Malaysian authorities are increasingly responding to criticism of the government by initiating criminal investigations, a leading rights group have said, citing recent cases of the government targeting Al Jazeera staff and other journalists.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said via statement that journalists, civil society activists, and ordinary people have all recently faced police questioning for peaceful speech under broadly worded laws that violate the right to freedom of expression.
“Malaysia’s Perikatan Nasional government is increasingly responding to public criticism by carrying out abusive investigations on specious charges,” said Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director. “Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin should recognize that everyone has a right to criticize their government without fear of investigation or prosecution.”
HRW said that the most recent target of the government’s ire is Al Jazeera, which produced a documentary about Malaysia’s treatment of migrant workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. After denouncing the documentary as “deceptive and unethical,” Defense Minister Ismail Saabri said that Al Jazeera should “apologize to all Malaysians.” The police subsequently announced that they were investigating Al Jazeera for sedition, defamation, and violation of the Communications and Multimedia Act.
In an apparent case of retaliation, the country’s Immigration Department announced that it was looking for one of the migrants interviewed in the Al Jazeera report. The department’s director general warned that foreigners who “make inaccurate statements aimed at sullying the country” would face potential revocation of their visas or work passes. In the documentary, Al Jazeera reported that it had reached out to the government and sought interviews with senior officials, but those interview requests had been denied.
Another example given by HRW was that of Boo Su-Lyn, editor of the health news portal CodeBlue, who announced on June 6 that she was being investigated for a series of articles about the findings of an independent investigation into an October 2016 hospital fire that killed six patients. Boo Su-Lyn stated that the findings on which she based her articles had been declassified.
In another case targeting the media, the HRW pointed out how the country’s attorney-general filed contempt proceedings against the online news portal Malaysiakini and its editor, Steven Gan, based on comments posted by the outlet’s readers. The rights group pointed out that the Committee for Independent Journalism and the Malaysian Bar Council are among those who have expressed concern about the implications of the case for media freedom.
Activists and ordinary people are also facing criminal investigation for speech critical of the government, said HRW. On July 7, the police questioned the director of NGO Refuge for the Refugees about a social media post alleging mistreatment of refugees at immigration detention centers. HRW said that the activist, Heidy Quah, is being investigated for defamation and violation of section 233 of the CMA and was required to surrender her phone to the police.
On July 3, the rights said that a retiree was fined RM2,000 (US$470) for posting “insulting” comments about the health minister on social media, even though the court noted that the criticism “was not overboard or malicious in nature.” He will have to serve a month in jail if he fails to pay the fine.
While none of those investigations have yet resulted in criminal charges, others have been prosecuted for peaceful speech, said HRW who gave three examples of individuals charged for having critical voices.
“Since the new government took office, freedom of speech and the press have faced renewed threats in Malaysia,” Robertson said. “The government needs to stop treating criticism as a crime and take immediate steps to amend or repeal the abusive laws being used against critical speech.”