Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and his government have come under fire for the jailing of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and a crackdown on dissent, particularly the pro-democracy movement Bersih.
But a 40-page report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) found the Malaysian government has spread prosecutions of peaceful speech over the last 12-months beyond activists and politicians to ordinary citizens on social media.
“Criminalizing peaceful speech appears part of the Malaysian government’s larger effort to tighten the noose on anyone expressing political discontent,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“The authorities should cease prosecuting people for criticism or perceived ‘insults,’ and the government should urgently revise its laws to meet international free expression standards.”
The report, Deepening the Culture of Fear: The Criminalization of Peaceful Expression in Malaysia, documents the government’s use of broad, vaguely worded laws to criminalize peaceful speech and assembly.
It said the government had sought to punish individuals who criticized Najib’s administration, particularly in regards to a massive corruption scandal involving the government-owned 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
Prosecutors in the United States have filed civil lawsuits about two months ago alleging that more than $3.5 billion was defrauded from 1MDB. It also refers to an unnamed high-ranking official who apparently received some of the missing funds.
Media reports quoting sources say the unnamed official is Najib. He says he will cooperate with the investigations, however, the prime minister has been quick silence his critics on this issue..
Additionally, Singapore’s central bank says it will withdraw the license of a Swiss private bank and fine two large banks for their involvement with 1MDB.
French courts have also launched legal action over allegations of bribery with the $1.2 billion acquisition of two Scorpene submarines by Malaysia in 2002 when Najib was the defense minister.
Both cases have been linked to murder.
In its report HRW documented several cases including artist Fahmi Reza, who is facing two criminal charges for posting on social media a clown-face image of Najib with white powder on his face, arched brows, and a blood-red mouth.
It also said in June a court sentenced Mohammed Amirul Azwan Mohammad Shakri, 19, to one year in prison under the Communications and Multimedia Act after he pled guilty to “insulting” the Sultan of Johor on social media.
When he appealed his sentence as overly harsh, the court then ordered that he instead be sent to reform school until age 21 – a period of nearly two years.
It said during the past year, the Malaysian government had also used “the outdated and draconian” Official Secrets Act to shield the Auditor General’s report on the 1MDB scandal – a matter of great public interest in Malaysia – from public view, and to prosecute an opposition member of Parliament who allegedly disclosed information from that report.
Faced with new leaks of information regarding the 1MDB scandal, the government has also threatened to increase the penalties under the Official Secrets Act to life in prison, it said.
HRW urged the Malaysian government to cease using criminal laws against peaceful speech and protests, and to bring its laws and policies into line with international human rights law and standards for the protection of freedom of expression and assembly.
“As Prime Minister Najib’s political fortunes fall, Malaysia’s intolerance of critical speech seems to rise,” Robertson said. “Malaysia’s future as a rights-respecting nation shouldn’t become hostage to defending the Najib government’s reputation.”
Tensions between the government, the opposition and the Bersih movement are expected to come to a head next month when pro-democracy advocates are expected to protest through the streets of Kuala Lumpur.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt