Malaysia’s parliament has approved amendments to the country’s sedition law, giving the government broad new powers to censor online media, according to news reports. The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the legislative amendments and calls on the government to stop using the law to threaten and persecute independent journalists.
Malaysian lawmakers aligned with the ruling United Malays National Organisation voted to stiffen the penalties of the 1948 Sedition Act, according to news reports. The penalties now include mandatory three- to seven-year jail terms for convictions, denial of bail for accusations in the name of the public interest, and allowances for authorities to ban and block online media deemed to be seditious, the reports said.
“The strengthening of Malaysia’s already draconian Sedition Act shows how desperate Prime Minister Najib Razak has become to silence media criticism of his government,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “CPJ calls on Najib’s government to repeal these outrageously punitive amendments to the act and refocus instead on passing laws that guarantee press and online freedoms.”
Authorities frequently abuse the colonial-era law’s provisions to threaten journalists who report critically about the government or judiciary, according to CPJ research. In recent weeks, Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government has increased pressure on independent online media and journalists through sedition accusations, CPJ research shows.
On April 3, Malaysian cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, also known as Zunar, was charged with nine counts of sedition for critical tweets he posted in February about a politically sensitive court decision. If convicted, Zunar faces up to 43 years in prison, news reports said citing his lawyer. It was not immediately clear whether the amendment will be applied to his trial, which is scheduled to begin on May 20.
Earlier this month, police detained three editors and two executives of The Malaysian Insider news portal on accusations of sedition in connection with a report on the proposed introduction of hudud, or punishments meted out under Islamic law, in the country’s northern Kelantan state. They were released without charge, according to news reports.
The law has also been increasingly used to threaten opposition politicians, academics, and activists, according to news reports.
Najib pledged to repeal the Sedition Act in mid-2012 as part of a raft of political reforms, according to news reports. He reversed that vow in a November 27, 2014, speech, saying his government would instead strengthen the law with a special clause “to protect the sanctity of Islam.”
Najib was quoted in news reports justifying the law’s amendment by saying, “You have to bear in mind that circumstances change. From time to time, we need to re-evaluate things, and leaders are allowed to change their mind when it comes to doing what is best for the [people],” he said.