The ICJ today condemned the Malaysian government’s increased use of the 1948 Sedition Act to stifle freedom of expression and silence voices perceived as challenging governmental policy.
The ICJ has called for the repeal of the law, which it considers to be incompatible with international standards.
“Over the past few weeks there has been a marked increase in the number of sedition charges filed by authorities in what seems like a clear crackdown against freedom of expression in Malaysia,” said Emerlynne Gil, ICJ’s International Legal Adviser on Southeast Asia. “Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak promised to repeal the Sedition Act in 2012. So far, we see no steps towards fulfilling this promise. In fact, we now see vigorous use of this outdated and odious law.”
On 2 September 2014, the Attorney General’s Chambers charged Dr. Azmi bin Sharom (photo), a law professor from the University of Malaya, under the 1948 Sedition Act.
The charges were based on statements from Dr. Azmi included in an article entitled “Take Perak crisis route for speedy end to Selangor impasse, Pakatan told” posted on the news website, MalayMail Online, on 14 August 2014.
Should Dr. Azmi be tried and found guilty, he could face a fine of not more than RM5,000 (approximately USD1,500), or a maximum prison term of three years, or both.
Dr. Azmi’s statements came in the context of a political crisis that was emerging in the Malaysian state of Selangor, where state lawmakers were contemplating to remove the Chief Minister.
Dr. Azmi cautioned the lawmakers against provoking a constitutional crisis similar to what happened in the state of Perak in 2009 when the Sultan of Perak removed the state’s Chief Minister from his post.
Dr. Azmi was quoted by the Malay Mail Online article referring to the Perak crisis, saying: “You don’t want a repeat of that, where a secret meeting took place.”
Dr. Azmi reportedly encouraged members of the state legislative assembly in Selangor to follow the law and wait until the next sitting to take up the question as to whether the Chief Minister should be removed.
In the article he was quoted as saying, “I think what happened in Perak was legally wrong. The best thing to do is to do it as legally and transparently as possible.”
On 26 August 2014, the Chief Minister resigned and now sits in an acting capacity until his successor is elected.
“Laws that criminalize free expression have no place in a modern Malaysia, and are incompatible with international human rights standards,” Gil said. “The Malaysian government should immediately drop these charges and get rid of this law.”
The 1948 Sedition Act, originally enacted by the British colonial government and amended several times over the years, criminalizes speech and publications considered to have “seditious tendencies”.
The term “seditious tendencies” is ambiguously defined to mean any kind of speech or publication that causes “hatred or contempt, or excite disaffection” against any ruler or the government or promotes “ill will and hostility between the different races or classes”. The law also considers “seditious” any speech or publication that questions the special privileges of the Malay people, as provided in the Constitution.
Furthermore, sedition is a strict liability offence in Malaysia, which means that the intention of a person allegedly making seditious statements is irrelevant. For instance, a person making a statement may not have the intent to cause “hatred or contempt” towards the government, but may nonetheless be held liable for sedition if authorities believe that the person in fact incited such feelings.
The ICJ considers that the Act, by its very terms, contemplates restrictions on the exercise of freedom of expression that are grossly overbroad and inconsistent with basic rule of law and human rights principles.
N. Surendran, a Member of Parliament who also acts as counsel for opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is also facing charges under the Sedition Act. He was charged on 19 August 2014 for criticizing the Court of Appeal ruling in the sodomy case of Anwar Ibrahim as “flawed, defensive, and insupportable.”
In less than two weeks, Surendran was faced with a second sedition charge in relation to a comment he made in a video uploaded on the website YouTube. In the video, he said that the proceedings against Anwar Ibrahim were “an attempt to jail the opposition leader of Malaysia.”
“These lawyers were merely expressing their views publicly on the law,” said Emerlynne Gil. “Under Principle 23 of the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, they enjoy the right to freedom of expression and to take part in public discussion of matters concerning the law, the administration of justice and the promotion and protection of human rights”.
The ICJ calls on the Malaysian government to follow through with its 2012 commitment to abolish the Sedition Act.
Emerlynne Gil, International Legal Advisor, International Commission of Jurists, mobile: +66 840923575, email: emerlynne.gil(a)icj.org