Malaysia: Crackdown on civic space intensifies with raids, threats, and arrests

Malaysia: Crackdown on civic space intensifies with raids, threats, and arrests - Civic Space

ARTICLE 19 condemns the escalating crackdown on civic space in Malaysia, including the right to freedom of expression and right to protest, following the arbitrary arrests and detentions of ‘BERSIH 5’ rally organiser Maria Chin Abdullah and of cartoonist Zunar, in addition to the raids on BERSIH 2.0 and women’s rights group EMPOWER. We call for an end to the government’s campaign of harassment and intimidation, and for the repeal of draconian laws abused to repress legitimate dissent.

The repression of freedom of expression in Malaysia has reached new levels in recent weeks and must stop,” said Thomas Hughes, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19.

A government that respects human rights does not imprison cartoonists for satire, nor imprison anti-corruption protesters as terrorists, nor raid organisations defending women’s rights as though they were a threat to the state. The international community must stand in solidarity with Malaysians seeking to defend against this shrinking of civic space, and urge the authorities to respect freedom of expression and the right to protest,” Hughes added.

The crackdown on civic space in Malaysia has intensified since 14 September 2016, when civil society leaders announced the holding of “BERSIH 5”, the latest in a series of rallies organised by a coalition of organisations campaigning for free and fair elections. “Bersih” means “clean” in Malay. The series of attacks, arrests and raids reveal that Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government is increasingly sensitive to criticism, following its embroilment in the “1 Malaysia Development Bank” (1MDB) corruption scandal.

Rather than responding to legitimate protests by committing to increased transparency and accountability in government, the authorities have sought to suppress any dissent through reliance on draconian laws. Among these tools of censorship are section 124C of the Penal Code, the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (SOSMA), and the Sedition Act of 1948, all of which ARTICLE 19 has previously called on the government to repeal. We have also repeatedly called on Malaysia to sign and ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which gives strong protections to freedom of expression.

Cartoons are not a threat

On 25 November 2016, political cartoonist Zulkifli Anwar Ulhaque, popularly known as Zunar, was attacked by a group of at least 30 individuals opposed to an exhibition of his cartoons, on the basis that they considered the works to be insulting to Malaysia’s Prime Minister. The attack took place at Komtar Mall in Penang.

Prior to the exhibition, the authorities seized ten of Zunar’s artworks. The day after the attack, during which several of the remaining artworks were damaged, Zunar was arrested and detained overnight under Section 4(1)(c) of the Sedition Act 1948 and under Section 504 of the Penal Code for intentional breach of the peace.

In addition to failing to protect Zunar or his colleagues during the attack on the exhibition, the authorities have reportedly failed to investigate or arrest any of the suspected perpetrators of the attacks, who are alleged to include prominent local politicians and political youth activists.

International human rights law gives heightened protection to artistic expression, in particular where it is of a political nature; the state cannot restrict artistic expression simply because it embarrasses those in positions of power. The Sedition Act, a colonial-era invention to enable the repression of any criticism against authorities, is antithetical to international freedom of expression standards.

This is only the latest instalment in a long-standing campaign of harassment against Zunar. He is currently subject to a travel ban, and in April 2015 was charged with nine counts of “sedition”. Those charges relate to a single tweet in which Zunar criticised the judiciary for their alleged lack of independence in convicting former Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim on “sodomy” charges, which are widely suspected to be politically motivated. Zunar’s constitutional challenge to the Sedition Act is due to be decided on 24 January 2017. If unsuccessful, he faces trial and a possible 43 years in prison, in addition to any possible sentence that may result from the investigation into his Penang exhibition.

Protesters are not terrorists

On 18 November 2016, Maria Chin Abdullah, the Chairperson of the BERSIH 2.0 campaign for free and fair elections, was detained with eight other activists and political leaders on the eve of the planned “BERISH 5” rally. The arrests followed a raid on the organisation’s offices by police and officers from the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission. Initially Maria was detained under Section 124C of the Penal Code, which criminalises activities “detrimental to parliamentary democracy”, though her detention was continued under the draconian SOSMA national security law, which permits detention without charge or access to a court for up to 28 days. Maria was denied access to a lawyer for 48 hours and kept under harsh conditions, including solitary confinement. The eight other activists were detained under Section 147 of the Penal Code, which criminalises rioting, but were released after one day in custody and have not yet been charged.

It is reported that Maria’s detention is related to an investigation into the supposedly “foreign” funding sources of BERSIH 2.0. However, Maria was released on 28th November 2016, one day before a court was due to hear her habeas corpus application requiring the government to justify her detention.

Seven other activists were arrested following the peaceful BERSIH 5 rally, also on charges of “rioting”. They were detained for one day and have not been charged.

International human rights law is clear that civil society organisations have the right to freedom of association, which includes a right to seek, receive and use resources, including financial resources, regardless of the country of origin. The UN special rapporteur on human rights and countering terrorism has raised alarm at the increasing number of governments relying on national security laws to close civic space, including by restricting access to resources.

We are also concerned that the government has undertaken insufficient efforts in the lead-up to the BERSIH 5 rally to protect organisers and other participants from acts of intimidation and violence from non-state actors, including by persons associated with the informal red shirts and black shirts groups. Where the government leads harassment against its critics, it can only embolden like-minded non-state actors to engage in similar acts.

ARTICLE 19 considers the raids against BERSIH 2.0 and arbitrary detentions of Maria and other activists to be a clear attempt by the government to frustrate the organisation of a legitimate peaceful assembly. All incidents of violence and intimidation against BERSIH 2.0 and associated individuals by non-state actors must be fully investigated, and perpetrators held to account.

Women’s rights organisations aren’t “detrimental to democracy”

On 28 November 2016, police raided the office of women’s rights group EMPOWER for four hours and seized documents under the SOSMA national security law, and staff members were interrogated under section 124C of the Penal Code for activities “detrimental to parliamentary democracy”, while being denied access to lawyers. If convicted under these charges, staff members may face imprisonment of up to 15 years.

EMPOWER has reported that they suspect the raid was related to the investigation into the sources of BERSIH 2.0’s funding. ARTICLE 19 supports EMPOWER in condemning in the strongest terms the arbitrary raid and appalling treatment of its staff. It is a clear violation of the right to freedom of expression and association, and an unacceptable attempt to deter human rights defenders from their legitimate work in Malaysia.


ARTICLE 19 calls on the government to cease its campaign of harassment and intimidation against civic society organisations, artists, and other critics of the government: we reiterate our call for the government to repeal the Sedition Act 1948, 124C of the Penal Code, and SOSMA.

The criminal investigations into Maria Chin Abdullah and all those activists and politicians that were arrested before and following the BERSIH 5 rally, Zunar, and any staff of EMPOWER, must cease. Additionally, the nine pending Sedition charges against Zunar must be dropped without condition.

The Malaysian government must respond to allegations of corruption and wrongdoing with commitments to greater transparency, openness and accountability, rather than increased restrictions on civic space and the repression of independent and oppositional voices. It must also sign and ratify the ICCPR without delay.

Photo: ©Sayed Azidi AlBukhary