Constitutional ruling on Sedition Act a mockery of press freedom in Malaysia

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) condemns the ruling by the Malaysian Federal Court on October 6, granting the constitutional merit of the Sedition Act (1948). The IFJ condemns the decision and calls on the Malaysian government to follow through on its election promise to repeal the law.

Yesterday, on October 6, Malaysia’s apex Federal Court ruled that the Sedition Act (1948) is constitutional. The Federal Court ruled that the Act is compatible with Article 10 of Malaysia’s Federal Constitution, which guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression. According to Article 19, its ruling focuses in part on Article 10(2) (a) of the Federal Constitution, which permits Parliament by law to impose restrictions on the right to freedom of expression “as it deems necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of the Federation.” Professor Azmi Sharom, who faces sedition charges, led the legal challenge in the Federal Court, his case will now be will be remitted to Sessions court.

In April the Act was amended to give powers to prosecute and censor online media.  The amendment means it is now illegal to incite religious hatred and now allow authorities to ban and block online media deemed to be seditious in the eyes of the government. The passing of the amendments followed 14 hours of debate, which government opposition said was “a black day” for democracy and freedom of expression in Malaysia.

According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, as of April 2015, at least 78 people have been investigated or charged under the Sedition Act since the beginning of 2014. Malaysian political cartoonist, Zunar has also come under strong attack from the government through the Sedition Act. In April, he was arrested and charged with nine counts of sedition following his February arrest for tweets and cartoons he published following the sodomy case against Anwar Ibrahim. Zunar is currently in jail, with bail set at 13,500 RM (USD 6,207) and could face 43 years imprisonment if found guilty. Since then, Zunar has faced court three times, with his case been adjourned each time, awaiting the outcome of Professor Sharom’s legal challenge. Zunar is due to face court on November 6. More recently, in September, Zunar came under police investigation for sedition after he released his seventh book. 

Zunar said: “The decision by the Federal Court gives more mandate for the government to continue to use the Sedition Act against dissidents. The hope to get justice from the court is just fairy tale. More sedition case will be opened. The space for freedom of speech and expression will become narrow. Malaysia is now sprinting backward. Prime Minister Najib is now heading toward "Mugabeism."

Malaysia’s press freedom has been on a steady decline for a number of years under Prime Minister Najib Razak of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) the leading party in Malaysia’s ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition. In 2012, Razak said in his election campaign that should he be re-elected he would repeal the draconian Sedition Act. However, following his 2013 victory the Malaysian leader has instead increasingly used the Sedition Act to silence government critics under the guise of unity and national security and to "to protect the sanctity of Islam".

The IFJ said: “These draconian and colonial laws are been used to silence critics and control and suppress the media. Malaysia’s press freedom is under attack and the use of the Sedition Act continues to stifle freedom of expression across the country. Freedom of expression and press freedom are fundamental components of democratic nations, yet the Malaysian government continues to impede and restrict the democratic rights of the people.”

The IFJ is collecting signatures in support of dropping the charges against Zunar – see more here. 

For further information contact IFJ Asia-Pacific on +61 2 9333 0946 

The IFJ represents more than 600,000 journalists in 139 countries

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