Malaysia: Reverse call for public reporting of ‘inappropriate’ online content

ARTICLE 19 is deeply concerned by the recent statement from the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) urging the Malaysian public to report ‘inappropriate’ online content relating to race, religion and royalty. The involvement of the public in the monitoring and censorship of online speech represents a grave threat to freedom of expression.

Matthew Bugher, Head of Asia Programme at ARTICLE 19 said:

“The MCMC’s announcement is an implicit threat to social media users and those holding controversial opinions. The government seems to believe that it can promote social cohesion by pitting netizens against each other. Efforts to promote unity by suppressing public discourse are certain to prove counter-productive.

“Online spaces are vital forums for public discourse, especially when it comes to sensitive or controversial topics. Deputising social media users to monitor online speech will only sow mistrust among the general public and deepen societal divisions.”

On 17 August, the MCMC published a press release asking Malaysians to send screenshots and links of inappropriate ‘3R content’—race, religion and royalty—to the commission using a specified email address and WhatsApp account. It further stated that public reporting of such content would facilitate ‘enforcement action’ without providing further details. The press release concluded with a statement by the MCMC Chairman urging Malaysians to avoid controversial or offensive online speech.

Malaysia’s legal framework contains many vaguely worded and overly broad provisions that have been frequently used to restrict free speech. In particular, the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, the Sedition Act 1948 and the Penal Code do not comply with the international human rights standards relating to freedom of expression. Although the Pakatan Harapan government has promised to repeal or reform these laws, authorities have continued to initiate criminal proceedings under them since taking power in May 2018. Many recent cases involve alleged insults to royal figures or comments relating to race or religion.

International human rights law does not permit limitations of the right to freedom of expression merely on the basis of offence caused to an individual or group. Rather, absent justification on other grounds, international human rights law protects speech that is offensive, disturbing or shocking. Moreover, the right to freedom of expression cannot be limited to protect religious ideas or symbols, or to prevent the criticism of public figures, who are expected to display a higher degree of tolerance of scrutiny and reproach than other persons.

ARTICLE 19 calls on the MCMC to reverse its call for reporting of online content concerning race, religion and royalty, and to end any programmes involving the public in mass surveillance initiatives. More broadly, Malaysian authorities should undertake a comprehensive programme of reform to bring Malaysia’s legal framework in line with international standards relating to freedom of expression.

Bugher added:

“International human rights law offers the Malaysian government no support for its misguided efforts to limit dialogue concerning race, religion and royalty.

“It is likely that many forms of expression, including legitimate artistic, political and religious speech, will be caught up in this initiative. The MCMC’s statement should concern religious persons in Malaysia especially, as the very freedom to express religious viewpoints is threatened by this action.”

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