Malaysia’s Crackdown on Free Speech Threatens 2018 Election, Say Critics

Malaysia’s use of criminal laws to arrest, question, and prosecute individuals for peaceful speech and assembly has dramatically escalated in the past year, warn human rights groups.

Throughout 2016, prosecutions of peaceful speech in Malaysia spread beyond activists and politicians to ordinary citizens on social media, says Human Rights Watch. The government’s actions suggest an ever-broadening crackdown on freedom of expression and assembly in the country, which many believe could undermine free and fair elections next year.

The crackdown traces back to 2015, when the government used the Sedition Act to arrest and charge journalists critical of the government – especially those asking questions about a state investment vehicle called 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

Set up by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in 2009 to promote economic development in the developing South East Asian state, 1MDB evolved into a major corruption scandal.

The U.S. Dept of Justice alleges that $3.5bn has been taken from the fund, later finding its way to numerous associates of the Prime Minister and to Razak himself, believed to have subsequently embarked on a lavish international spending spree.

Freedom House reported that some journalists covering the case received threats or were physically attacked by members of the public.

Throughout 2016, Malaysian authorities stepped up the pressure, using the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) and the Sedition Act to arrest those criticising the administration of Prime Minister Najib Razak.

According to Human Rights Watch, the government also used the CMA to suspend newspapers and block websites reporting on the scandal, and repeatedly arrested those involved in peaceful protests surrounding 1MDB.

Even the government’s own investigation into the scandal are shrouded in secrecy. Under the Official Secrets Act, the Auditor General’s Report on the scandal was labelled classified and opposition VP Rafizi Ramli was sentenced to 18 months in prison in November for allegedly disclosing information from the report.

Worse, in August 2016, Prime Minister Razak introduced the National Security Council law, which suspends restraints on police powers in any region of the country that the government deems a security risk. This allows authorities to conduct arrests, searches and seizures without warrants.

Leaders of opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan called for the legislation to be put on hold, saying that it blurs “the inviolable lines that separates the Executive, Legislative and Judiciary”  and that “the constitutional separation of military power from the office of the Prime Minister must be upheld in order for Malaysian democracy to be safeguarded for generations to come.”

So far, their calls have not been met – and civil society organisations are now concerned that the gagging of opposition voices will undermine the country’s election in 2018.

Last year, on the eve of a major rally, police raided the offices of the Bersih group, a loose coalition of organisations pushing for fair elections and other reforms in human rights, seizing computers, mobile phones and documents. Chairperson Maria Chin Abdullah and secretary Mandeep Singh were also arrested, and Abdullah remains in solitary confinement.

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