investigated several senior opposition politicians but ultimately charged them with sections of the penal code that severely restrict expression. On August 28, the authorities charged Rafizi Ramli, a senior member of the PKR and member of parliament, with article 504 of the penal code, which criminalizes “intentional insult with intent to provoke a breach of the peace.” The charge was based on statements he made in a newspaper article that suggested that UMNO was attempting to undermine and destroy the PKR leadership in Selangor State by using policies emphasizing race and religion.
Similarly, on August 25, authorities charged the former Perak State Governor Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin, from the opposition PAS party, for defaming Prime Minister Najib in remarks he made in Ipoh in April 2012.
“The Malaysian government has apparently decided that its vaguely worded Sedition Act is its new catch-all charge against its most vocal critics,” Robertson said. “Prime Minister Najib should realize that throwing activists and opposition leaders in jail for what they say is a slippery slope to authoritarian rule.”