The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) condemns the Malaysian federal court’s dismissal of a constitutional challenge to the Malaysian Sedition Act. In the 1940s, the United Kingdom introduced the act to discourage dissent against colonial rule. The Malaysian government has continued this practice by applying the law as a catchall provision to crackdown on its critics. Under the act it is a crime to “bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against any Ruler” and to “question any matter . . . established or protected” by the Malaysian Constitution.
“This ruling makes Malaysia’s constitution a meaningless piece of paper, as it effectively denies legal protection to any government criticism,” said HRF president Thor Halvorssen. “The court’s decision sets a dangerous precedent that Malaysian courts will do what is necessary to protect the interests of the country’s rulers. The Malaysian government must repeal the Sedition Act, and those detained under the law must be released immediately,” added Halvorssen.
A bill was passed earlier this year to amend the Sedition Act, ultimately removing Section 3(1)(c), which makes it a crime to criticize the government and the judiciary. However, equally restrictive Sections 3(1)(a) and 3(1)(f) remain in place. These provisions make it a crime to speak against the ruler of the country or to question any matter protected under the constitution. Additionally, the maximum jail sentence for sedition was increased from three to seven years in Section 4(1).
Azmi Sharom, a law lecturer at the Universiti Malaya, challenged the Sedition Act’s constitutionality after he was charged under the law for posting an article online criticizing the nation’s constitutional monarch. He argued that the Sedition Act conflicts with Malaysia’s constitution, which promises the freedom of speech, assembly, and association. Given the court’s decision rejecting his challenge, Azmi Sharom now faces either three years in prison, a fine of $1160, or both. Freedom of the press advocacy groups have expressed concern over Azmi Sharom’s conviction and called for the law to be repealed.
Since 2014, the Malaysian government has targeted almost one hundred individuals under the Sedition Act, including more than one dozen opposition politicians who have been charged or are currently being investigated. In one instance this year cartoonist Zulkifi ‘Zunar’ Anwar Uljaqur has been repeatedly investigated, detained, and charged by the police for drawing critical cartoons featuring Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister.
“The charges being brought under the Sedition Act against journalists and politicians are typical of the pattern of abuse by authoritarian regimes, consisting of the overly broad construction and targeted application of ‘incitement’ and ‘official defamation’ provisions in order to suppress speech that should be perfectly legal in a democratic society. Vague and overly broad charges like ‘exciting hatred or contempt against the ruler’ or ‘questioning any matter established in the constitution’ are in clear violation of international law,” said Javier El-Hage, chief legal officer of HRF. “These criminal charges are used to stifle speech critical of the government by broadly deeming it inciteful or defamatory, while shifting the burden of proof for truth or falsity on to unjustly accused journalists and opposition politicians, whose very job is to scrutinize the actions of government officials and institutions,” added El-Hage.
The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that promotes and protects human rights globally, with a focus on closed societies. HRF’s International Council includes human rights advocates George Ayittey, Vladimir Bukovsky, Palden Gyatso, Garry Kasparov, Mutabar Tadjibaeva, Elie Wiesel, and Harry Wu.