Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The constitution allows restrictions on the freedom of expression “in the interest of the security of the Federation…[or] public order.” The former government regularly restricted freedom of expression for the media and civil society, 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 followed comments by vocal civil society or opposition leaders. Civil society groups claimed the former government generally failed to investigate and prosecute similar statements made by progovernment or pro-Malay persons.
Citing a “misdirection of law,” the court of appeals in February overturned the 2014 conviction of Adam Adli under the Sedition Act after he urged people to topple the government during a Kuala Lumpur forum in 2013. Authorities also withdrew Sedition Act charges against Members of Parliament Khalid Samad, Hassan Abdul Karim, and R. Sivarasa; former Member of Parliament Tian Chua; human rights lawyers N. Surendran and Eric Paulsen; socialist party central committee member S. Arulchevan; and political cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Al Haquem, popularly known as Zunar. The government initiated new charges under the Sedition Act against several persons for allegedly criticizing the country’s royal families.
In February artist Fahmi Reza was sentenced to one month in jail and fined RM30,000 ($7,500) for publishing a caricature of then prime minister Najib Razak in 2016 that was deemed “obscene, indecent, false, menacing or offensive in character with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass another person.” Amnesty International called the decision “yet another example of the continued crackdown on dissent by the Malaysian authorities.” In November the High Court upheld the conviction but reduced the fine to RM10,000 ($2,500) and revoked the jail sentence. In October prosecutors dropped similar charges against Fahmi in a separate case.
In September the Federal Court ruled that the government can sue individuals for defamation. Human rights groups, the Malaysian Bar Council, and former judges criticized the decision, describing it as “not in consonance with the citizens’ freedom of speech and the principle of good governance.”
Press and Media Freedom: Political parties and individuals linked to the former ruling coalition owned or controlled a majority of shares in almost all print and broadcast media, many of which were overtly progovernment. Online media outlets were more independent but were often the target of legal action and harassment.
Despite many restrictions and official pressure, 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 maintained and at times exerted control over news content, both in print and broadcast media. The former government 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 Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) asked two online news portals to remove articles that went “against the country’s laws.” According to media, “the articles all addressed current issues and local politics, while being openly critical of certain political parties and leaders.”
In April parliament passed the Anti-Fake News law, criminalizing the “malicious” production or dissemination of “any news, information, data or reports, which is or are wholly or partly false.” Later that same month, Salah Salem Saleh Sulaiman, a Danish national of Yemeni descent, pled guilty to maliciously creating and publishing fake news and was fined RM10,000 ($2,500) for posting a video on social media in which he alleged police did not respond promptly to emergency calls following the assassination of Palestinian lecturer Fadi Albatsh on April 21. Parliamentarians voted to repeal the law in August, but the opposition-controlled Senate overturned the decision, postponing the law’s repeal for as long as one year.
The former government sometimes barred online media from covering government press conferences.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists were subject to harassment and intimidation, especially in the run-up to the general election.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The former government censored media, primarily print and broadcast media; the new government maintained the ability to censor media but did not use this power as frequently. In addition to controlling news content by banning or restricting publications believed to threaten public order, morality, or national security, the former 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.
On election night the MCMC reportedly instructed internet service providers to block access to independent media outlets such as Malaysiakini, which were publishing unofficial election results indicating a possible win by the Pakatan Harapan opposition coalition. The new government ordered an investigation into the matter.
The government occasionally censored foreign magazines, newspapers, and news programming, 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 media 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 2017. In April 2018 the ministry banned six books whose contents it judged could be detrimental to public order, morality, or public interest, including texts that contained “elements promoting liberalism that can cause confusion among some readers.” In January the court of appeal ruled a 2015 ban on three books by novelist Faisal Musa violated the author’s freedom of speech. The previous government appealed the decision, but in October the new government withdrew the appeal and instructed the Ministry of Home Affairs to remove the titles from its list of banned publications.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law includes sections on civil and criminal defamation. Criminal defamation is punishable by a maximum two years’ imprisonment, 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 August prosecutors charged a member of the opposition United Malays National Organization (UMNO) under the Communications and Multimedia Act for allegedly insulting another UMNO member on Facebook. The accused’s attorney questioned why prosecutors dropped similar charges against members of the ruling coalition.
National Security: Authorities under the former government occasionally cited national security laws to restrict media distribution of material critical of government policies and public officials.
Nongovernmental Impact: NGOs sympathetic to the former government sought to limit freedom of expression through criminal complaints of allegedly seditious speech. Such NGOs also sometimes attempted to intimidate opposition groups through demonstrations.
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. Following the May election, the new government restored access to several online media outlets that were previously blocked, including Sarawak Report and Medium.
Authorities restricted internet freedom to combat dissenting political views online. In August the minister of religious affairs stated government authorities would monitor “LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) issues, as well as liberal Islam” on social media.
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, or its political leaders.
In July authorities opened an investigation into lawyer Fadiah Nadwa under the Sedition Act and Communications and Multimedia Act in relation to a blog post in which she criticized the royalty.
In February a man was sentenced to a RM20,000 ($5,000) fine or four months in jail for uploading content to Facebook in 2016 related to the prime minister and attorney general that authorities deemed offensive.
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 International Telecommunication Union, approximately 80 percent of the population had access to the internet in 2017.
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 fear the government might revoke the licenses of their institutions. The law imposes limitations on student associations and on student and faculty political activity. In February a court ruled on procedural grounds that the University of Malaya should not have disciplined four students for holding political placards during a town hall meeting in 2016. The court did not, however, entertain the students’ claim that the university’s actions violated their right to freedom of expression.
The government regularly censored films, editing out profanity, kissing, sex, and nudity. The government also censored films for certain political and religious content, not allowing, for example, screening of 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). The Film Censorship Board banned a controversial Hindi film that featured a relationship between a Hindu queen and a Muslim ruler in medieval India. The board also banned Those Long Haired Nights, a Philippine film about transgender prostitutes.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
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 PEACEFUL 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.
Protests deemed acceptable by the government usually proceeded without interference.
In December police approved a demonstration opposing the ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination but rescinded a previously approved application to hold a Human Rights Day event on the same day citing security risks.
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 December the lower house of parliament passed amendments to legislation on university students’ participation in political-party activities on campus. The Senate, however, did not approve the legislation during the year. Earlier in the year the government lifted the ban on opposition politicians visiting schools in their constituencies, but required them to first obtain approval from state authorities.
Many human rights and civil society organizations had difficulty obtaining government recognition as NGOs. As a result, many NGOs registered as companies, which created legal and bureaucratic obstacles to raising money to support their activities. Authorities frequently cited a lack of registration as grounds for action against organizations. Some NGOs also reported the government monitored their activities in order to intimidate them.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
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 eastern Sabah and Sarawak States.
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 receive no government support. The government allows UNHCR and NGOs to work with these populations, but government cooperation with UNHCR was inconsistent. In 2017 the government launched the Tracking Refugees Information System to register refugees and collect their biometric data. The program requires refugees to pay an annual fee of RM500 ($125) for an identification card but did not provide any benefits.
As “illegal immigrants,” refugees and others are subject to deportation at any time. They also face a maximum five years’ imprisonment, a fine of RM10,000 ($2,500), or both, and mandatory caning of a maximum six strokes if convicted of immigration law violations.
In July the government used what some NGOs called inhuman and degrading methods to carry out a mass operation to arrest undocumented migrant workers.
Most migrants, refugees, and stateless persons lived in private accommodations and survived 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 the lack of medical screening and treatment facilitated the spread of disease and contributed to deaths. NGOs provided most 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 longer. The number detained in these centers was not publicly available.
In-country Movement: Sabah and Sarawak States 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 certain national opposition leaders to these states. Sarawak maintained a travel ban on a SUHAKAM commissioner for criticizing the construction of a controversial dam in the state. SUHAKAM stated the travel ban prevented it from holding its October commission meeting as planned.
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 overseas travel by some activists, the former government temporarily detained and in some cases denied entry to foreign human rights activists.
In May immigration authorities banned former prime minister Najib Razak, his wife, and several other former government officials from traveling overseas because they were suspected of corruption, although they had not been charged with a crime at the time they attempted to leave the country. Authorities later charged Najib with 38 counts of money laundering, bribery, and criminal breach of trust, and his wife with 19 counts of money laundering and corruption.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Refoulement: The government at times did not provide legal protection against the expulsion or forcible return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom could be threatened based on their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. In 2017 authorities detained three Turkish citizens, one a UNHCR-registered refugee, and deported them to Turkey, reportedly at the request of the Turkish government. According to a report released during the year by a Swedish human rights group, a Turkish national deported by Malaysian authorities in 2016 was beaten, tortured, and threatened with death upon his return to Turkey. Malaysian human rights groups said in April that the incident violated international customary law.
In October the government released 11 Uighurs from prison and dropped charges against them of illegal entry. The government also rejected China’s request to forcibly return the group to China and allowed them to relocate to Turkey.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status; government cooperation with UNHCR was inconsistent, but the government occasionally reported potential refugees to UNHCR.
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 were not provided with a clear understanding of the charges against them in their own language and were effectively denied the right to legal counsel. At court hearings 15 to 20 migrants were often tried together, grouped by the offense with which they were charged. If found guilty the cost of deportation is generally at the detainee’s expense, which led to prolonged detention for migrants who were 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 reported, nonetheless, limited ability to move throughout the country because authorities sometimes did not recognize the UNHCR card.
Employment: Although the government does not 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. During the year the government permitted a pilot program for 30 Rohingya refugees to work in a local bakery, a program refugee advocates said was a success.
Access to Basic Services: The government provided access to health care at a discounted foreigner’s rate of 50 percent 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 40 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.
Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary, renewable residence permits to a group of Syrian refugees. The permit allows for legal residency and conveys work rights, but must be renewed annually.
The National Registration Department did not maintain records of stateless persons. UNHCR estimated there were 12,350 stateless persons residing in peninsular Malaysia and 450,000 in Sabah. In May the government established a minority task force to address statelessness among members of the country’s ethnic Indian community.
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 Sabah State, 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 access government services, such as reduced cost health care, or own property.
In October the federal government approved the citizenship applications of two stateless children after lawyers sued the government. The cases of three other stateless children remained pending.