Muhyiddin government escalating efforts to silence dissent

Global civil society alliance Civicus is extremely concerned by the escalation of repression of critical voices by the Malaysian authorities in recent weeks.

These cases highlight an increasing intolerance for dissent by the government as they seek to hold on to power and are creating a chilling effect on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

On 23 April 2021, the police arrested activist and artist Fahmi Reza under Section 4(1) of the draconian Sedition Act and Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) in relation to a satirical Spotify playlist about the Queen. He was released the day after, but the investigation is ongoing. Previously, in March 2021, he was questioned by the police about two caricatures of the health minister that he posted on multiple social media platforms.

On 28 April, it was reported that another cartoonist, Zulkifli Anwar Ulhaque – who goes by the pen name Zunar – is also being investigated by police over a satirical drawing in January 2021 that mocked the Kedah chief minister for his decision to cancel a holiday to mark a Hindu festival. Officials had defended cancelling the holiday, blaming the Covid pandemic. He is being investigated under Section 505c of the Penal Code for ‘incitement’ and Section 233 of the CMA.

“The Malaysian authorities have become so fearful of dissent that anyone who dares to speak out including artists and cartoonists face judicial harassment. The government must end this absurd probe of Fahmi Reza and Zunar, halt its use of restrictive laws and respect the right to freedom of expression that is guaranteed in the Constitution,” said Josef Benedict, Asia Pacific researcher for Civicus.

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The authorities have also sought to harass peaceful protesters for exercising their fundamental freedoms. On 29 March, police summoned 11 individuals to give a statement for a peaceful protest held outside Parliament to protest the Election Commission’s delay in implementing the 18-year voting age. Those hauled up include the organisers and opposition politicians. According to reports they are being investigated under Section 9(5) of the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 for gathering without notification.

On 1 May, it was reported that police want to question eight people for attending a solidarity gathering for activist Fahmi Reza. The gathering was held on 14 April outside the Dang Wangi district police headquarters after police detained Fahmi overnight. The eight include one parliamentarian, two politicians, and five civil society members. Those from civil society include Suaram executive director Sevan Doraisamy, youth activist Wong Yan Ke, Article 19 Malaysia programme officer E Nalini, Edict executive director Khalid Mohd Ismath and activist Numan Afifi Saadan.

On the same day, the police said it will be calling up around 90 participants of a physically distanced sit-in protest in front of the Parliament on 30 April, where participants broke their fast together for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The rally was held to call for the reopening of Parliament, which had been suspended following the January 2021 declaration of a state of emergency, purportedly to deal with the pandemic. This emergency has been questioned by civil society who have accused the prime minister of using the pandemic to cling to power by preventing Parliament from convening and determining if he still has the majority to form a government.

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“The harassment of peaceful protesters highlights the shrinking space for fundamental freedoms under the Perikatan Nasional government. The questioning of these individuals is aimed at creating a climate of fear and stifling criticism of the government and must end. As a country that is seeking membership of the Human Rights Council, these actions clearly run contrary to international human rights law and standards that such a body is supposed to protect,” said Benedict.

In a joint report with Article 19 released in March 2021, our organisations found that the Perikatan Nasional government has undermined and obstructed the exercise of fundamental freedoms. It has initiated baseless criminal proceedings against government critics, human rights defenders, journalists and individuals expressing critical opinions. It has also attempted to silence peaceful protesters and impede the formation of political parties to keep itself in power.

Civic space in Malaysia is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the Civicus Monitor.

Civicus: World Alliance for Citizen Participation is a global alliance of civil society organisations (CSOs) and activists dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society around the world. Founded in 1993, Civicus has more than 10,000 members in more than 175 countries throughout the world.

Josef Benedict is a civic space researcher with Civicus: World Alliance for Citizen Participation

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