Freedom of the Press
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In 2014, a string of arrests, charges, and investigations under the Sedition Act raised alarm about use of the law to stifle opposition to the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.
Article 10 of the constitution guarantees freedom of expression, but it also allows for a host of limitations on this right. The 1948 Sedition Act and harsh criminal defamation laws are regularly used to impose restrictions on the press and other critics of the government. The Sedition Act is a relic of British colonial rule criminalizing any act with “seditious tendency” that might “excite disaffection” or “bring into hatred or contempt” the rule of government. It does not require the prosecution to prove intent and provides for up to three years’ imprisonment for those found guilty. In November 2014, Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak announced that he would reverse his 2012 pledge to abolish the act, prompting sharp outcry from prodemocracy and human rights groups. What appeared to be a crackdown on political opposition involved multiple arrests, including of members of Parliament, opposition politicians, student activists, a university professor, and online news portal Malaysiakini’s Penang correspondent Susan Loone. Loone was held and questioned for more than eight hours for reporting that Penang executive councilor Phee Boon Poh had been treated “like a criminal” when he was arrested for being part of an unregistered voluntary organization set up by the Penang state government. At the end of December, Amnesty International reported that at least 44 people had been investigated, charged, or convicted under the Sedition Act since 2013.
In May, Prime Minister Najib Razak initiated legal action against the online news portal Malaysiakini and two of its editors over critical comments by readers in the portal’s “Your Say” column. The prime minister demanded that the news site apologize, retract the columns, and promise not to publish such comments in the future. The decision by a sitting prime minister to sue a media organization for defamation in his personal capacity was highly unusual for Malaysia.
Political cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Haque, better known as Zunar, was questioned by the police in November regarding his latest book, Komplot Penjarakan Anwar (Plot to Jail Anwar). During the preceding weeks, three of Zunar’s assistants and the company that manages online sales of the book were also questioned. These incidents followed a unanimous Appeals Court decision in October rejecting a government charge of sedition against Zunar, stating that the Malaysian government had acted “unreasonably and irrationally” by banning two of his other cartoon collections. Malaysia’s Ministry of Home Affairs announced it would appeal this decision, but the trial was ongoing at the end of the year.
In late December, five presenters from the radio station Business FM 89.9 (BFM) were investigated under the Sedition Act, reportedly in relation to on-air discussions regarding Islam. The police report against the BFM presenters alleged that BFM has a strategy to create a “liberal country” that would “destroy the integrity of Islam and create confusion among the people.” Such police reports by conservative groups are not unusual in Malaysia. In June, the federal court turned down an appeal by an archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church against a decision of the Home Affairs Ministry to ban the use of the word “Allah” in the church’s weekly The Herald; Allah is a common word for god in Malay but has been banned for use by non-Muslims since 2013.
Although the opposition-controlled states of Selangor and Penang passed freedom of information laws in 2011, Malaysia has no federal law with such guarantees, and officials remain reluctant to share even innocuous information with journalists—including the content of proposed legislation—for fear of being charged under the Official Secrets Act.
The Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) gives the communications and multimedia minister a large measure of discretionary authority over broadcast licenses. The BN reviewed existing media licensing and censorship laws in 2012, and a resulting amendment to the 1984 Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) repealed a provision that had required all publishers and printing firms to obtain an annual operating permit. However, the revision left all other restrictions in place, including the government’s authority to grant or deny license applications and to revoke the required licenses at any time without judicial review. The Home Affairs Ministry may also issue “show cause” letters, which require newspapers to explain certain articles or face suspension or revocation of their permits. In February 2014, the Home Ministry notified the Edge publishing group that it was revoking a license to the group to establish a paper called FZ Daily. The license had been granted in August 2013 but suspended a week later. Although no reason was given for the revocation or the earlier suspension of the license, Edge Media Group owner Tong Kooi Ong suggested that it may have been the result of collusion among media companies seeking to protect their interests. The Edge group also owns the weekly magazine The Heat, which was suspended indefinitely in 2013 over alleged violations of the terms of its publishing license. Critics of the suspension argued that it was politically motivated, as the magazine had recently published a feature article detailing lavish spending by the prime minister and his wife. The Heat was permitted to resume publication in February 2014.
In 2013, the Federal Department of Islamic Development issued a call for stronger internet regulation, and Communications and Multimedia Minister Ahmad Shabery Cheek noted that the government was studying the possibility of regulating online news portals; the government has taken no further action on these proposals.
The internet remains a bright spot in the media landscape, with the government formally committed to a policy of refraining from direct online censorship through Section 3(3) of the CMA and the Multimedia Bill of Guarantees. However, web content is monitored by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC). Foreign print media are occasionally censored or banned.
Self-censorship is common due to the legal and economic environments. Physical harassment and intimidation are usually less of a danger for journalists than arbitrary arrest or threats of legal action, though incidents are occasionally reported. There were numerous reports of cyberattacks on independent news sites leading up to the 2013 general elections.
Although the media industry is dominated by private ownership, the majority of print and broadcast outlets are controlled either by political parties in the ruling coalition or by businesses with political connections to the government. The largest media conglomerate, Media Prima, owns half of the Malay and English-language newspapers as well as many television channels; it is believed to be closely linked to the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the leading party of the BN. Huaren Management, which is associated with another BN member, the Malaysian Chinese Association, monopolizes Chinese-language newspapers. Despite the BN’s insistence that mainstream newspapers are impartial, the owners’ political and business interests often lead to self-censorship by journalists.
With around 68 percent of the population accessing the internet in 2014, Malaysia is home to many news websites and blogs that offer competing points of view. Although not all internet news organizations are politically independent—many have suspected affiliations with politicians from either the opposition or the ruling coalition—they offer an array of political opinions that cannot be found in the traditional media. Social-networking sites such as Facebook continued to flourish in 2014, hosting vigorous debates on political issues and government policies. The internet has also been a place to challenge corruption and raise human rights concerns, though existing laws require bloggers to tread carefully.