OUR EXPRESSION IS OUR IDENTITY.
It’s how we communicate with the world, how we learn about each other and ourselves. Expression is pleasure, it’s knowledge, it’s discovery. It’s how we share joy, grieve, heal. It’s how we seek justice and how we create the world we want.
But what happens when our ability to express ourselves is restricted? When our choices and experiences are censored? When lyrics are deleted from songs, films chopped up, stories never told, art taken down, news not printed, websites inaccessible ; when our ancestral folk dance is suddenly deemed unsuitable and the murals we paint too ‘sensitive’ to be seen? Who are we when we cannot be free – to think, to feel, to express ourselves?
Censorship silences us. It holds us back, makes us scared of ideas and people different from us, it prevents us from understanding each other.
Censorship steals our questions, our voices, our thoughts. It denies us our right to hold our leaders accountable. It enables violence and injustice to happen.
Our joy has been restricted, our stories banned, our questions erased. We’ve been silenced.
But we do not have to be.
Get unsilenced. Demand our right to freedom of expression be respected.
Everyone has the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas without fear or interference. The right to freedom of expression is important for the personal development and dignity of every individual, and it is essential for the fulfilment of other human rights.
Ask Malaysia to repeal the following laws that restrict freedom of expression:
Sedition Act – The law most frequently used to silence dissent, the government remains committed to the Sedition Act, arguing that it protects national security, ensures public order and moral principles, and curbs defamatory acts. A person found guilty of sedition may be sentenced to three years in jail, a RM5,000 fine, or both.
Communications and Multimedia Act (Section 233) – This law regulates communications and multimedia industries, but Section 233 criminalises online content that is “obscene, indecent, false, menacing or offensive in character.” The excessively vague nature of the law has allowed it to be used against everyone from musician Namewee for a YouTube video to 1MDB whistleblower website Sarawak Report.
Film Censorship Act – Possessing, circulating or screening a film that has not been approved by the government Board of Censors is a crime punishable by up to RM30,000 fine and/or three years imprisonment. While the Netflix generation can breathe easier as streaming services are not subject to this law, content shown on TV, cinemas and yes, even private screenings, must be pre-approved by the opaque censorship board.
Printing Presses and Publication Act – The act gives absolute discretion to the Minister of Home Affairs to grant and revoke licences for all print media, giving the government tremendous power over newspapers and other printed media outlets.
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BANNED AND CENSORED IN MALAYSIA
KELANTAN BAN ON MAK YONG (1998 -2019)
In 1998, traditional dance and performances such as menora, wayang kulit and main puteri were officially banned in Kelantan and deemed as “un-Islamic.” In 2019, the ban was lifted, but only if the performances were Syariah-compliant. Mak Yong performers were to cover their aurat, separate men and women on stage and in the audience and remove any elements of worship in the performances. Critics in civil society and arts communities voiced opposition to the religious constraints applied to the lifting of the ban.
Chinese Malaysian rapper Namewee is no stranger to controversy. His 2014 comedy Banglasia portrays Malaysians of different races uniting with a Bangladeshi worker to defend the country against a fictional invader. In contrary to the movie’s light-hearted tone and irreverent storyline, censors banned it, insisting the film promoted a homosexual lifestyle and “ridiculed national security issues.” Authorities pointed to 31 separate scenes it described as inappropriate, and the film was banned indefinitely. Later, after a small reshoot and seven scenes being cut, Banglasia was finally deemed acceptable by the censorship board and the ban was lifted. It was released to theatres six years after its intended debut as Banglasia 2.0 in February 2019.
DENISE HO CONCERT
Hong Kong singer Denise Ho’s Malaysian concert, part of her Dear Self, Dear World world tour, was scheduled for April 2018. However, the Cantopop icon, who is openly gay, was denied a work permit required for her performance. According to Ho in a Facebook post, the government said the rejection was due to her active role as a supporter of the LGBTI community . The official rejection letter was a little more diplomatic, saying that “a number of issues need to be addressed if the artist is brought in for the performance in this country.”
A History of
LAWS RESTRICTING FOE IN MALAYSIA
Multimedia Act (CMA)
The act largely regulates the use of communications networks and infrastructures, but Section 233 has become the default law for policing content on the Internet. The law defines the offence of improper use of network facilities, which includes content that is, “obscene, indecent, false, menacing or offensive in character …” Given the impossibility of monitoring the vast amount of information on the Internet, enforcement of this law is selective and has been used against everyone from opposition politicians, activists and ordinary social media users.
Penalties: Up to RM50,000 fine or one year in prison or both. A further fine of RM1,000 a day can also be imposed if the offence is continued after conviction.
Notable case: Artist-activist Fahmi Reza was sentenced to a month’s jail and RM30,000 fine for posting his now iconic clown caricature of former Prime Minister Najib Razak. Upon appeal, it was later reduced to RM10,000.
Printing Presses &
Publications Act (PPPA)
In this era of smartphones and livestreams, the PPPA appears to be a relic of a bygone era, where government regulation of newspapers was an effective tool to control public opinion. Regardless, the law remains, leaving print media outlets vulnerable to the revocation of their publishing license, which encourages self-censorship.
Penalties: Up to three years in prison or a fine of up to RM20,000, or both.
Notable case: Though usually used to regulate newspapers, the government banned yellow coloured T-shirts with the word “Bersih” in 2015.
This infamous law was originally enacted by colonial British government in 1948 to silence opposition to colonial rule but remains as a tool to clamp down on dissent more than 60 years after independence. The Sedition Act doesn’t require proof of intent and the law also gives powers for the police to arrest any person without a warrant.
Penalties: For the first offence, a fine of up to RM5,000 or three years in prison or both can be imposed, while subsequent offences can be punished by up to five years in prison. Anyone possessing what is deemed a seditious publication can face up to RM2,000 fine or imprisonment up to 18 months or both. For subsequent offences, up to three years in prison can be imposed.
Notable case: Zunar has faced many investigations for his political cartoons but it was his tweets in response to the guilty verdict in then-Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s trial in 2015 that saw him charged with nine counts of Sedition, facing up to 43 years in prison. The case was dropped in 2018 after the change in government.
Film Censorship Act
Like the PPPA, the Film Censorship Act seems like a relic from a bygone era in an age of YouTube and TikTok, but it remains a useful tool for controlling speech and popular culture. Local productions and films screened publicly remain under the control of this law, which also gives absolute power to the Minister of Communications to appoint members of the censorship board.
Penalties: Up to three years in prison or up to RM30,000 or both.
Notable case: For organising a 2013 screening of the documentary “No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields Of Sri Lanka,” Lena Hendry was ultimately fined RM10,000 after more than four years of court proceedings.
The penal code defines most major criminal offences such as murder and armed robbery, but Section 298 and 298A criminalises speech that is offensive towards any religion. Its broad interpretation makes the law ripe for abuse. In 2015, a presenter on news outlet BFM was investigated over a video criticising proposed amendments to hudud law in Kelantan, while Malaysiakini was investigated in 2012 for a reader’s letter it published.
Penalties: Up to five years in prison
Notable case: Musician Namewee was investigated and held overnight for his 2018 Chinese New Year-themed music video “Like A Dog,” which featured performers wearing dog masks dancing in Putrajaya.
Presented as a democratic reform by the government in 2011, the PAA was instead met with protests, including a demonstration by the Bar Council and a walkout in Parliament by the opposition. The law imposes significant restrictions on street protests and only permitted gatherings in designated places like stadiums and public halls. A notice of 10 days (since amended to five) was also required.
Penalties: Up to RM10,000 fine.
Notable case: Then a member of the Selangor state legislature, Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad was not only the first person to ever be charged under the PAA, he was charged twice for the same offence, organising the massive post-elections protest in 2013, “Blackout 505.” The government charged Nik Nazmi again after the Court of Appeal declared a section of the law unconstitutional. He was eventually fined RM1,500, but successfully sued the former Attorney-General for “malicious intent.”
Although it is another Malaysian law with British roots, the OSA was only adopted in 1972, long after independent Malaysia was formed. The OSA has been used to conceal everything from sex crime statistics to the inspector-general of police’s standing orders, which details how matters like arrests are made, treatment of detainees, as well as how and when a policeman can use his weapon. The law also allows for arrests without a warrant, and shifts the burden of proof to the accused, not the prosecution.
Penalties: While it provides for life imprisonment for espionage, most offences under the OSA are punishable by up to seven years imprisonment.
Notable case: From 1997 to 2005, the air pollution index (API) was classified under the OSA. At a time when the country was facing multiple severe transboundary haze crises. Malaysians had no right to know the quality of air they were breathing in because the government was worried it would “scare away tourists.”
The 2012 law criminalises “activity detrimental to parliamentary democracy,” but ironically in recent years has been mostly used against activity integral to democracy, such as protests and opposition.
Penalties: Imprisonment up to 20 years.
Notable case: In 2015, 17 protestors, almost all students, were arrested and investigated under this law following a demonstration against then Prime Minister Najib Razak outside Parliament. “Forcing someone to resign through street demonstrations is illegal,” the police said.
“Obstructing any public servant from discharging their duties,” is so broadly defined that this law has been used against those refusing to comply with the MCO or for simply questioning the conduct of authorities. For instance, in 2019, a man who confronted local council officers over the manner they were treating a stray dog was charged under this law.
Penalties: Up to two years in prison or RM10,000 fine or both.
Notable case: Lawyer Siti Kasim was charged under this law after she challenged religious authorities to produce a warrant during a 2016 raid on a fundraising dinner for transgender women.
Whoever makes, publishes or circulates any statement, rumour or report with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause fear or alarm to the public, or to any section of the public where by any person may be induced to commit an offence.
Penalties: Up to two years in prison and/or a fine of unspecified amount.
Notable case: Minister Ismail Sabri was probed under this law in 2015 after he called for Malays to boycott Chinese traders who do not reduce the prices of goods.
Whoever intentionally insults, and thereby gives provocation to any person, intending or knowing it to be likely that such provocation will cause him to break the public peace, or to commit any other offence, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years or with fine or with both.
Penalties: Up to two years in prison and/or a fine of unspecified amount.
Notable case: Student Wong Yan Ke was charged under this law in 2019 after he protested a Universiti Malaya vice-chancellor for his involvement in the Malay Dignity Congress.
Internet users in Malaysia went “dark” in protest when the Najib administration introduced this law, which assumes a person is responsible for all content on their website, including comments on your blog or social media page. The burden of proof is placed on the accused, who has to prove they did not publish said content.
Penalties: Section 114A is not a punitive law, but rather, allows presumptions to be made in cases involving online content.
Notable case: The prosecution cited this law in the 2020 contempt of court charge against Malaysiakini, pinning the responsibility of readers’ comments on the publisher.
This obscure, administrative act received sudden attention in 2020 when a minister unwittingly claimed international news outlet Al Jazeera violated this law by filming without a licence, which he claimed applies to social media output too. The government would later backtrack, but the arbitrary using of laws to silence criticism remains a threat.
Penalties: A fine up to RM50,000 and/or up to two years in prison.
Notable case: News outlet Al Jazeera was investigated under this law after it broadcast a report on Malaysia’s treatment of migrants under COVID-19 lockdown.
This law criminalises words or behaviour that is abusive or insulting, but it has also been used against legitimate protest or criticism of public figures.
Penalties: Up to RM100 fine
Notable case: For dropping yellow balloons with words like “democracy” and “justice” onto an event attended by then-Prime Minister Najib Razak, activist Bilqis Hijjas had to endure three years of court cases before a change in government led to the prosecution to drop its repeated appeals.
Though this law, which allows for indefinite detention without trial, was repealed in 2012, it lives on in spirit in its replacement Security Offences (Special Measures) Act. The ISA was a continuation of colonial era laws introduced in 1948, and was instrumental in instilling a culture of fear and self-censorship among Malaysians.
Penalties: Individuals can be detained without trial for up to two years, but this can renewed indefinitely.
Notable case: Shamsudin Bin Sulaiman, who was allegedly a member of a militant group, was held in solitary confinement for over eight years under the ISA before he was released in 2010. He was never tried in court.
The replacement for the ISA was presented as necessary for terrorism related offences, but it has also been employed against political opponents, most notably then-Bersih chairperson Maria Chin, who was blindfolded and held in an undisclosed location.
Penalties: As with the ISA, it allows for detention without trial, and gives powers to the police to detain suspects incommunicado for the first 48 hours, denying access to lawyers and family members. The police can extend the detention up to 28 days.
Notable case: After they made police reports alleging wrongdoing in 1MDB, former UMNO leader Khairuddin Abu Hassan and his lawyer Matthias Chang was arrested under SOSMA in 2016, but the courts ultimately rejected use of the law as it did not believe the allegations of sabotaging financial institutions to be an offence under SOSMA.
Article 10 of the Federal Constitution: Freedom of speech, assembly and association
Article 10. (1) Subject to Clauses (2), (3) and (4)—
(a) every citizen has the right to freedom of speech and expression;
(b) all citizens have the right to assemble peaceably and without arms;
(c) all citizens have the right to form associations.”
Malaysians are guaranteed these rights under the country’s federal constitution, the supreme law of the land. Yet, a variety of laws denying Malaysians these fundamental rights continue to exist, and the government continues to use them to silence our voices and create a climate of fear.
INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS LAW
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.
3. The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:
(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others;
(b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.
ASEAN Human Rights Declaration
There is no established regional human rights body for Asia. However, the ten countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) formally established the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) on 23 October 2009, during the 15th ASEAN Summit. The group also adopted a Human Rights Declaration, which guarantees freedom of expression as follows:
23. Every person has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, including freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information, whether orally, in writing or through any other medium of that person’s choice.
AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL MALAYSIA’S RECOMMENDATIONS
· Repeal the 1948 Sedition Act and repeal or amend other laws which arbitrarily restrict the right to freedom of expression, including the Communication and Multimedia Act and the Printing Presses and Publications Act, to ensure that they are in line with international human rights law and standards;
· Ratify and implement in law, policy and practice the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other human rights treaties at the earliest opportunity;
· Review or amend the Peaceful Assembly Act, Penal Code, and other excessively restrictive laws to allow for peaceful protests without arbitrary restrictions;
· Facilitate the exercise of the right to peaceful assembly to all people in Malaysia, without discrimination.
BLACK METAL SCARE
It began in 2001, with sensationalist media reports of young fans of black metal music in Malaysia indulging in satanic rituals like drinking goat’s blood, tearing up the Quran and wearing T-shirts with occult symbols. In response, authorities began enforcement actions and introduced policy decisions that arbitrarily restricted freedom of expression and censored youth culture. For years, “black metal” became an excuse for authorities to clamp down on young people, sometimes for the way they dressed or for enjoying certain kind of music. In Kedah, the government boasted of detaining about 700 teenagers, mostly students. Many were strip-searched to check for tattoos, crucifixes worn upside-down or other alleged signs of “black metal,” a catch-all term used for any anti-establishment behaviour. Music by certain artists were banned from stores while radio stations were ordered to play less heavy metal music. Shows by local independent musicians were the target of raids, while foreign artists were now required to submit a video of their performance as part of their permit application.
On the eve of New Year’s Day 2006, police raided Kuala Lumpur independent music venue Paul’s Place where a several bands were scheduled to perform. Close to 400 music fans were arrested, held overnight and subjected to drug tests. The following day, music fans organised a response to the arrests. Together with human rights lawyers and NGOs, a press conference was held to dispel the police’s version of events, which were repeated by state-owned media. Owner Paul Millot was later charged with some licensing offences but they were overturned after the court determined that the police had overstepped its jurisdiction in the raid. Today black metal is no longer on the government’s radar, but the genre continues to draw reaction from religious authorities. In 2019, the Council of Churches of Malaysia successfully called for the government to stop a concert by Singapore black metal band Devouror.