The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, although it also provides for restrictions “in the interest of the security of the Federation…[or] public order.” The government regularly enforced restrictions on freedom of expression by media, citing upholding Islam and the special status of ethnic Malays, protection of national security, public order, and friendly relations with other countries as reasons.
Freedom of Speech and Expression: The law prohibits sedition and public comment on issues defined as sensitive, including racial and religious matters or criticism of the king or ruling sultans. Sedition charges often stemmed from comments by vocal civil society or opposition leaders. Civil society groups claimed the government generally failed to investigate and prosecute similar “seditious” statements made by progovernment or pro-Malay persons.
In August judicial authorities sentenced an opposition leader to eight months in prison for a 2015 speech in which he called for the release of Anwar Ibrahim while suggesting politicians controlled the judiciary. The case was pending an appeal. Also in August a court found the president of a pro-Malay NGO guilty of sedition and fined him 2,000 Malaysian ringgit (RM) ($450) for an article he wrote calling the country’s ethnic Chinese citizens “intruders.”
Press and Media Freedoms: Political parties and individuals linked to the ruling coalition owned or controlled a majority of shares in almost all print and broadcast media, many of which were actively progovernment in their reporting. Online media outlets were more independent in their ownership and reporting but were often the target of legal action and harassment.
The government exerted control over news content, both in print and broadcast media; punished publishers of “malicious news,” and banned, restricted, or limited circulation of publications believed a threat to public order, morality, or national security. The government has the power to suspend publication for these reasons, and retained effective control over the licensing process. In February the government blocked popular online news outlet The Malaysian Insider for “violating national laws,” allegedly related to its reporting on a government financial scandal. The site closed a month later.
Authorities sometimes barred online media from covering government press conferences.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists were subject to harassment and intimidation due to their reporting. In April online news portal Malaysiakini recalled its journalist from covering state elections in Sarawak after she received online threats over an article she wrote reporting an elected official urged voters to choose the ruling coalition to ensure a Muslim continued to lead the religiously diverse state. Critics also lodged multiple police reports against the reporter and circulated her photo on social media, leading to concerns for her safety. In November a group of progovernment “Red Shirts” protesters gathered in front of Malaysiakini’s offices and threatened to “tear down parts of the building.”
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government censored media, primarily print and broadcast media. In addition to controlling news content by banning or restricting publications believed to threaten public order, morality, or national security, the government prosecuted journalists for “malicious news,” took little or no action against persons or organizations that abused journalists, and limited circulation of some publications. The law requires a permit to own a printing press, and printers often were reluctant to print publications critical of the government due to fear of reprisal. The government refused to issue printing permits to some online media outlets that were critical of the government. Such policies, together with antidefamation laws, inhibited independent or investigative journalism and resulted in extensive self-censorship in the print and broadcast media.
Despite these restrictions publications of opposition parties, social action groups, unions, internet news sites, and other private groups actively covered opposition parties and frequently printed views critical of government policies. Online media and blogs provided views and reported stories not featured in the mainstream press.
The government occasionally censored foreign magazines, foreign newspapers, and foreign-sourced television programming, most often due to sexual content.
The government’s restrictions on radio and television stations mirrored those on print media, and all also predominantly supported the government. News about the opposition in those fora remained restricted and biased. Television stations censored programming to follow government guidelines.
The government generally restricted remarks or publications, including books, it judged might incite racial or religious disharmony. The Ministry of Home Affairs maintained a list of 1,593 banned books. In September the government announced four new banned publications “prejudicial to public order,” including a report on torture in Malaysian prisons and a book criticizing the influence of Islam in the government.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law includes sections on civil and criminal defamation. Criminal defamation is punishable by a maximum of two years in jail, a fine, or both. True statements can be considered defamatory if they contravene the public good. The government used these laws, along with provisions against sedition, to punish and suppress publication of material critical of government officials and policies.
National Security: Authorities frequently cited laws protecting national security to restrict media distribution of material critical of government policies and public officials. In January the government blocked access to publishing platform Medium after it refused to remove an article hosted on its site about a financial corruption scandal involving the prime minister. The country’s internet regulator claimed the article would “undermine Malaysia’s social stability.”
Nongovernmental Impact: Progovernment NGOs sought to limit freedom of expression through criminal complaints of allegedly seditious speech. Progovernment NGOs also sometimes attempted to intimidate opposition groups through demonstrations. In September police detained the leader of a progovernment NGO that threatened counterdemonstrations and physical violence against the leader of free and fair election NGO coalition Bersih, after Bersih announced a November mass protest against Prime Minister (PM) Najib Razak.
The government generally maintained a policy of open and free access to the internet, but authorities monitored the internet for e-mail messages and blog postings deemed a threat to public security or order.
The government warned internet users to avoid offensive or indecent content and sensitive matters such as religion and race, and aggressively pursued charges against those criticizing Islam or the country’s royalty. In June a court sentenced a man to one year in prison after he pleaded guilty to insulting the Sultan of Johor on Facebook. In September an appeals court extended the man’s sentence to three years, to be served in a “reform school.”
Authorities also restricted internet freedom to combat dissenting views online. In January the government blocked two websites publishing documents alleging financial corruption at a state-owned development company, claiming the sites had published “false news,” which threatened national security. Local and international human rights groups claimed the law does not allow the government to block websites unilaterally and it must instead seek a court finding.
Sedition and criminal defamation laws led to some self-censorship by local internet content sources such as bloggers, news providers, and NGO activists.
The law requires certain internet and other network service providers to obtain a license, and permits punishment of the owner of a website or blog for allowing offensive racial, religious, or political content. By regarding users who post content as publishers, the government places the burden of proof on the user in these cases. NGOs and members of the public criticized the law, noting it could cause self-censorship due to liability concerns.
According to the World Bank, approximately 17 million persons (67 percent of the population) had access to the internet.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government placed some restrictions on academic freedom, particularly the expression of unapproved political views, and enforced restrictions on teachers and students who expressed dissenting views. The government requires all civil servants, university faculty, and students to sign a pledge of loyalty to the king and government. Opposition leaders and human rights activists claimed the government used the loyalty pledge to restrain political activity among these groups.
Although faculty members sometimes publicly criticized the government, public university academics whose career advancement and funding depended on the government practiced self-censorship. Self-censorship took place among academics at private institutions as well, spurred by fears the government might revoke the licenses of their institutions. The law imposes limitations on student associations and on student and faculty political activity.
The government regularly censored films, editing out profanity, kissing, sex, and nudity. The government also censored films for certain political and religious content. The government did not allow cinemas to show films in Hebrew, Yiddish, or from Israel. Although the government allowed foreign films at local film festivals, it censored sexual content by blocking screens until the concerned scene was over. Media censorship rules forbid movies and songs that promote acceptance of gay persons (see section 6).