Malaysia: Proposal to reform laws to protect royals’ reputation threaten freedom of expression

ARTICLE 19 is deeply concerned by the recent statements of senior government officials suggesting an intention to strengthen legal provisions protecting Malaysian royalty from insults. These statements follow the recent arrest of three individuals under the Sedition Act for comments concerning the Kelantan Sultan Muhammad V after his recent resignation as Malaysia’s constitutional monarch. ARTICLE 19 calls on the Malaysian government to end legal proceedings against individuals exercising their right to freedom of expression and to initiate comprehensive reforms to bring Malaysia’s legal framework in line with international human rights law and standards.

On 10 January 2019, Malaysia’s Legal Affairs Minister Datuk Liew Vui Keong announced that the government would consider amending existing laws or introducing new legislation protecting Malaysian royalty from insult, adding that the punishment for offenses against the monarchy are “a bit on the low side”.  He said that changes could lead to heavier punishments for those convicted of insulting royals.

The announcement came days after police officials reported the arrest of three individuals under section 4(1) of the Sedition Act 1948 for allegedly mocking Kelantan Sultan Muhammad V in comments on social media after he resigned as Yang Di-Pertuan Agong, Malaysia’s constitutional monarch and head of state.

These developments call into question the reform commitments of the Pakatan Harapan government, which took power after a surprise victory in the general elections in May 2018. The Pakatan Harapan coalition campaigned on a platform that included commitments to reform or repeal repressive legislation, including the Sedition Act, and to create an enabling environment for freedom of expression. After prevailing at the polls, Pakatan Harapan officials reiterated these promises, but have subsequently backtracked on some commitments while failing to make progress on many others.

In December 2018, the government lifted a moratorium—imposed less than two months earlier—on the use of the Sedition Act and several other repressive laws. In lifting the moratorium, government officials cited recent riots around a Hindu temple in Subang Jaya and stated that the laws would only be used in relation to matters of national security, public order and race relations. The recent use of the Sedition Act against individuals for comments made on social media, as well as the possibility of the imposition of new restrictions on speech, further dent the government’s reformist credentials.

The continued use of the Sedition Act to restrict freedom of expression, including the criticism of the Malaysian royalty, violates the right to freedom of expression under international human rights law. Prohibition of insults to heads of states and public officials purely on account of their status—especially through criminal law—invert the fundamental democratic principle that government should be subject to public scrutiny and criticism. Heads of state and public officials should tolerate more, not less, criticism than ordinary citizens. This principle is especially important in cases of unelected heads of state, such as monarchs and other members of royal families, who cannot otherwise be held accountable by voters. For these reasons, ARTICLE 19 has repeatedly called for the repeal of laws that provide special protection for public officials, whatever their rank or status.

ARTICLE 19 calls on the government to re-impose the moratorium on the Sedition Act and other repressive laws, and to abandon any plans to develop harsher legislation concerning insults to Malaysian royalty. Moreover, the government should initiate a comprehensive programme of legislative reform aimed at bringing all laws into compliance with international law and standards, including by repealing the Sedition Act in its entirety during the upcoming seating of Parliament, which begins in March 2019.

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