(September 15): An international human rights group says Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak is showing his “true rights-abusing colours” with the recent arrest of politicians, activists, academics, lawyers and journalists under the Sedition Act.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said since 2014, at least 14 people have been charged with sedition for criticising the government or its officials.
“The Malaysian government is increasingly using the Sedition Act to instil fear and silence in political opponents and critics,” said HRW deputy Asia director Phil Robertson.
“Prime Minister Najib’s crackdown on free expression has shown his true rights-abusing colours.”
The Sedition Act, Robertson said, was vague, adding that the law did not define what constituted "sedition" or "seditious words".
"The Sedition Act prohibits vague offences such as uttering 'any seditious words' without defining what constitutes 'sedition' or 'seditious words'," he said.
The Act broadly outlaws “seditious tendency” that would “bring into hatred or contempt or excite disaffection against any ruler or against any government".
"The Malaysian government has apparently decided that its vaguely worded Sedition Act is its new catch-all charge against its most vocal critics,” Robertson said.
"Najib should realise that throwing activists and opposition leaders in jail for what they say is a slippery slope to authoritarian rule.”
He said the prime minister who, despite repeatedly promising to repeal the Sedition Act, had now gone on a sedition rampage, using the 1948 law for his political purposes.
"In the period before the general election on May 5, 2013, Najib repeatedly said that he would lead an effort to repeal the Sedition Act and replace it with a so-called Harmony Act.
"However, following the election, in which the ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional, retained power despite major losses in the national Parliament, he retreated from his pledge," he added.
Putrajaya had embarked on a sedition blitz in recent weeks, even after Najib had continued to give assurance that he would abolish the draconian law.
However, Putrajaya is also facing pressure from Umno grassroots and some Malay groups to retain the law, which they say will protect the position of the Malays, Islam and the royals.
The prime minister also appeared to renege on his promise with a statement from his office that said Putrajaya would tread carefully with the Sedition Act as it had not yet decided whether to go for a complete repeal, to retain it with amendments, or to introduce new laws.
The statement was contradictory to Najib's pledge two years ago to repeal the Sedition Act and replace it with a National Harmony Act.
Among those who have fallen under the sedition dragnet are PKR vice-president N. Surendran who was charged twice last month with sedition, Shah Alam MP Khalid Samad, Seri Delima assemblyman RSN Rayer, Sabah politician David Orok, and Universiti Malaya law professor Dr Azmi Sharom and preacher Wan Ji Wan Hussein.
Police have also opened investigations under the Sedition Act against Malaysiakini journalist Susan Loone and lawyer Edmund Bon.