Freedom of expression in peril in Malaysia

FILE PHOTO: Malaysia's Prime Minister and Finance Minister Anwar Ibrahim tables the 2024 Malaysia's budget at the Malaysian parliament, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, October 13, 2023. Famer Roheni/Department of Information Malaysia/ Handout via REUTERS/ FILE PHOTO

A coalition of Malaysian civil society organisations has urged the government to expedite legal reforms pertaining to laws governing freedom of expression, citing a noticeable increase in their application over the past year. Expressing concern, the civil society fears that the recent Cabinet reshuffle announced by Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim might further impede these reforms.

Despite promises by the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government to repeal laws such as the Sedition Act and the Communications and Multimedia Act during their campaign for the 15th general elections last November, these laws continue to be enforced. PH now constitutes a unity government alongside Barisan Nasional and several Borneo-based parties.

The civil society organisations reported a rise in incidents involving these laws compared to the previous year, with some cases doubling. The failure of the government to implement promised reforms raises doubts about its commitment to fostering an open and democratic society, according to the organisations.

A report by the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) released on December 10 underlined the need for progress in freedom of expression one year into the formation of the unity government. The report highlights concern about the persistent use of Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act and the doubling of cases under the Sedition Act.

While the PH manifesto initially promised significant reforms, the government received criticism for not adequately addressing these commitments. Civil society reports also point to the continued use of these laws in cases related to race, religion, and royalty.

Several reports by human rights organisations highlights a significant regression in freedom of expression. The reports note that despite engaging with stakeholders, the government’s political will for substantive reforms remains uncertain. It criticizes the justifications provided by lawmakers, including Mr. Anwar, for maintaining laws such as the Sedition Act based on national security and stability. The government was accused for the disproportionate use of the Communications and Multimedia Act for censorship.

Malaysia announced a major cabinet reshuffle on December 12, with new ministers being appointed to key portfolios, including finance, foreign affairs and health. The move comes one year into Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s administration, which faces slowing economic growth and criticism that promised reforms are not being implemented fast enough.

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