Sedition Act amendments restrict freedom of expression, says US

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(Apr 15): The United States today reiterated its concerns over Putrajaya's restrictions on freedom of expression in Malaysia, six days after the Dewan Rakyat passed amendments to the Sedition Act, which critics said would make the law more draconian.

In a statement issued through its embassy in Kuala Lumpur, the US State Department said the amendments, including higher penalties even for first-time offenders, were a threat to freedom of speech and public discourse.

"The United States notes the April 10 passage of amendments to Malaysia’s Sedition Act, and we reiterate our concern about restrictions on freedom of expression in Malaysia.

"Particularly worrying are new provisions that increase penalties – including for first-time offenders – and could make sharing allegedly seditious material on social media a crime," it said.

The amendments to the colonial-era law also did away with fine and imposed a jail term of between three and seven years, as well as up to 20 years’ jail for seditious acts or statements that led to bodily harm and property damage.

There is also no leniency for first-time and youthful offenders, who can be automatically slapped a minimum three-year sentence.

The act now empowers the court to order the removal of seditious material on the Internet.

The changes also remove criticism of the government or the administration of justice as something seditious, and make promoting hatred between different religions an offence.

"We welcome the decision to remove provisions outlawing criticism of the government and the judiciary, and we hope the government of Malaysia will, therefore, reconsider recent sedition charges brought under those now-defunct sections of the law," it said today.

"Other aspects of the Sedition Act amendments, however, threaten to restrict unduly speech and public discourse."

Putrajaya was also reminded that the amendments would limit public debate of ideas which, the US State Department noted, could be among the best protections against intolerance and play a positive role in strengthening democracy and combating hatred.

Opposition MPs had mounted a fierce campaign to stop the amendments from being passed in the Dewan Rakyat last week, saying the law was open to abuse due to vagueness of the term “sedition”.

However, they were outnumbered and the amendments were passed by a vote of 108 to 79.

Putrajaya has been on a sedition blitz against opposition politicians, activists, academics, lawyers, journalists and Muslim preachers who have either been charged with sedition, are facing trial, or under investigation under the law.

Just 10 days before the amendments were passed, two senior executives and three editors from The Edge and The Malaysian Insider were arrested under the Sedition Act over a report published on March 25, which said the Conference of Rulers had rejected a proposal to amend a federal law that would pave the way for hudud to be enforced in Kelantan.

The US had expressed similar concerns several times before following the government's clampdown on dissenting voices.

In December last year, US Vice-President Joe Biden highlighted Putrajaya's use of the Sedition Act 1948 to stifle opposition, saying it was concerned with the rule of law.

"Amid growing US-Malaysia ties, Malaysian government’s use of legal system and Sedition Act to stifle opposition raises rule of law concerns," he said in a December 5 tweet.

Prior to that, Washington had also reminded Putrajaya to keep its promise to repeal the colonial-era law, but Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak later announced that the Sedition Act would be maintained and be strengthened.

Najib had first announced the plan to abolish the act in June 2012, to be replaced by a National Harmony Act. The Sedition Act was amended five times, the last one being in 1975.

But, Najib's plan to abolish the act faced objections from Umno leaders and right-wing Malay groups. In his speech at the Umno general assembly last year, Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin said that Malaysia would be ruined without an act that punished people for committing sedition.

Succumbing to pressure from within his party, Najib reneged on his promise and said that the Sedition Act would stay and would be further strengthened to include a special provision to protect the sanctity of Islam, while other religions also cannot be insulted. – The Malaysian Insider