A ‘Black day’ for free speech as Malaysia amends sedi­tion

The China Post - - INTERNATIONAL -

Malaysia’s par­lia­ment early Fri­day ap­proved tougher penal­ties for sedi­tion in a move crit­i­cized by the United Na­tions and de­scribed by the op­po­si­tion as “a black day” for democ­racy and free ex­pres­sion.

For the sec­ond time this week, the rul­ing coali­tion pushed through leg­is­la­tion that has been de­nounced by rights and legal ad­vo­cates, af­ter it on Tues­day passed an an­titer­ror­ism law that al­lows au­thor­i­ties to de­tain peo­ple with­out charge.

The amend­ments to the Sedi­tion Act ex­tend the max­i­mum jail term to 20 years from the cur­rent three years and es­tab­lish a min­i­mum three-year jail term for cer­tain cases.

The re­vised act also makes it il­le­gal to prop­a­gate sedi­tion on the In­ter­net, spark­ing con­cerns over pos­si­ble Web cen­sor­ship.

Court­ing votes ahead of 2013 elec­tions, Prime Min­is­ter Na­jib Razak had promised to scrap the Bri­tish colo­nial-era Sedi­tion Act, long viewed as a tool to gag free speech.

But af­ter a poor show­ing in those polls, Na­jib’s gov­ern­ment has tar­geted scores of its crit­ics with the law. Last year Na­jib went back on his pledge, an­nounc­ing the act would be re­tained and “strength­ened.”

“In or­der to re­al­ize our goal of build­ing a sta­ble, peace­ful and har­mo­nious state, the Sedi­tion Act has been main­tained,” he said late Thurs­day in an in­ter­view on state­con­trolled tele­vi­sion.

The amend­ments were ap­proved in the early hours of Fri­day af­ter a marathon ef­fort by the op­po­si­tion to stop them.

How­ever, af­ter an out­cry this week, the gov­ern­ment re­moved a clause al­low­ing au­thor­i­ties to deny a sus­pect bail.

The re­vi­sions no longer make it il­le­gal to in­sult the gov­ern­ment, but they ban speech that in­cites re­li­gious ha­tred in the Mus­lim-dom­i­nated but mul­ti­faith coun­try.

“We will not and can­not stand for the in­cite­ment of racial or in­tereth­nic con­flict,” Na­jib said.

Crit­ics of the Mus­lim-con­trolled gov­ern­ment, which has seen voter sup­port slide, say it is in­creas­ingly fall­ing back on “pro­tect­ing Is­lam” to curb speech by mem­bers of the re­li­giously di­verse op­po­si­tion.

“This is a black day for democ­racy in Malaysia. There is no free­dom of speech un­der this abu­sive law,” op­po­si­tion law­maker N. Suren­dran said.

Rights groups say the def­i­ni­tion of “sedi­tion” re­mains open to wide in­ter­pre­ta­tion and abuse by the gov­ern­ment, which has a his­tory of us­ing se­cu­rity laws to sti­fle dis­sent.

U.N. High Com­mis­sioner for Hu­man Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hus­sein called on Thurs­day for the law to be re­pealed.

“It is very dis­ap­point­ing that the Malaysian gov­ern­ment is now propos­ing to make a bad law worse,” Zeid said, adding the act is rou­tinely used “to curb the le­git­i­mate ex­er­cise of free­dom of ex­pres­sion.”

Hu­man Rights Watch called the amend­ments “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.”

Be­sides the blitz of sedi­tion charges against its crit­ics, the gov­ern­ment in Fe­bru­ary jailed op­po­si­tion leader An­war Ibrahim for five years on a sodomy con­vic­tion he says was fab­ri­cated by Na­jib’s gov­ern­ment.

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