Freedom of expression – the cornerstone of democracy

In 2021, Malaysians battled not just a spike of new Covid infections and the economic hardships that came with longer lockdowns, but also a sharp increase in individuals and groups being persecuted by oppressive laws for their criticism of those in power.

Civil society organisations saw that laws such as the Sedition Act and the Communications and Multimedia Act were used to silence dissent while our fundamental human rights were suspended or derogated in the name of navigating new waves of Covid cases.

On 10 December 2021, nine organisations working on freedom of expression came together to co-organise the International Human Rights Day 2021 celebration to draw attention to some of the problems affecting human rights in 2021 and to advocate for real change in 2022.

Themed “humanising human rights” or “merakyatkan hak asasi manusia” in Bahasa Malaysia, the event was led by the Centre for Independent Journalism, and co-organised by Article 19 Malaysia, Freedom Film Network, Kryss Network, Sinar Project, Sisters in Islam, Gerakan Media Merdeka, Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) and the Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights.

This platform was to remind us that human rights are inherent in and permeate all facets of life. We aim to humanise human rights so it is not perceived as an abstract concept not relatable to ordinary people.

The event line-up featured a photo exhibition in collaboration with two different groups, one The Biddys, a national photo-journalist group and Eyes That Speak by Buku Jalanan Chow Kit.

Further, to symbolise the right to speech, expression and opinion we had a line-up of performances, which is also important to reflect inclusivity and that all communities should be respected. These performances include Malaysian poets Pyan Habib, Dhabitah Zainal, Pavithrah Sambu, Kimchi, Wani Ardy and Shamsad, a refugee from Pakistan.

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We also had Naaraayini Balasubramaniam, Santosh Logandran and Sri Suriya Prakash to serenade us with live music. Last but not least, we exhibited women’s voices from Krysss Network’s 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence.

In an increasingly shrinking democratic space, civil society organisations working on freedom of expression are here to claim democratic spaces and to remind Malaysians and all alike that the freedom to express is the cornerstone to democracy and the exercise of all rights.

Choosing to platform the work of photo-journalists and live performances of local artists symbolise the importance of having a free media, the power of images in journalism and the role information plays in the socio-political context of the country. It is also testament to how rights are respected in this country.

The exhibition of women’s voices is also an important reminder that freedom of expression and gender equality is mutually reinforcing. It is a celebration of women who have been speaking up and loud against power and patriarchy.

Human Rights Day on 10 December 2021 also saw the release of CIJ’s report on the state of freedom of expression in Malaysia 2021, which documents cases of how problematic laws were used to curtail the right to speech, expression and assembly both online and offline.

Going into 2022, we urge M{s and policymakers to repeal and review laws that prevent us from exercising our fundamental rights. The Sedition Act 1948, the Official Secrets Act 1972 and the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 should be repealed while Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, the Film Censorship Act 2002 and the Finas Act 1981 must be reviewed and amended.

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We also urge the government to:

  • promote transparency and access to open data by enacting right to information legislation
  • promote media freedom by setting up an independent and self-regulated media council. It must stop arbitrary censorship of any form of expression by any group
  • end the intimidation and harassment of civil society groups, journalists and members of the public who question the authorities in an attempt to hold them accountable
  • adopt specific policy and appropriate measurements to protect and promote women’s freedom of expression, including elimination of online gender-based violence, gender stereotypes, negative social norms and discriminatory attitudes

In the spirit of International Human Rights Day we also urge the government to commit to developing a roadmap towards the ratification of international human rights treaties, in particular the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

Endorsed by:

  • Centre for Independent Journalism
  • Freedom Film Network
  • Kryss Network
  • Sisters In Islam (SIS)
  • Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram)
  • Gerakan Media Merdeka (Geramm)
  • Sinar Project

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