UPDATE: On Wednesday 5 November, the High Court referred Dr Azmi Sharom’s challenge against the constitutionality of the Sedition Act to the Federal Court. Lawyers in the case have appealed to the Attorney General to stay all prosecutions under the Sedition Act and for a moratorium on any further use, pending the outcome of the Federal Court hearing.
ARTICLE 19 is deeply concerned by the recent crackdown on critical voices in Malaysia under the Sedition Act of 1948. Since August 2014, at least six people, including opposition politicians, academics and human rights lawyers, have been charged under the colonial-era law. Several others, including journalists, have been investigated for exercising their right to freedom of expression.
As the constitutionality of the Sedition Act is challenged in Malaysia’s High Court this week, we call on Prime Minister Najib Razak to immediately end this latest crackdown on freedom of expression and act on his 2012 promise to repeal this archaic legislation.
On 5 November 2014, Dr. Azmi Sharom, a Law Professor from University Malaya, will argue that charges he faces under the Sedition Act are a violation of his right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of Malaysia’s Federal Constitution. Azmi was charged with sedition on 2 September 2014 for providing a legal academic opinion to the Malay Mail Online on matters of public interest, in an article published on August 14 2014.
The Sedition Act 1948 is a relic of British colonial rule, enacted to protect the occupying power in Malaysia from criticism. The Act vaguely criminalises any act with a “seditious tendency”, including to “excite disaffection” or “bring into hatred or contempt” the rule or government. It does not require the prosecution to prove intent, and provides up to three years imprisonment for those found guilty.
“This current crackdown on those legitimately exercising their right to freedom of expression in Malaysia is alarming,” said Thomas Hughes, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19. “The Sedition Act is being used as a political tool for the authorities to further exert their power and to control public discourse in their favour. This crackdown must end and the Sedition Act be repealed,” he continued.
Prime Minister Najib promised in July 2012 to repeal the Sedition Act and replace it with the so-called “National Harmony Act”. However, since then the Act has continued to loom above the heads of all people in Malaysia, significantly chilling freedom of expression.
Between August and September 2014 alone at least six people were charged under the Sedition Act and are awaiting trial, including Dr. Azmi Sharom. Four of those charged are opposition members of Parliament. Several other opposition politicians, journalists and students have been investigated and arrested under suspicion of sedition in this period.
On 8 October 2014, four UN independent experts, including the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, called on Malaysia to withdraw the Sedition Act as it is incompatible with international human rights law. The experts recalled the commitment Malaysia made to the UN Human Rights Council at the adoption of its Universal Periodic Review in March 2014 to address international concerns on this matter.
International standards on freedom of expression are clear that states should not limit public debate concerning public figures in the political domain or public institutions, and that public figures should legitimately be subject to criticism and political opposition.
Reflecting this principle, many Commonwealth member states, including the United Kingdom, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Australia, and New Zealand have repealed their sedition laws. Others, such as Canada, South Africa, and India, have substantially narrowed the scope of their laws to enhance protections for freedom of expression. Malaysia’s use of the Sedition Act to mount an aggressive crackdown on dissent marks it as an outlier in the protection of freedom of expression worldwide.
ARTICLE 19 calls on Prime Minister Najib Razak to end the current crackdown on political debate in Malaysia, including by dropping all sedition charge and closing outstanding investigations. Prime Minister Najib must also fulfill his 2012 promise to repeal the Sedition Act without delay and ensure that any replacement of it conforms with international standards on freedom of expression.