The Muzzling of the Malaysian Mind

18 April 2016

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APRIL 14, 2016)

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — On Thursday the High Court here rejected yet another challenge to the Sedition Act, paving the way for the government’s record-breaking case against the political cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Haque, better known as Zunar, to proceed. Zunar faces up to 43 years in prison on nine counts of sedition — the most counts anyone in Malaysia has ever been charged with.

His crime? Posting comments and cartoons on social media criticizing a court decision last year that upheld a conviction for sodomy against the opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

In February, the police hauled in another cartoonist, Fahmi Reza, for drawing Prime Minister Najib Razak as a clown. (Mr. Fahmi has since been released.) The latest to be summoned were three lawyers who asked the Malaysian Bar to remove Attorney- General Mohamed Apandi Ali from his post for refusing to prosecute Mr. Najib over alleged financial improprieties. Their motion was deemed to be seditious because the attorney general is appointed by the king, and a challenge to him is seen as a challenge to the king himself.

In 2015 alone, according to Amnesty International, 91 people were arrested, charged or investigated under the 1948 Sedition Act — almost five times as many as during the law’s first 50 years.

The act, which was amended after race riots in 1969, prohibits any action that might “raise discontent or disaffection” among Malaysians. It was enacted by the British colonial authorities, mostly to stamp out criticism from communists. But the Najib administration, after pledging to repeal the archaic law, is now wielding it to silence anyone who questions the state, or even the political status quo. This is an unprecedented onslaught against free expression in Malaysia, and an attempt to muzzle the entire population.

On Feb. 25, soon after The Malaysian Insider reported that an independent oversight panel within the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission had found sufficient evidence of financial improprieties by Mr. Najib, Internet regulators blocked access to our site. They claimed that our story would confuse the public because the attorney general had already announced there wasn’t enough evidence against the prime minister.

Our site remained accessible outside Malaysia, but the block order shut us out of the Malaysian market, and our advertising revenue, which already was weak, then flatlined. With no worthy bids forthcoming from potential buyers, on March 14, after eight years of operation, The Malaysian Insider was closed by its owners.

Fifty-nine of us lost our jobs. Malaysia lost one of its few independent news sources. And the communications and multimedia minister defended the government’s position by suggesting that The Malaysian Insider published content as “undesirable” as pornography.

Of course, Malaysia has never been a truly free and open society. In the late 1990s, then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), promised freedom on the Internet to attract Silicon Valley start-ups and propel Malaysia into the cyberage. But the Internet and mobile phones were beyond the reach of many Malaysians back then, so Mr. Mahathir had little cause to place any limits on them. And he shut down several newspapers in 1987, on security grounds, while generally keeping a tight leash on traditional media.

Mr. Mahathir’s successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, also of UMNO, was more lenient, partly on the advice of a coterie of young advisers. Online news portals mushroomed. Social media flourished. This was the period when cartoonists such as Zunar and Mr. Fahmi came to prominence, beyond just doodling for newspapers. But critics within UMNO pointed out that Mr. Abdullah had given too much away when under his tenure the party lost a commanding parliamentary majority between one election and the next.

Mr. Najib replaced Mr. Abdullah in 2009, and for a while all was well. In response to growing rifts between the country’s Malay, Chinese and Indian populations, he announced the “1Malaysia” program, a campaign to encourage national unity, diversity and pluralism. His government repealed draconian security laws that allowed detention without trial.

But just like the Mahathir administration had done, the Najib administration reversed itself after a few years in office. UMNO, which was first created to represent and unite Malay interests, was still failing to make inroads with non-Malays. It lost the popular vote in the 2013 general election. The party and its allies managed to secure a majority in Parliament thanks only to the weighted distribution of seats in Malaysia’s electoral system, which benefits small rural constituencies, UMNO’s traditional strongholds.

Opposition politicians and civil society activists were the first to be hassled for exposing the outrageous details of 1MDB’s losses and Mr. Najib’s apparent windfall. After that it was journalists and cartoonists.

The Najib administration is desperate to control what is said about these sordid scandals and suspected wrongdoings. It feels especially threatened by nontraditional media outlets, which are widely accessible to the public: The Malaysian Insider was a free news portal published in both English and Malay; Zunar distributes many of his cartoons via social media, some free of copyright and with the permission to reuse them.

My colleagues and I have already lost our jobs. Zunar may yet lose his freedom. Surely, Malaysia is losing its way.

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