Malaysia: Fighting together for free expression

UPDATE (5/27/2016): In a victory for Malaysian civil society groups, Parliament has postponed consideration of its dangerous amendments until later this year. The bill containing the amendments could still resurface in November, so the fight is not over. Congratulations to everyone in Malaysia — and beyond — who spoke out against these very real threats to digital rights and free expression. 

Malaysia could soon approve several outrageous bills that would impose criminal penalties for everyday use of the internet. Over the course of the next week, its parliament will consider amendments to the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 and the Sedition Act, among other laws. These amendments would grant wide new powers to the telecoms regulator, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), and could also restrict the use of bail under the criminal code. The amended laws could make Internet Service Providers criminally liable for content passing over their networks and could lead to some websites getting permanently blocked.

The move to make these amendments follows government attempts to censor information about a $681 million corruption scandal involving Prime Minister Najib Razak and the international bank Goldman Sachs. In July 2015, when the journalism website Sarawak Report published an article about the scandal, the MCMC blocked the site in Malaysia. When Sarawak Report started using Medium to get the information out, the regulator then blocked Medium as well.

These frightening proposals to grant MCMC more power and restrict free expression in Malaysia have galvanized local civil society groups, which have now formed a new coalition called Net Merdeka. These groups face considerable challenges in fighting the proposed changes to the law. The government has not released the final text of the proposed bills, and according to the coalition, the parliament may lack viable opposition voices. That means that a text that few have seen or discussed could quickly be approved by the United Malays National Organization, the governing party that has held power since the country’s independence.

The Net Merdeka coalition needs our help to get the word out. As the coalition writes:

It is regrettable that the government has done little consultation with stakeholders, proving yet again the absence of political will for open and democratic law making processes in Malaysia. Civil society stands to be most affected by the proposed amendments as we constitute the majority of the internet population, and as such, it is critical that our views and voices are duly recognised and reflected.

We agree that the laws governing the internet need to be reviewed for them to have stronger provisions for privacy and protections for freedom of expression. But these are not being prioritised; instead we see a pattern of reviewing laws to extend the powers of the executive to conveniently target media, political opponents and individuals critics…

We believe that bodies like the MCMC should not have discretion to block content; instead, its actions should be governed by its ten policy objectives, including creating a vibrant civil community, establishing Malaysia as a major global centre and hub for communications and multimedia information and content services, and creating robust applications environment for end users. Decisions to restrict freedom of information and expression should follow due process of the law and international standards and norms. It should be clear, least restrictive, necessary and proportionate. This at minimum, requires a court order.

Do you live in Malaysia? You can use this sample letter by Net Merdeka to contact your representatives in Parliament to ask them to oppose the amendments.