Rising concern over freedom of expression under Malaysia's new government

Civil society leaders say there has been a decline in civil liberties compared to the previous Pakatan Harapan administration.
Civil society leaders say there has been a decline in civil liberties compared to the previous Pakatan Harapan administration.PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR - Opposition politicians and civil society leaders in Malaysia are growing increasingly concerned about the government's approach towards freedom of expression, following a week in which it initiated criminal investigations against a media outlet, a book publisher and a civil activist.

Perikatan Nasional, led by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has been in power for just over 100 days, and civil society leaders say there has already been a decline in civil liberties compared to the previous Pakatan Harapan administration that governed for 22 months, until the end of February.

Opposition lawmaker Sivarasa Rasiah said that the current government is in danger of reverting to the "bad old days" of Barisan Nasional, which had governed for six decades before losing to PH in May 2018.

"We are nowhere near the bottom of the class (in terms of human rights), but we are nowhere near the top of the class as well," Mr Sivarasa said during a discussion on freedom of expression under the new government organised by CSO Platform for Reform last Tuesday (July 7).

Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights chief human rights strategist Firdaus Husni said the current government scored lower on freedom of expression compared to the previous administration.

"We have seen a media ban at different levels - some media not allowed to cover judicial processes, media perceived as not friendly to the government not being allowed to cover the raids of migrants," Ms Firdaus said at the Tuesday event.

Malaysian authorities last week ramped up investigations against broadcaster Al Jazeera for its documentary on the government's raids on illegal migrant workers in May, during the country's partial shutdown for the coronavirus pandemic. The report alleged that the workers rounded up in the raids were mistreated in immigration detention camps.

Police confirmed on Tuesday that the "misleading" report would be investigated for offences under the Penal Code and the colonial-era Sedition Act, which outlaws speech deemed to incite unrest, racial or religious tensions. Six individuals from Al Jazeera were questioned by the police last Friday.

Al Jazeera said on Thursday that it was standing by its report. "Charging journalists for doing their jobs is not the action of a democracy that values free speech. Journalism is not a crime," it said in a statement.

Al Jazeera journalists arrive at the Bukit Aman police headquarters in Kuala Lumpur on July 10, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

Malaysia's police chief Abdul Hamid Bador on Friday sought to assure reporters that media freedom will be protected, but said the country has a set of laws that need to be adhered to.

"This is the safest country (for media), don't worry," he said during a press conference. He also stressed that his subordinates will uphold basic human rights in dealing with any individual, including undocumented migrants.

Meanwhile the immigration department said it was seeking a Bangladeshi migrant who appeared in the Al Jazeera documentary, and warned foreigners living in Malaysia that their residency passes could be revoked if they are deemed to have made statements damaging to the country.

Authorities also started a criminal defamation investigation against civil activist Heidy Quah, who was questioned for several hours on Tuesday.

Ms Quah, who heads Refuge for Refugees - a non-governmental organisation that provides aid to refugees - came under the police radar following a Facebook post in which she detailed the conditions at immigration depots in June.

Previously, the police had initiated, and ultimately dropped, a criminal probe on South China Morning Post journalist Tashny Sukumaran over a series of social media posts about the migrant raids.

Meanwhile, two weeks ago, the Home Ministry banned a book on the 2018 elections, saying its cover illustration had insulted the Malaysian coat-of-arms. The police have since questioned several journalists who contributed articles for the book, and also raided its publisher, Gerakbudaya.

The country's new attorney general Idrus Harun in June initiated contempt proceedings against online news outlet Malaysiakini over readers' comments on its site regarding the judiciary. The case is currently being heard at the Federal Court.

Lembah Pantai MP Fahmi Fadzil, of opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat, on Tuesday urged the government to give its assurance that it is not "anti-media or anti-freedom of speech".

Malaysia was ranked 145th in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) press freedom index when PH took over government in 2018.

The country has since climbed over 40 places to rank 101st in the latest RSF report, which was released in April.

Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said that the government should stop treating "criticism as a crime".

"Since the new government took office, freedom of speech and the press have faced renewed threats in Malaysia," he said in a statement last Wednesday.