Malaysia Steps Up Harassment of Government Critics, Rights Groups Say | Voice of America


BANGKOK – Human rights groups say Malaysian authorities are stepping up use of criminal investigations of opposition journalists, protesters and lawmakers to harass government critics, reducing space for freedom expression and a free press in this Southeast Asian country.

“Fundamental freedoms have come under increasing threat since Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government came to power last year through back door maneuvers, and this latest wave of investigations and harassment is clearly aimed at silencing opponents policies and all forms of dissent, ”Carlos Zarate, a member of the Philippine House of Representatives, said in a statement released this week by ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, a network of lawmakers from across the country. the region.

Muhyiddin rose to the post of prime minister early last year without an election after he and other lawmakers abandoned the ruling coalition to form a new bloc of parties with a slim majority in parliament. With the required consent of the country’s constitutional monarch, Al-Sultan Abdullah, he instituted a state of emergency in January that suspended parliament and allowed it to rule by decree.

Muhyiddin said he needed emergency powers to fight the pandemic. Analysts say it is more likely an attempt to postpone the collapse of its own coalition at the hands of disgruntled partners by avoiding a vote of no confidence. Human rights groups, in turn, claim that the latest wave of investigations into the government’s criticisms stems at least in part from Muhyiddin’s growing concern about his political survival.

‘Censor yourself’

The ASEAN group of parliamentarians said police questioned five opposition lawmakers this month alone, along with more than two dozen activists, most of them in a series of protests. peaceful government.

Police have also issued citations to reporters for their stories five times since the emergency took effect, according to a trio of local journalists’ associations.

“So the message that comes out is, unless you censor yourself … you are going to be summoned,” Wathshlah Naidu, executive director of the Malaysian Center for Independent Journalism, told VOA.

“It is extremely disturbing because all these [cases] point out that we are coming to a situation where media journalists are even afraid to ask the right questions and to publish because they fear being threatened.

Calls to the prime minister’s office for comment went unanswered. Emails requesting talks with the National Police and the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, also went unanswered.

Malaysia has slipped 18 places over the past year in Reporters Without Borders’ annual press freedom index worldwide, from 101 out of 180 countries to 119, by far the biggest drop of all the countries on the list.

In a recent case, two journalists were summoned for covering allegations that police brutality caused the death in custody of milk merchant A. Ganapathy. In another, the Home Office said it would summon two news outlets for articles citing a senior official who appeared to shed light on allegations that a high school teacher made rape jokes in the classroom. .

“To say this is criminal, to investigate this as a criminal investigation shows a real lack of understanding or respect for the role of the media in a democracy,” said Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal adviser for human rights. male, based in the United States. Watch.

Lakhdhir also highlighted the case of opposition lawmaker Syed Saddiq, who was questioned by police for a video he posted about himself online, calling for responsibility for the milk seller’s death.

“He is a member of Parliament; it’s her job, ”she says. “And while these cases do not result in prosecution, there is an element of harassment and an element of intimidation, especially with some of the brutal tactics they use, which aim to create a kind of culture of self-censorship.” . “

Police reportedly smashed a hole in designer Fahmi Reza’s door last month before arresting him. Fahmi is under sedition investigation for posting a jealousy-themed Spotify online playlist to mock Malaysian Queen Tunku Azizah Aminah Maimunah. The Queen has reportedly called those who claim to have skipped the line for a COVID vaccine as “jealous.”

‘Fear factor’

For rights groups, this is just the latest example of the overly broad interpretation of a vaguely worded set of laws that Malaysian authorities have used for years to trap criticism of the government. They say changing or abolishing these laws will be the key to reclaiming the rapidly shrinking space for free speech and a free press in the country.

“We are going backwards very quickly,” said Zulfikar Anwar Ulhaque, himself no stranger to the attention of the authorities.

The multi-award-winning cartoonist, better known as Zunar, said he has been arrested seven times and charged nine times under six laws in the past 11 years for his political cartoons. He and his book publishers have been repeatedly attacked by police in their offices.

On May 7, police questioned Zulfikar again, this time over a cartoon he posted on his social media accounts, insulting the Chief Minister of Kedah State for canceling a public holiday marking a Hindu festival. , citing concerns about COVID-19. The police also confiscated his cell phone and demanded his password.

“There is no place for people to speak out now in the mainstream media, no place they can go. [to] because all the media is controlled by the government, and because of that people are turning to social media, ”he said.

Human rights groups fear the crackdown on journalists, activists and lawmakers will spill over into society, putting pressure on ordinary Malaysians to keep critical thinking about the government to themselves .

Zulfikar, now 59, said he was worried about what this means for new political cartoonists.

“It’s the fear factor,” he said. “They hope that people [be] fear – those who try to make caricatures, serious caricatures, try to make political cartoons to criticize the government. They’ll think twice, they’ll think twice because of it.

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