An open letter to Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim:
We, the undersigned organisations, write to you to express our concern about the government’s lack of concrete intention to repeal the Sedition Act 1948.
This is reflected in not only the 21 March statements by the deputy law and institutional reforms minister about “no plans at this point in time” to abolish this legislation, but also the 7 June parliamentary reply by the national unity minister indicating that the Sedition Act alongside other “existing laws” will continue to be enforced to “handle any action that relates to racial or religious sensitivities”.
The incompatibility of the Sedition Act with international human rights standards in freedom of expression requires no further introduction. The legislation was passed by the British colonial government to suppress communist activity, with its existence predating even Malaysia’s independence.
Whilst amendments were made to the act in 2015, it is still to this day being used by state actors to criminalise dissent, especially among activists, members of the media and opposition lawmakers.
As long as the individual’s conduct, words or publication is perceived to have a “seditious tendency”, which broadly or loosely is defined at the whims of the government, the said individual can be investigated, arrested, detained or charged.
Recently in 2020, for example, the government of the day used this law to investigate a foreign news agency for reporting an issue as critical as the government’s poor handling of undocumented migrants in the country during the movement control order.
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The Sedition Act is incompatible with the international right to freedom of expression standards.
The law is ambiguous and unclear, and, therefore, not prescribed by law. It grants authorities too much discretion for arbitrary enforcement to criminalise speech and expression. It does not pursue a legitimate aim, where the law is abused to clamp down on dissent, which poses no genuine threat to public harmony or national security.
Penalties under the Sedition Act 1948 are also disproportionately heavy, with first-time offences already incurring a hefty fine of RM5,000 or imprisonment of up to three years.
Freedom of expression is not a token to be awarded or withdrawn at will. It is a fundamental freedom that the government is obliged to fully and truly uphold, regardless of the politics or sociocultural context of the day. Disagreement is intrinsic to democracy.
As we align ourselves with the values of Masyarakat Madani (a Civil Society), it is imperative that we also practise them by prioritising dialogue and consensus-building, instead of continuing to exercise repressive laws to quash differences of opinion, which can only deepen existing socio-cultural and political divisions.
The Pakatan Harapan coalition has consistently promised to repeal or revoke the Sedition Act in both manifestos over the 2018 and 2022 general elections. As the flagbearer of institutional reform, we ask that you break away from past cycles of repression and take concrete steps to repeal this archaic piece of legislation.
It is imperative that your administration provides a timeline to review and finally repeal the act. This timeline should also include the imposition of a moratorium pending the eventual repeal of the act. During the previous Pakatan Harapan administration, the moratorium was only in force for less than two months before it was suspended and subsequently followed by the status quo of abuse of the act by state actors against dissenters.
With many in government including yourself having been long-time members of the opposition, we are certain that you recognise the high potential for abuse of repressive laws such as the Sedition Act by the government of the day to target government critics, including human rights defenders and opposition parliamentarians. We urge that you swiftly act on this recognition.
It has been 64 years since our first general election after Malaya’s independence, and we should know better by now. For Malaysia to become a fully functioning democracy, all citizens should be able to fully exercise their civil liberties, and on that note, freedom of expression must be fully protected. The Sedition Act 1948 thus has to go.
Gerakan Hapus Akta Hasutan
Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram)
Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ)
Teoh Beng Hock Trust For Democracy