Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
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 Malaysiakinifor 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.
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association but allows restrictions deemed necessary or expedient in the interest of security, public order, or (in the case of association) morality. Abiding by the government’s restrictions did not protect some protesters from harassment or arrest.
FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY
The constitution provides all citizens “the right to assemble peaceably and without arms;” however, several laws restricted this right. Although the law does not require groups to obtain a permit for assemblies, police frequently placed time, location, and other restrictions on the right to assemble. Authorities banned street protests, and police sometimes confronted civil society and opposition demonstrations with mass arrests.
In May a lower court charged the organizer of a Bersih rally with failing to provide police with 10-day advance notice of an October 2016 rally. The formal charge was the first against a Bersih activist, although more than 100 individuals, including Bersih Chairman Maria Chin Abdullah, were detained and questioned following the group’s demonstrations in November 2016. In response to the charges, an international NGO expressed alarm “that the authorities are increasingly responding to activities that aim to express dissent and protest against injustice with baseless police investigations,” adding, “these recent actions by the police highlight an escalating pattern of misusing the criminal justice system to target and harass political activists and human rights defenders.”
In August riot police arrested 44 Myanmar nationals of Rohingya origin who were protesting violence in Rakhine state. The demonstrators were charged with immigration violations; local law prohibits non-Malaysian citizens from participating in protests.
Protests deemed acceptable by the government usually proceeded without interference.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution provides for the right of association; however, the government placed significant restrictions on this right, and certain statutes limit it. By law only registered organizations of seven or more persons may legally function. The government often resisted registering organizations deemed particularly unfriendly to the government or imposed strict preconditions. The government may revoke registrations for violations of the law governing societies.
The government bans membership in unregistered political parties and organizations.
The law prohibits students who hold political positions from conducting political party activities on campus. Students are also prohibited from “expressing support or sympathy” for an unlawful society or organization. In August the High Court upheld a university’s decision to suspend a student for participating in an off campus, peaceful political demonstration outside of school hours, arguing his suspension did not constitute a violation of his rights to free speech or association.
Many human rights and civil society organizations had difficulty obtaining government recognition as NGOs. As a result many NGOs registered as companies, which presented legal and bureaucratic obstacles to raising money to support their activities. Authorities frequently cited a lack of registration as grounds to take action against organizations. Some NGOs also reported the government monitored their activities in order to intimidate them.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, emigration, and repatriation, but these rights were often restricted by federal and state government officials, particularly in the eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak.
An appeals panel ruled in July that a valid passport does not give citizens the right to travel overseas, arguing that the right to freedom of movement provided for in the constitution is limited to movement within the country. The court also upheld the government’s argument that the director general of immigration has no duty to explain the reasoning for prohibiting an individual from traveling overseas.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government generally did not impede organizations providing protection and assistance to migrants, refugees, and stateless persons, most of whom lived intermingled with the general public. Access to those in detention centers, however, was often significantly limited.
Migrants, refugees, and stateless persons are considered “illegal immigrants” and receive no government support or recognition. The government allows UNHCR and a range of NGOs to work with these populations, but cooperation with UNHCR was inconsistent. For example, the government launched the pilot Tracking Refugees Information System in April to register refugees and collect their biometric data. Civil society groups expressed concern that the program will duplicate and degrade the value of identification documents provided by UNHCR and may be used to target and detain refugees.
As “illegal immigrants,” refugees and others are subject to deportation at any time. They also face up to five years’ imprisonment, a fine of 10,000 RM ($2,310), or both, and mandatory caning of not more than six strokes if convicted of immigration law violations.
Most migrants, refugees, and stateless persons live in private accommodations and survive on support from UNHCR and NGOs or illegal casual labor. The government, however, held thousands in immigration detention centers and other facilities.
NGOs and international organizations involved with these populations made credible allegations of overcrowding, inadequate food and clothing, lack of regular access to clean water, poor medical care, improper sanitation, and lack of bedding. An NGO with access to the detention centers claimed these conditions and lack of medical screening and treatment facilitated the spread of disease and contributed to deaths. NGOs provided most of the medical care and treatment in the detention centers.
Local and international NGOs estimated the population at most of the country’s 17 immigration detention centers was at or beyond capacity, with some detainees held for a year or more. The number detained in these centers was not publicly available.
In-country Movement: Sabah and Sarawak controlled immigration into their areas and required citizens from peninsular Malaysia and foreigners to present passports or national identity cards for entry. State authorities continued to deny entry to selected national opposition leaders to these east Malaysian states.
Foreign Travel: Travel to Israel is subject to approval and limited to religious purposes. The government also sometimes used its powers to restrict travel by its critics. In addition to preventing the travel of some activists overseas, the government temporarily detained and in some cases denied entry of foreign human rights activists. The July ruling that a valid passport does not give citizens the right to travel overseas allows unrestricted administrative denial of the right to overseas travel, although there are several challenges to the ruling before the courts.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Refoulement: The government did not provide legal protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened based on their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. In May authorities detained three Turkish citizens, one of whom was a UNHCR-registered refugee, and deported them to Turkey, reportedly at the request of the Turkish government.
Access to Asylum: The laws do not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status; nonetheless, the government generally cooperated with UNHCR and the government occasionally reported potential refugees to UNHCR. According to UNHCR statistics, there were 149,147 “persons of concern” in the country, including 132,106 from Myanmar, as of August 31. Because the country does not grant asylum or refugee status, UNHCR’s ultimate mission is to provide third-country resettlement options for the populations with which it works. In the year to November, UNHCR successfully resettled 2,061 refugees.
Human rights organizations expressed serious concerns about conditions in immigration detention centers and the lack of access to fair legal process and adequate representation during immigration court hearings. The Malaysian Bar Council has strongly criticized the immigration courts in detention centers as facilitating a legal process where migrant workers are not provided with a clear understanding of the charges against them in their own language and are effectively denied the right to legal counsel. At court hearings 15 to 20 migrants are often tried together, grouped by the offense to which they have been charged. If found guilty, the cost of deportation is generally at the detainee’s expense, which has led to prolonged detention for migrants who are unable to pay.
Freedom of Movement: The government generally tolerated the presence of undocumented refugees and asylum seekers, but sometimes detained them, for a variety of causes, in police jails or immigration detention centers until they could be deported or UNHCR established their bona fides. Some refugees holding UNHCR identification cards said they limited their movement throughout the country due to fears that authorities would not recognize the UNHCR card.
Employment: Although the government does not legally authorize UNHCR-registered refugees to work, it typically did not interfere if they performed informal work. UNHCR reported the government brought charges, in a few cases, against employers for hiring them. The government began a pilot program in March to provide legal work opportunities for UNHCR-designated Rohingya refugees on palm oil plantations. Although a major step forward, the pilot received limited numbers of Rohingya participants due to insufficient pay for hard physical labor in isolated plantations, often requiring family separation. UNHCR was re-evaluating the parameters of the pilot project and encouraging multiple sectors to participate in the pilot, including manufacturing firms for which jobs might be available near communities where refugee families live.
Access to Basic Services: The government provided access to health care at a discounted foreigner’s rate to UNHCR-registered refugees, but not to asylum seekers, who did not receive UNHCR registration cards. NGOs operated mobile clinics, but their number and access was limited. Refugees did not have access to the public education system. Access to education was limited to schools run by NGOs and ethnic communities, and UNHCR estimated no more than 30 percent of refugee children attended school. A lack of resources and qualified teachers limited opportunities for the majority of school-age refugee children. UNHCR staff members conducted numerous visits to prisons and immigration detention centers to provide counseling, support, and legal representation for refugees and asylum seekers.
The National Registration Department did not keep records of stateless persons. Estimates varied considerably and were not consistent. UNHCR estimated there were 12,350 stateless persons residing in peninsular Malaysia and 450,000 stateless persons in Sabah.
Citizenship law and birth registration rules and procedures created a large class of stateless children in the migrant/refugee population. When mothers did not have valid proof of citizenship, authorities entered the child’s citizenship as “unknown” on the birth certificate. UNHCR deemed this a widespread problem and reported that, in a population of approximately 80,000 Filipino Muslim refugees in the eastern state of Sabah, an estimated 10,000 were children who were technically stateless.
Even if the father is a citizen, the marriage may be considered invalid and the children illegitimate if the mother lacks proof of citizenship; such children were also considered stateless.
Some observers indicated that children born to Muslim refugees and asylum seekers often had an easier time obtaining citizenship than non-Muslim refugees and asylum seekers. For refugees in Muslim marriages, the observers claimed authorities often accepted a UNHCR document or other documentation in lieu of a passport as proof of citizenship.
Persons who lacked proof of citizenship were not able to attend school, access government services such as reduced cost health care, or own property.
A number of local NGOs and SUHAKAM conducted research, held workshops, and ran public awareness campaigns on the problem of stateless children.