a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
Under the law and emergency powers, the government restricted freedom of expression, including for the press.
Freedom of Speech: There is no provision for freedom of speech in the constitution or laws. Members of the Legislative Council 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 to “wound religious feelings.”
The SPC includes provisions barring contempt for or insult of the sultan, administration of sharia, or any law related to Islam. SPC sections provide, in certain circumstances, for death sentences for apostasy from Islam, deriding Islamic scriptures, and declaring oneself as god, among other offenses. 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 or stories on these subjects.
The government interpreted the SPC to prohibit public celebration of religions other than Islam, including publicly displaying Christmas decorations. Some establishments, however, openly sold Christmas decorations or advertised Christmas-themed events. Christmas remained an official national holiday.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: 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. Internet versions of local and foreign media were generally available without censorship or blocking.
The government owns the only local television station. Three Malaysian television channels are also available, along with two satellite television services. Some content was subject to censorship based on theme or content, including 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 what the government deems seditious intent. Punishments include suspension of publication for a maximum of one year, a prohibition on publishers, printers, or editors from publishing, writing for, or editing any other newspaper, and the seizure of printing equipment. Persons convicted under the law also face a significant fine and a maximum prison term of three years. Journalists deemed to have published or written “false and malicious” reports may be subject to fines or prison sentences.
Observers reported prohibitions against covering a variety of topics, such as Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and not being able to report on topics such as crime until there has been an official press release by the relevant government agency. In the past, the government shuttered media outlets, reprimanded media companies for their portrayals of certain events, and encouraged reporters to avoid covering controversial topics. There were no such reports during the year. The government maintained that most censorship was aimed at stopping violent content from entering the country.
The SPC prohibits publication or importation of publications giving instruction about Islam contrary to sharia. It also bars the distribution to Muslims or to persons with no religion of publications related to religions other than Islam. 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 significant fine, a maximum of three years in prison, or both. There were no reports of such cases during the year.
The government restricted access to the internet, censored online content, and had the capability to monitor private online communications. The government monitored private email and internet chat-room exchanges it believed to be propagating religious extremism or otherwise subversive views, including those of religious minorities, or material on topics deemed immoral. The Ministry of Transport and Infocommunications 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 the Infocommunications 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-censored content and reserved the right to cut off internet access without prior notice. The government continued awareness campaigns 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. The government maintained a hotline for reporting fake or malicious information circulated on social media that involved public or national interests.
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, and the sultan serves as chancellor of all major universities.
Academics reported practicing self-censorship. In recent years, some researchers published 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. 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. The board determines the suitability of concerts, movies, cultural shows, and other public performances, and censored, banned, or restricted some activities. Although the Censorship Board rarely required changes in performances, delays associated with the censorship process posed logistical hurdles for performing arts organizations. Authorities restricted traditional Chinese New Year lion dance performances to Chinese temples, Chinese school halls, and private residencies of Chinese association members.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government limited and 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 has in recent years occasionally used its authority 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.
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 for example 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.
d. Freedom of Movement
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 the government enforced this policy inconsistently. 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.
f. 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.
g. Stateless Persons
There are no recent, reliable statistics on the number of stateless persons in the country, but observers estimated there were tens of thousands, most of whom had permanent resident status. Most stateless residents were native born, of Chinese heritage, and from families that have resided in the country for generations. Other stateless residents included members of indigenous tribes, whose lands span Brunei and the neighboring Malaysian state of Sarawak, and the foreign wives of Malay Muslim men. The vast majority of stateless persons held a certificate of identity, which functions as a passport. Certificate holders have some rights similar to those of citizens, including rights to subsidized health care and education. The government has no data available on stateless persons who hold no form of residency or certificate of identity.
Stateless persons may apply for citizenship if they are adults born in the country and resident for 12 of the last 15 years, provided they pass a test demonstrating sufficient knowledge of Malay culture and language. Women married to citizens and the minor children of citizens who did not obtain citizenship at birth–such as children of citizen mothers and permanent resident fathers–may also apply. Members of the stateless community who passed the Malay culture and language test have for years reported a de facto suspension of citizenship approvals for stateless adult residents, with many reporting that although five to 10 years had elapsed since they passed their test they still had not been granted citizenship. The minister of home affairs noted that most of the 389 applicants awarded citizenship during the year had married Malay Muslim citizens and were not members of the ethnic Chinese community, although the local press did highlight two members of the ethnic Chinese community who gained citizenship.