Punishing dissent shrinks space for freedom of expression and assembly

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Photograph: Fahmi Reza

The use of repressive and draconian legislation against Wan Ji Wan Hussin and Fahmi Reza signals a deep concern for the freedom of expression and assembly in Malaysia, says Amnesty International Malaysia.

The Sedition Act 1948 has been used to stifle the rights of religious figure Wan Ji Wan Hussin while activist and cartoonist Fahmi Reza has been again found guilty under the draconian Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998.

“Despite repeated calls to both the old and new government to repeal or amend repressive legislation, we are seeing individuals fall victim to these laws, indicating that the fight to enlarge the space to exercise one’s freedoms is far from over,” said Shamini Darshni Kaliemuthu, executive director of Amnesty International Malaysia.

On 10 July 2019, the Shah Alam High Court rejected Wan Ji Wan Hussin’s appeal against his conviction under the Sedition Act for making seditious remarks against the Sultan of Selangor in Facebook posts in 2012.

“The restrictions on the right to freedom of expression imposed in the Sedition Act are phrased in an excessively broad and vague manner, potentially resulting in both an overreach of the law and potential for abusive application of the law. The law should have been abolished by now, as per Pakatan Harapan’s manifesto,” Shamini said, adding that the government should move to abolish the law immediately.

Last Friday, the Court of Appeal decided to uphold Fahmi Reza’s conviction under the Communications and Multimedia Act for uploading a clown-face caricature of former Prime Minister Najib Razak on his social media account.

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“Satire is not a crime. Fahmi, like Wan Ji, should not have been charged in the first place under the Barisan Nasional government. Now that Fahmi’s conviction has been upheld, we see that opportunity for expressing dissenting views is still not fully realised.”

Article 19 of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states that everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his or her choice.

Amnesty International Malaysia is also concerned with the possible questioning of Umno leader Lokman Noor Adam under the Peaceful Assembly Act.

“According to the UN Human Rights Committee, a requirement to notify the police of an intended demonstration in a public place six hours before its commencement may be compatible with the permitted limitations laid down in Article 21 of the ICCPR. The role of the police should be to facilitate an assembly, and to ensure order and provide protection for the rally participants.

“Questioning Lokman Noor Adam for not providing a notice to the police clashes with his right to organise an assembly. While we may not agree with reasons for a public assembly is called, Amnesty International Malaysia will always support the freedom of individuals to assemble and express their opinions,” Shamini said.

Article 21 of the ICCPR states that the right of peaceful assembly shall be recognised. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

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“The Sedition Act, Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act as well as the Peaceful Assembly Act have historically been used to stifle dissent, particularly given the laws’ broad scope, vague definitions of offences, and harsh penalties.

“The Pakatan Harapan has promised to abolish or amend these laws in their election manifesto and thus far, there has been a lack of attempt to do so. Those in power must move swiftly to correct the injustices of the past,” Shamini said.

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