The constitution allows restrictions on the freedom of expression “in the interest of the security of the Federation…[or] public order.” The government regularly restricted the media’s and civil society’s freedom of expression, citing reasons such as upholding Islam and the special status of ethnic Malays, protecting national security, maintaining public order, and preserving friendly relations with other countries.
Freedom of 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.
Legal procedures in advance of an expected sedition trial against political cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Al Haque, better known as Zunar, continued as of November. The charge, dating from 2016, followed the publication of cartoons that criticized the prime minister. Zunar has also been barred from travelling abroad since being charged, which he challenged separately in court. In November the High Court upheld the travel ban.
Immigration authorities detained Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish journalist and visiting fellow at Wellesley University’s Freedom Project, as he attempted to depart the country on September 25 after giving a series of lectures. Akyol had previously been summoned by the Kuala Lumpur Islamic Affairs Department in relation to a speech he delivered at a private club. Religious authorities later questioned him under a law prohibiting individuals from teaching “any matter relating to the religion of Islam” without authorization.
Press and Media Freedom: 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. Online media outlets were more independent, 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 May the government charged the chief executive of online news website Malaysiakini with improper use of network facilities or services under the Communications and Multimedia Act for publishing a video in which a former ruling party official criticized the attorney general for clearing the prime minister of involvement in a corruption scandal. The government had previously charged the editor of Malaysiakini for his involvement in the same incident in November 2016. An international NGO called the charges “seriously concerning, and also a clear violation of international human rights law on freedom of expression.” The trial is expected to begin in January 2018.
Authorities sometimes barred online media from covering government press conferences.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists were subject to harassment and intimidation. In January, two journalists were arrested while covering a protest by a group of indigenous villagers against deforestation on their land. The journalists said Forestry Department officers handcuffed them and attempted to intimidate them physically to prevent them from reporting on the protest. They were released after 12 hours and no charges were filed against them.
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,” and took little or no action against persons or organizations that abused journalists. 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. 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, newspapers, television programming, and movies, most often due to sexual content.
Government 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 publications it judged might incite racial or religious disharmony. The Ministry of Home Affairs maintained a list of 1,653 banned publications as of March. In October the home minister announced the ban of Turkish author Mustafa Akyol’s Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, finding the book “not suitable to the societal norms here.”
In February a court convicted human rights activist Lena Hendry of screening “No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka,” a documentary about human rights violations in Sri Lanka, without prior approval of the Film Censorship Board. She was ordered to pay a 10,000 RM ($2,310) fine, but prosecutors filed an appeal for a higher sentence, which remained in progress as of October. An international NGO called the prosecution “an outrageous assault on basic free expression” and “part of the Malaysian government’s disturbing pattern of harassment and intimidation of those seeking to raise public awareness of human rights issues.”
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 and its supporters used these laws, along with provisions against sedition, to punish and suppress publication of material critical of government officials and policies. In April, Prime Minister Najib sued an opposition Member of Parliament after the latter claimed that the tabling of a controversial amendment to the powers of sharia courts was to divert public attention away from an alleged corruption scandal. The case continued as of year’s end.
National Security: Authorities frequently cited national security laws to restrict media distribution of material critical of government policies and public officials. In July the government banned a book of essays on moderate Islam that the government deemed to be “prejudicial to public order.”
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. Organizers canceled an exhibition displaying the work of prominent political cartoonist Zunar in July after members of the ruling party’s youth wing threatened to attend. In November 2016, members of the ruling party’s youth wing stormed a different Zunar exhibition, destroying artwork and physically threatening the cartoonist.
The government generally maintained a policy of restricted access to the internet. Authorities blocked some websites and monitored the internet for email messages and blog postings deemed a threat to public security or order.
Authorities restricted internet freedom to combat dissenting political views online. In March the government revealed it blocked 3,110 websites in 2016 for various offenses such as jeopardizing public order, although the list of banned sites also includes pornography and gambling sites.
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, the country’s royalty, and its political leaders.
In January the Court of Appeal upheld a 19-year-old man’s conviction for posting Facebook comments criticizing the Sultan of Johor. The man was sentenced to a correctional institution until he turns 21. In August the government charged three individuals for posting critical images of the prime minister on Facebook.
Sedition and criminal defamation laws led to self-censorship by local internet content sources including bloggers, news providers, and NGO activists.
The law requires 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 71.1 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 sometimes censored content by physically blocking screens until the objectionable scene was over. Media censorship rules forbid movies and songs that promote acceptance of gay persons (see section 6). In March the Film Censorship Board said the Disney film Beauty and the Beast would only be released if four minutes of content involving a “gay element” were removed. Although filmmakers refused to make the changes, the government allowed the film to be shown in its entirety.