Organised by the Freedom of Expression Cluster, formed of a group of civil society organisations in Malaysia, protesters demanded the restoration of their constitutional rights and fundamental liberties. It was reported that police arrived halfway through the protest to observe and ensure social distancing. The action was mobilised in response to the country’s ongoing Emergency Proclamation and the latest ‘fake news’ ordinance handed down on March 12. The newly-gazetted Emergency (Essential Powers) (No. 2) Ordinance 2021 criminalises the creation and publishing of fake news. Those found guilty of creating or publishing fake news on Covid-19 or the Emergency proclamation now face a fine of up to RM100,000 (USD 24,000) and imprisonment.
Since January 11, Malaysia’s House of Parliament has been suspended after Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin issued a declaration of a state of emergency, ostensibly to battle the Covid-19 pandemic. But criticisms of the government and its Covid-19 response continue to resonate, with critics and opposition politicians accusing the embattled leader of abusing his power to stifle challenge to his unelected rule.
In February 2021, the Malaysian king and prime minister were also urged by 65 parliamentarians and 25 former parliamentarians from seven countries to allow Parliament to continue functioning without restrictions as soon as possible. The statement, signed by lawmakers and former lawmakers from Thailand, Indonesia, Timor-Leste, Cambodia, Philippines, Singapore and Myanmar, said it was important for Parliament to convene to ensure government accountability, review the emergency measures, protect human rights, and contribute to major policy decisions. Media and civil society groups in the country continue to express concerns about the declining state of freedom of expression and political freedom in Malaysia under the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition which took power in a political coup in February 2020.
The Freedom of Expression Cluster said:“We want to reclaim the democratic space that is increasingly shrinking in this country and this ordinance has pushed the exercise of fundamental liberties to yet another edge that is not acceptable. We come to the streets today to defend our fundamental constitutional right to expression . . . At a time of a public health crisis - this right is more important than ever.”
The IFJ said: “Attempts by Malaysia’s government to curtail human rights and undermine democratic decision making is gravely concerning at this critical time. The IFJ urges the federal government to reconvene Malaysia’s Parliament to ensure the function of democracy to protect human rights and the rights of the media as soon as possible.”