Malaysia: Ongoing crackdown on social media

The prosecution of artist and activist Fahmi Reza over a caricature of the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak on social media is just another example of the continued crackdown on dissent in Malaysia.

On 6 June, Fahmi Reza pleaded not guilty to a charge under Section 233(1) of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (CMA) for “improper use of network facilities or network service” related to his posting on Facebook of a clown caricature of the Prime Minister. He first posted the image in January 2016, with a comment on how the repressive Sedition Act 1948 was being used to charge Malaysians who speak out.

The prosecution of Fahmi Reza is a reflection of Malaysia’s increased use of Section 233 of the CMA to crackdown on dissent within the digital realm and on social media.

It is deeply concerning that the Malaysian criminal justice system is being used to prosecute artists for satire and social media postings and that they may face exorbitant fines (RM50,000; $12,274 USD) and prison sentences (up to 1 year) as a result of these postings.

This wider trend is further visible in a number of other recent cases. Today, 7 June 2016, 19-year-old Muhammad Amirul Azwan Mohammed Shakri has also been sentenced to one year imprisonment under section 233 of the CMA for making insulting comments against the Johor crown prince on Facebook. He has pleaded guilty to these charges.

In another example, in late May, several football fans were taken in for questioning under the same law for criticizing the owner of the Johor state football team, the crown prince of Johor state. Two of them, Masyhur Abdullah, and Muhammad Salman Zakaria were detained and investigated. Earlier in the year, opposition Member of Parliament, Nurul Izzah was investigated under the CMA and Section 504 of the Penal Code for sharing the clown caricature by Fahmi Reza on her Instagram account, though no further action has been taken.

These cases demonstrate an increased abuse of the CMA as a tool for the government to regulate Internet and social media activity. The provisions within the CMA are overly broad, and include penalties that are unnecessary and disproportionate, amounting to a violation of the right to freedom of expression. In addition, the authorities have taken an expansive approach to the laws by using them to arrest, prosecute and detain government critics.

Since general elections in 2013, the Malaysian authorities have tightened their hold on freedom of expression and there has been a steep increase in investigations and arrests of government critics under laws such as the CMA and the Sedition Act1948. In April 2016, the Communications and Multimedia Deputy Minister Datuk Jailani Johari said the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCM) had investigated 32 cases of misuse of the internet and new media under section 233 of the CMA since 2010 and that this included “defamation” and “dissemination of false news” via the internet. Since the beginning of 2016, it has become more and more evident that the authorities have turned their attention to policing social media, satire and the internet in particular. And while, in January 2016, the government spoke of its intentions to amend the CMA, to date no details have been given on how this will be taken forward.

Amnesty International calls on the Malaysian government to end its blatant disregard for the right to freedom of expression. The organisation also urges the government to take immediate steps to repeal or amend repressive laws including the Communications and Multimedia Act and the Sedition Act, to bring them in line with international human rights law and standards.