The lower house of the Malaysian parliament has passed amendments to the 1948 Sedition Act that have been condemned by lawyers and human rights organisations as a further assault on fundamental liberties.
The deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, said: “The newly passed amendments to the Sedition Act are a human rights disaster for Malaysia that will have a profound chilling effect on freedom of expression, both in daily life and in online communication.”
Changes have been made to the proposed amendments and the legislation would now retain the right to bail for those accused of sedition. However, those granted bail could still be prevented from leaving Malaysia.
The amended law would empower courts to issue an order for allegedly seditious material to be removed from the Internet.
Roberston said: “By extending the law’s reach further into the Internet, setting out draconian sentencing requirements, and adding religion to the areas of coverage, Malaysia is setting the stage to deepen its ongoing crackdown on freedom of speech.”
The fact that “criticism that incites disaffection against the government and the administration of justice” was no longer included in the sedition law was a step forward, Robertson said. However, there was still far too much scope in the legislation that gave wide discretion to the authorities “to target, harass and intimidate political opponents and activists, as has been seen over the past year”.
The amendments, which were passed in the early hours of Friday morning by a vote of 108 to 79, must still be approved by the Senate, and gain royal approval, but the upper parliamentary chamber is also dominated by the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, so there is no doubt that the changes will go through.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, said in a statement that the amendments risked seriously undermining freedom of expression and opinion throughout Malaysia.
The high commissioner urged Malaysia to bring its legislation into line with international human rights standards. “These proposals are particularly worrying given that the Sedition Act has been applied in many instances to curb the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression in Malaysia – including through the arrests of individuals for merely tweeting their criticism of government policies and judicial decisions,” he said.
Zeid said that, since the beginning of 2014, at least 78 people had been investigated or charged under the Sedition Act and, in 2015 alone, at least 36 individuals had already been investigated or charged.
The high commissioner urged the Malaysian government to review the cases of all those who have been charged under the Sedition Act.
The newly-introduced Section 4(1A) of the Sedition Act creates a new offence of “aggravated sedition” and stipulates that those who cause bodily injury and/or property damage when committing sedition crimes will now face jail terms of between five and twenty years. There would also be a minimum sentence of three years, and courts would no longer have the option to impose fines upon conviction for a Section 4 sedition offence.
Zeid also voiced concern at the passage of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) Bill in the lower house of parliament on Tuesday. “Among the serious human rights shortcomings in the law are provisions which permit the indefinite detention of individuals without trial and grant sweeping powers to law enforcement authorities,” he said.
“Silencing dissent does not nurture social stability, but an open democratic space does,” he added. “Curtailing the legitimate exercise of human rights in the name of fighting terrorism has been shown, time and again, to backfire and to only lead to festering discontent and a strong sense of injustice.”
Lawyers for Liberty has described the sedition amendments as “absolutely scandalous”. The lawyers said the amendment Bill constituted “an appalling setback, the most serious assault on the nation’s democracy, fundamental liberties, and rule of law as it makes the already draconian Sedition Act far worse”.
The executive director of lawyers for Liberty, Eric Paulsen, who was recently arrested under the Sedition Act for comments about hudud (Islamic law), told the Malay Mail Online that if the sedition law was to be applied to its fullest extent, social media and the Internet would not be able to function in Malaysia. “Users would probably err on the side of caution and only share non-controversial contents, for example, cute kittens.”
Lawyer Michelle Yesudas, who has also been arrested under the Sedition Act, tweeted: “law just passed to allow prohibition orders to ensure no access electronic devices if found to be seditious. Welcome to the dark age.”
There have already been numerous arrests under the Sedition Act, and many calls for its repeal. Critics say it is a legacy of colonial rule that is being used to crack down on dissent.
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