Government must stop threatening freedom of expression

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Amnesty International Malaysia is alarmed by the statement issued on 14 May by Home Minister Hamzah Zainuddin threatening to use laws including the Sedition Act, Penal Code, and Communications and Multimedia Act against those peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression.

“The government’s threat to continue using repressive provisions that limit citizens’ right to freedom of expression demonstrates a complete disregard for free speech,” said Preethi Bhardwaj, interim executive director of Amnesty International Malaysia.

“There is a real danger that these laws could be used arbitrarily to silence legitimate government criticism and dissenting opinions. Laws that criminalise the peaceful exercise of freedom of expression are overly harsh and vague and have no place in society,” said Bhardwaj.

Silencing criticism

Malaysia has recently seen an alarming rise in persecution of individuals for comments on social media. On 9 May, former radio personality Patrick Teoh was arrested for allegedly insulting Johor Crown Prince Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim on Facebook. Teoh has since been released on bail after being detained for six days.

Similarly, multiple individuals have been criminally charged and sentenced in recent weeks for expressing their displeasure towards the authorities on social media.

On 27 March, Nurshahira Mohd Mizuar, a 20-year-old shopkeeper, was sentenced to a RM10,000 fine as well as three months in jail for insulting the police for ordering her to return home under the movement control order.

On 8 May, business owner Shamsubahrin Ismail was charged over remarks he allegedly made on social media criticising the government’s prosecution of those violating the quarantine orders.

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Investigations against Nurshahira, Shamsubahrin and Teoh were all based on alleged violations of Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA).

Amnesty International Malaysia has repeatedly called on the government to repeal this and similar provisions – such as Section 505 of the Penal Code which defines the offence of “statements conducing to public mischief” – due to their broadly defined offences.

“Previous governments have used the Communications and Multimedia Act to persecute and jail political opponents as well as activists who dared to speak up against authorities,” said Bhardwaj. “We cannot return to such bleak times. It is extremely worrying that the new government is increasing its use of such provisions to stifle free expression once again.”

Fake news

Section 233 of the CMA has also been used to conduct investigations and arrests against those suspected of spreading “fake news.” To date, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) has opened as many as 262 investigation papers in connection with the dissemination of fake news on Covid-19, with 29 individuals charged in court.

“As important as combating misinformation during a pandemic is, limitations to freedom of expression must be necessary and proportionate for the protection of public health, and must only be conducted under a clear and accessible law. Section 233 of the CMA falls short of these requirements,” said Bhardwaj.

Blanket prohibitions based on unclear terms like “misinformation” and “fake news” are neither necessary nor proportionate for the protection of public health and are therefore incompatible with the right to freedom of expression. On the contrary, they could cause individuals and media to practise self-censorship for fear of arrest, stemming a proper flow of information that may be valuable in times of crisis – or they may be used to target critical voices.

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“We urge the government to drop criminal charges against those accused of spreading ‘fake news’ as well as release those detained for similar offences. The best way to pre-empt misinformation is through a reliable and prompt system of accurate information that leads to increased trust in the government by the general public,” said Bhardwaj.

Background

On 16 March Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced a movement control order that would take effect from 18 March until 31 March. Malaysians were told to stay at home; social and religious gatherings were prohibited; and educational institutions and non-essential businesses and services were shut down.

On 25 March the order was extended by another two weeks from 1 April to 14 April, with stricter rules being enforced by the authorities.

The order was further extended by another two weeks to last until 28 April, with even stricter guidelines such as immediate detainment for those caught violating the order.

On 1 May the government announced it would implement a conditional movement control order from 4 May to 12 May. The conditional order introduced more relaxed conditions of the movement control order to begin reopening Malaysia’s economy. On 10 May, the conditional movement control order was likewise extended until 9 June.

Senior Minister (Security Cluster) Ismail Sabri Yaakob said that under Section 24 of the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988 (Act 342), the court could impose a jail sentence of up to two years against those found to have violated the movement control order and jail terms of up to five years for subsequent offences

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Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 broadly defines the offence of “improper use of network facilities or network service”. Those found guilty under this provision face a maximum fine of RM50,000 or imprisonment of up to one year or both.

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