a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
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 freedom of expression for members of the public, 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. The government curbed freedom of expression, particularly freedom of the press.
Freedom of Expression: The law prohibits sedition and public comment on topics defined as sensitive, including racial and religious matters or criticism of the king or ruling sultans. The law prohibits speech “with deliberate intent to wound the religious feelings of any person.”
Police charged activist artist Fahmi Reza in February with “posting content with the intent to annoy others.” The charges related to an image Fahmi posted on social media in June 2021 depicting two beer cans, one with the logo of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), a party in the ruling coalition, with the phrase “Carlsberg for All.” Fahmi posted the image in response to the government’s decision to allow beer factories to continue operating while other businesses were shuttered to limit the spread of COVID-19. The Kuala Lumpur Sessions Court granted Fahmi a “discharge not amounting to an acquittal” on the case on October 14. Fahmi in February pled not guilty to separate charges of making an “obscene” social media post with the “intent to annoy a person” in February 2021, arising from his post on Twitter referring to then-minister of health Adham Baba as a “pig”; those charges were dropped in August.
On April 25, the sharia high court of Kuala Lumpur sentenced opposition member of parliament Maria Chin Abdullah to seven days in jail for her 2019 statement that the country’s sharia laws discriminated against women. Abdullah, a convert to Islam, made the statement after the former wife of a prominent businessman served a seven-day jail sentence handed down by a sharia court for rescheduling her former husband’s child visitation dates.
In June RMP Criminal Investigation Division Chief Abd Jalil Hassan reported that police arrested 46 individuals since January for statements that were defamatory and insulting towards the country’s royalty and said, “there are limits to freedom of speech.”
Violence and Harassment: Journalists were subjected to harassment and intimidation.
In May the National Union of Journalists Peninsular Malaysia and press freedom advocacy group Gerakan Media Merdeka (Movement for an Independent Media) called for authorities to take action against any party that assaults journalists in the field after a security guard at a branch of the Immigration Department in Kuala Lumpur shouted at two journalists from news portal The Vibes, snatched a journalist’s mobile phone, and told them to stop interviewing visitors to the Immigration Department regarding slow passport processing times.
Censorship or Content Restrictions for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: The government maintained the ability to control news content, including the ability to censor, and at times exerted such control of both print and broadcast media. The government banned, restricted, or limited circulation of some publications it considered a threat to public order, morality, or national security. 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 inhibited independent or investigative journalism and resulted in self-censorship in print and broadcast media. Online media outlets were more independent but were more likely to be the target of legal action and harassment.
The government occasionally censored foreign magazines, newspapers, and news programming, most often due to sexual content.
In October the Ministry of Home Affairs banned three publications for being “detrimental to morality.” The publications, Chelsia Amanda (Berdasarkan Kisah Benar) (Chelsea Amanda (Based on a True Story)), Heartstopper Volume 2, and Cekik (Choke), reportedly contained “obscene and immoral content” and were deemed an attempt to “promote” lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) culture (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity or Expression, or Sex Characteristics – Restrictions of Freedom of Expression, Association, or Peaceful Assembly).
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 may 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 January the chief of the Malaysia Anti-Corruption Commission, Azam Baki, demanded investigative journalist and whistleblower Lalitha Kunaratnam issue a public apology, pay 10 million ringgit ($2.4 million) in damages, and delete articles in which Kunaratnam questioned Baki’s business ties and claimed he owned shares in two companies.
In April the Federal Court ruled that the government may sue individuals for defamation and be sued in turn. It also decided that political parties may not sue individuals for defamation because they do not have a “reputation” as such.
In September the former editor-in-chief of business news outlet The Edge, Azam Aris, was charged with criminal defamation in connection with articles published in The Edge in September 2020 and April 2021 concerning alleged manipulation of penny stocks. Former top executives of Media Prima, the country’s largest media and entertainment conglomerate, and The Star, the country’s largest circulating English daily, questioned the defamation case against Azam, noting that news reports on stock manipulations published during his editorial leadership represented fair reporting and were of public interest.
According to media reports, the Ministry of Home Affairs blocked distribution of the September 17 print edition of The Economist. Media speculated the cause was an article on Southeast Asian royal families that included negative stories on various royal families in Malaysia.
National Security: Authorities often cited national security laws to restrict media distribution of material critical of government policies and public officials.
In January police questioned journalist Sean Augustin from media outlet Free Malaysia Today about his article reporting that the armed forces rescued flood victims amidst rising waters without waiting for approval from the disaster management agency during a December 2021 flood.
Nongovernmental Impact: Political and religious activists sought to limit freedom of expression through public criticisms of expression deemed dangerous or criminal complaints of allegedly seditious speech. In July a self-described royalist lodged a police report against graphic designer Fahmi Reza for a satirical illustration of the regent of Pahang State. The regent in response described the police report as unnecessary.
The government restricted access to some content on the internet. Curtailing internet freedom to combat dissenting political views online, authorities blocked some websites and monitored the internet for messages and blog postings deemed a threat to public security or order.
The government warned internet users to avoid offensive or indecent content and sensitive matters such as religion and race, and it aggressively pursued charges against those criticizing Islam, the country’s royalty, or its political leaders.
Sedition and criminal defamation laws led to self-censorship by local internet content sources, including bloggers, news providers, and 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. The government regards those who post content as publishers, thereby placing the burden of proof on the poster. NGOs and members of the public criticized the law, noting it could cause self-censorship due to liability concerns.
In August international NGO Civicus reported on numerous attempts by authorities to intimidate and punish opponents of the government, including the arrest in April of a DAP campaign worker in Johor State for sedition related to his Facebook post that allegedly encouraged ethnic-Indian Malaysians not to vote for the Malaysian Indian Congress, a political party that was part of the then-ruling coalition.
Restrictions on 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 required all university faculty members and students to sign a pledge of loyalty to the king and government. Some politicians 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. Students remain prohibited from “expressing support or sympathy” for an unlawful society or organization.
Police in July charged Muhammad Aliff Naif, student union president at the International Islamic University of Malaysia, with failing to give police five days’ notice before organizing a protest against rising inflation. The university’s Academic Staff Association issued a statement in support of the student.
Government restrictions on radio and television stations mirrored those on print media, and electronic media predominantly supported the government. Television stations censored programming to follow government guidelines. Kissing onscreen, portrayals of homosexuality, sex scenes, nudity, strong graphic violence, and strong language are all prohibited or censored.
The government generally restricted publications it judged might incite racial or religious disharmony. The Ministry of Home Affairs maintained a list of more than 1,700 banned publications as of November 2020.
In February the Kuala Lumpur High Court ruled that there was “no evidence and/or factual basis” for the December 2020 banning of the book Gay is OK! A Christian Perspective. The Ministry of Home Affairs claimed the contents of the book were “detrimental to public order, morals, and public interest;” the book had been sold since 2012.
The government censored films for certain political and religious content, not allowing, for example, screening of films in Hebrew or 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.
The Film Censorship Board barred the movies Thor: Love and Thunder and Lightyear from being screened in cinemas after Disney refused to cut scenes “promoting the LGBT lifestyle.” Deputy Communications and Multimedia Minister Zahidi Zainul Abidin said the government was committed to “curtailing gay culture.”
In July the Kuala Lumpur city government revoked the business license of a Kuala Lumpur comedy club; police charged two individuals after an open-mic performance at the club was characterized as “insulting Islam.” The charges related to a widely viewed online video of a woman, Siti Nuramaira Abdullah, talking at the comedy club about the Quran while removing her attire to reveal undergarments. Comedians, social media users, and religious groups criticized the woman for “insulting Islam.” On July 13 the woman and her partner were charged with “causing disharmony on grounds of religion” and “improper use of network facilities,” respectively. As of November the cases were pending.
b. Freedoms 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 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 often banned street protests, and police sometimes confronted civil society and opposition demonstrations with mass arrests.
In January police questioned more than 50 activists who attended a rally in Kuala Lumpur to demand the arrest of MACC Chief Azam Baki for holding extensive shares of stock in companies. The 200 protestors gathered for two hours, calling for the government to institute reforms in the MACC. On the eve of the protest, police called in several activists for questioning, closed roads and rail services heading into Kuala Lumpur, and during the protest were present in large numbers. Police did not press charges against attendees.
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.
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 to intimidate them.
e. Protection of Refugees
The government generally did not impede organizations providing protection and assistance to migrants, refugees, and stateless persons, most of whom lived intermingled with the public. The government cooperated to a limited extent with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees and asylum seekers. As there is no legal framework for dealing with refugees and asylum seekers in the country, UNHCR conducted all activities related to protection, including registration and status determination.
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.
Migrants, refugees, and stateless persons received no government support. The government allowed UNHCR and NGOs to work with these populations, but government cooperation with UNHCR was inconsistent.
Viewed as “illegal immigrants,” refugees and asylees also faced a maximum of five years’ imprisonment, a fine, or both, and mandatory caning with a maximum of six strokes if convicted of immigration law violations.
Refoulement: Refugees and asylees were subject to deportation at any time, although the government did not deport Rohingya, nor much of the other refugee population. In October, however, the government refouled to Burma a Burmese military defector and his wife, both of whom were registered with UNHCR and were immediately arrested upon their arrival in Rangoon, as part of a deportation of 150 Burmese nationals, including others who allegedly had UNHCR refugee status. Human Rights Watch reported that an additional 1,500 Burmese nationals were deported between April and September. In August a Pakistani journalist and UNHCR-registered refugee living in the country since 2011 was forcibly returned to Pakistan at the request of the Pakistan government. As of year’s end, the journalist had not been heard from since deportation.
The government forcibly repelled boats with refugees and asylum seekers who had come from a country where their lives or freedom could be threatened due to their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. In cases where the boats landed, UNHCR reported it had no access and the individuals were detained for illegal entry.
Abuse of Migrants and Refugees: Security services continued to perform immigration raids, including targeting civil society organizations that support refugees. The government continued to arrest undocumented migrant workers, including children, and held thousands of individuals in confined and congested cells at immigration detention centers and other facilities. Access to those in detention centers was often significantly limited. UNHCR affirmed that authorities continued to disallow visits by its staff members to detention centers to meet potential refugees and asylum seekers, determine those in need of international protection, and advocate for their release.
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 in the immigration detention centers.
Local and international NGOs estimated most of the country’s 12 permanent and nine temporary immigration detention centers were at or beyond capacity, with some detainees held for a year or longer. The number of persons detained in these centers was not publicly available.
Human rights organizations expressed serious concerns over the lack of access to fair legal process and adequate representation during immigration court hearings. The Malaysian Bar Council 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 generally fell to the detainee, which led to prolonged detention for those unable to pay.
In March UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor criticized the government’s handling of harassment and death threats faced by a Rohingya activist in Malaysia. Lawlor said the government had not responded to a December 2021 letter issued by a group of rapporteurs on Zafar Ahmad Abdul Ghani’s plight. She stated the lack of response made her question if the government took the matter seriously.
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 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 refugees. Refugees employed in the informal sector were paid lower wages than comparable employees and were vulnerable to exploitation.
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 persons without UNHCR registration cards. NGOs operated static and mobile clinics, but their number and access were 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 most school-age refugee children.
g. Stateless Persons
The National Registration Department did not maintain records of stateless persons. Baseline figures of stateless persons and persons “at risk” of statelessness in Sabah, where approximately 136,055 Filipino Muslim refugees resided, were unavailable.
The country contributes to statelessness, including through discrimination against women in nationality laws, procedural problems and bureaucratic requirements, and birth registration problems. In July the deputy home minister reported that from 2017 to June 30 the Ministry of Home Affairs received 22,701 citizenship applications, of which 14,144 were pending processing.
Citizenship law and birth registration rules and procedures created a large class of stateless children in the migrant and 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.
Even if the father of a married couple’s children 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.
If a citizen mother was in a nonmarital relationship with a refugee father, the child could obtain citizenship through the mother, but if a citizen father was not married to a refugee mother, the child would not obtain citizenship. Some observers indicated that Muslim refugees and asylum seekers often had an easier time registering the birth of a child than non-Muslim refugees and asylum seekers, but registration does not confer citizenship. Authorities often accepted a UNHCR document or other documentation held by refugees or asylum seekers in lieu of a passport as proof of citizenship of their country of origin.
Persons who lacked proof of citizenship were not able to access government services, such as reduced-cost health care, or own property. Previously the federal government permitted stateless children to enroll in public school if parents were able to prove the child’s father was a citizen, but in 2020 the minister of education informed parliament that stateless children no longer would have access to public schools but could attend private schools.