PETALING JAYA: A newly released human rights report has taken the Malaysian government to task for restricting freedom of the press and speech.
According to the US Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2016, the government “regularly enforced restrictions on freedom of expression by media”, citing the need to uphold Islam, national security, public order and friendly relations with other countries.
The report, released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, said the law prohibiting sedition appeared to be used primarily on civil society or opposition leaders who claimed the government failed to investigate statements made by pro-government parties that violated the Sedition Act.
It noted that most print and broadcast media entities were either owned or controlled by political parties and individuals linked to the ruling coalition, and that independent online media outlets were often the target of legal action and harassment.
It referred to The Malaysian Insider, which shut down last year following a government block for “violating national laws”.
It added that journalists were subject to harassment and intimidation, citing the case of a Malaysiakini journalist who received online threats over an article on an elected official urging voters to choose Barisan Nasional to ensure continued Muslim leadership over the state.
Critics lodged police reports against the journalist and circulated her photo on social media, leading to concerns for her safety, the report added.
It also mentioned a threat by the pro-government Red Shirts movement to tear down the building housing the Malaysiakini office.
The report also highlighted restrictions on media content, saying the government censored primarily print and broadcast media and also controlled news content by banning or restricting publications believed to threaten public order, morality or national security.
It said the government prosecuted journalists for “malicious news” while taking little or no action against those who abused the journalists.
Printers were often reluctant to print publications critical of the government for fear of losing their permits, and some online media outlets that were critical of the government were refused permits, the report alleged.
The government’s restrictions on radio and television stations mirrored those on print media, it said, while television stations censored programming to follow government guidelines.
The report also said the government restricted the publication of books it deemed capable of inciting racial or religious harmony, and that the home ministry maintained a list of 1,593 banned books. Among these was a report on torture in Malaysian prisons and a book criticising the influence of Islam in the government, it said.
Likewise, authorities monitored the internet for email messages and blog postings deemed a threat to public security or order.
The report noted that owners of websites or blogs could be punished for allowing offensive racial, religious or political content. By regarding users who posted content as publishers, the government placed the burden of proof on the user in these cases, it said.
On the issue of academic freedom, the report said the government restricted teachers and students who expressed dissenting views. It noted cases of self-censorship among public university academics whose career advancement and funding were government-dependent. Private institutions were not exempt from self-censorship either, it said, as there were fears that the government might revoke their licences.