Brunei Darussalam is a monarchy governed since 1967 by Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah. Emergency powers in place since 1962 allow the sultan to govern with few limitations on his authority. The Legislative Council (LegCo), composed of appointed, indirectly elected, and ex officio members, met during the year and exercised a purely consultative role in recommending and approving legislation and budgets.
The sultan maintained effective control over the security forces.
Human rights issues included censorship, criminal libel, and the monitoring of private email and other electronic communications; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on political participation; and crimes involving violence or threats targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons including intimidation by police; and exploitation of foreign workers, including through forced labor.
There were no reports of official impunity or allegations of human rights abuses by government officials.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
Under the law and emergency powers, the government restricted freedom of expression, including for the press.
Freedom of Expression: There is no provision for freedom of speech in the constitution or laws. Members of the LegCo may “speak their opinions freely” on behalf of citizens, but they are prohibited from using language or exhibiting behavior deemed “irresponsible, derogatory, scandalous, or injurious.” Under the law, it is an offense to challenge the royal family’s authority. The law also makes it an offense to challenge “the standing or prominence of the national philosophy, the Malay Islamic Monarchy concept.” This philosophy identifies Islam as the state religion and monarchical rule as the sole form of government to uphold the rights and privileges of the Brunei Malay race. The law also criminalizes any act, matter, or word intended to promote “feelings of ill will or hostility” between classes of persons or “wound religious feelings.”
The SPC includes provisions barring contempt for or insult of the sultan, administration of sharia, or any law related to Islam. There were no known cases of persons charged under these sections, but online criticism of the law was largely self-censored, and online newspapers did not permit comments on stories.
All public musical or theatrical performances require prior approval by a censorship board composed of officials from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the Ministry of Religious Affairs. In September a Slovakian tourist was deported for putting on street performances without prior approval from the censorship board. The government interpreted the SPC to prohibit public celebration of religions other than Islam, including displaying Christmas decorations.
Press and Media Freedom: The law allows the government to close a newspaper without giving prior notice or showing cause. The law requires local newspapers to obtain operating licenses and prior government approval for hiring foreign editorial staff, journalists, and printers. The law also gives the government the right to bar distribution of foreign publications and requires distributors of foreign publications to obtain a government permit.
Foreign newspapers generally were available, although the government must approve their distribution. Internet versions of local and foreign media were generally available without censorship or blocking.
The government owned the only local television station. Three Malaysian television channels were also available, along with two satellite television services. Some content was subject to censorship based on theme or content, including sexual or religious content, but such censorship was not consistent.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law provides for prosecution of newspaper publishers, proprietors, or editors who publish anything with an alleged seditious intent. Punishments include suspension of publication for a maximum of one year, a prohibition on publishers, printers, or editors from publishing, writing, or editing any other newspaper, and the seizure of printing equipment. Persons convicted under the law also face a maximum fine of 5,000 Brunei dollars (BND) ($3,640) and a maximum jail term of three years. Journalists deemed to have published or written “false and malicious” reports may be subject to fines or prison sentences. In the past, the government has reprimanded media companies for their portrayals of certain events and encouraged reporters to avoid covering controversial topics, but there were no such reports as of November. The government maintained that most censorship was aimed at stopping violent content from entering the country.
The SPC includes regulations barring publication or importation of publications giving instruction about Islam contrary to sharia. It also bars the distribution of publications related to religions other than Islam to Muslims or persons with no religion. The SPC bars the publication, broadcast, or public expression of a list of words generally associated with Islam (such as Quran) in a non-Islamic context. The SPC also prohibits religious teaching without written approval. There were no reports of charges under these regulations.
Journalists commonly reported practicing self-censorship because of social pressure, reports of government interference, and legal and professional concerns.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law prohibits bringing into hatred or contempt or exciting disaffection against the sultan or the government. Persons convicted under the law face a fine of BND 5,000 ($3,640) and/or a maximum of three years in prison. In 2017, for the first time in 30 years, the government charged an official, Shahiransheriffuddin bin Sharani Muhammad of the Ministry of Health, with making seditious comments criticizing the Ministry of Religious Affairs following the implementation of the Sultanate’s halal certification standards. Bin Sharani used his personal Facebook page to report about the halal standards’ negative impact on small businesses. In November, following reports that Shahiransheriffuddin had fled Brunei, the prosecution obtained an arrest warrant and informed the court it intended to apply for judgement in absentia.
The government restricts and disrupts access to the internet and censors online content, and there were credible reports that the government monitored private online communications. The government monitors private email and internet chat room exchanges believed to be propagating religious extremism or otherwise subversive views, including those of religious minorities, or material on topics deemed immoral. The Ministry of Communications and the Prime Minister’s Office enforce the law that requires internet service providers and internet cafe operators to register with the director of broadcasting in the Prime Minister’s Office. The Attorney General’s Chambers and the Authority for Info-Communications Technology Industry advised internet service and content providers to monitor for content contrary to the public interest, national harmony, and social morals.
Internet companies self-censor content and reserve the right to cut off internet access without prior notice. The government ran several awareness campaigns throughout the year warning citizens about the misuse of and social ills associated with social media, including the use of social media to criticize Islam, sharia, or the monarchy. In September the government announced it had set up a hotline to encourage people to report fake or malicious information circulated on social media that involved public or national interests.
The government’s activities extend beyond the country. In January the government complained to the Indonesian police and requested an investigation into an Instagram account that they alleged defamed the sultan.
According to the ITU, 95 percent of the population uses the internet, and the country had a high rate of social media usage.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
Although there are no official government restrictions on academic freedom, government authorities must approve public lectures, academic conferences, and visiting scholars.
Academics reported practicing self-censorship, and some researchers chose to publish from overseas under a pseudonym when they perceived that certain topics would not be well received by the authorities. Religious authorities reviewed publications to verify compliance with social norms.
There were government restrictions on cultural events. A censorship board composed of officials from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the Ministry of Religious Affairs determined the suitability of concerts, movies, cultural shows, and other public performances, and censored, banned, or restricted some activities. Authorities restricted traditional Chinese New Year lion dance performances to Chinese temples, Chinese school halls, and private residencies of Chinese association members.
The government limited/restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The government’s emergency powers restrict the right to assemble. Public gatherings of 10 or more persons require a government permit, and police may disband an unofficial assembly of five or more persons deemed likely to cause a disturbance of the peace. Permits require the approval of the minister of home affairs. The government routinely issued permits for annual events, but occasionally used the restrictions to disrupt political gatherings. Organizers of events on sensitive topics tended to hold meetings in private rather than apply for permits, or practiced self-censorship at public events. In March the RBPF raided a live music event organized by a local grassroots arts initiative and detained the 176 persons in attendance. A number of those detained were charged with possession of narcotics. The raid was publicized live on national television and followed a clamp down on drugs and alcohol by authorities. The LGBTI community reported that the government would not issue permits for community events or events on LGBTI topics.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The law does not provide for freedom of association. The law requires formal groups, including religious, social, business, labor, and cultural organizations, to register with the Registrar of Societies and provide regular reports on membership and finances. Applicants were subject to background checks, and proposed organizations were subject to naming requirements, including a prohibition on names or symbols linked to triad societies (Chinese organized crime networks). The government reported it accepted the majority of applications to form associations, but some new organizations reported delaying their registration applications after receiving advice that the process would be difficult. The government may suspend the activities of a registered organization if it deems such an act to be in the public interest.
Organizations seeking to raise funds or donations from the general public are required to obtain permission from the Ministry of Home Affairs, and each individual fundraising activity requires a separate permit. Approved organizations dealt with matters such as pollution, wildlife preservation, arts, entrepreneurship, and women in business.
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 government generally respected the legal right to freedom of internal movement and the right to emigrate, but imposed restrictions on foreign travel and repatriation.
Foreign Travel: Government employees, including both citizens and foreign residents working on a contractual basis, must apply for exit permits to travel abroad. Government guidelines state no government official may travel alone and unrelated male and female officers may not travel together, but this was enforced inconsistently based on ministry. The country’s tourist passports state the bearer may not travel to Israel.
Exile: By law, the sultan may forcibly exile, permanently or temporarily, any person deemed a threat to the safety, peace, or welfare of the country. There have been no cases of banishment since the country became fully independent in 1984.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees.
There is no recent data on the resident stateless population; old studies suggest the number is between 10,000 and 15,000. A significant number of stateless persons were of Chinese or aboriginal descent. The vast majority of stateless persons held a certificate of identity (COI), which functions as a passport. COI holders have some rights, including to subsidized health care and education, similar to those of citizens. The government had no data available on stateless persons who hold no form of residency or COI.
Stateless persons may apply for citizenship if they are permanent residents who have contributed to the country’s economic growth, spouses married to citizens for two years, women married to permanent residents for five years, or children of permanent resident fathers older than two years and six months. All applicants must pass a test demonstrating sufficient knowledge of Malay culture and language.
Stateless persons without permanent resident status or a COI were ineligible for most benefits or services from the government and for government employment. Nonetheless, government agencies offered welfare services to stateless parents unable to gain access to basic needs. The Ministry of Home Affairs sought to expedite the permanent resident registration of the country’s stateless persons if they met all necessary requirements. The strict procedure for assessing the applications continued to cause prolonged delays. Contacts in the stateless community who passed the Malay culture and language test reported that five to 10 years had elapsed since they passed their test and yet they still had not been granted citizenship.