The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, although the government restricted freedom of expression and intimidated journalists and the public into practicing self-censorship. Government representatives cited upholding Islam and the special status of ethnic Malays, protection of national security, public order, and friendly relations with other countries as reasons for restricting the media.
Freedom of Speech and Expression: The constitution provides that laws may impose restrictions on freedom of speech “in the interest of the security of the Federation…[or] public order.” The law prohibits sedition--public comment on issues defined as sensitive, including racial and religious matters or criticism of the king or ruling sultans. Sedition charges often stemmed from comments by vocal civil society or opposition leaders. Civil society groups claimed the government failed to investigate and prosecute similar “seditious” statements made by progovernment or pro-Malay individuals. In April Prime Minister Najib reneged on an earlier promise to repeal the Sedition Act when his administration tabled and passed a bill strengthening many of its provisions and imposing more severe sentences for offenders. The law also limits freedom of speech by criminalizing defamation and controlling printing methods and publication.
The government retaliated against some who criticized it. During the year the government charged at least 14 individuals with sedition, with many cases from previous years still pending. Authorities charged political cartoonist Zulkiflee Haque Anwar, better known as Zunar, with nine counts of sedition in April for social media posts criticizing the conviction of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim for sodomy. He faces a maximum of 43 years’ imprisonment.
Press and Media Freedoms: Political parties and individuals linked to the ruling coalition owned or controlled a majority of shares in almost all print and broadcast media, many of which were actively progovernment in their reporting. Online media outlets were more independent in their ownership and reporting but were often the target of legal action and harassment.
The government exerted control over news content, both in print and broadcast media; punished publishers of “malicious news;” and banned, restricted, or limited circulation of publications believed a threat to public order, morality, or national security. The government has the power to suspend publication for these reasons, and retained effective control over the licensing process. In July the government suspended for three months financial newspaper The Edge for its reporting on a financial scandal linked to Prime Minister Najib. That same month the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), the government’s internet regulator, ordered internet service providers to block access to Sarawak Report, an investigative journalism website based in London that also reported on the same scandal. In September a lower court decided The Edge’s suspension was unfair, bringing the newspaper back into print. The government is appealing the case.
Authorities sometimes barred online media from covering government press conferences.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists were subject to harassment and intimidation due to their reporting. In August police obtained an arrest warrant for the editor of Sarawak Report, Clare Rewcastle-Brown, for alleged involvement in an “activity detrimental to parliamentary democracy.” Interpol rejected the government’s request to place her on an international alert for arrest and extradition. In June the government deported an al-Jazeera journalist reporting on the 2006 murder of a Mongolian national allegedly linked to Prime Minister Najib. In November police and MCMC officers raided the offices of two major online news publications following reporting on a controversial transfer of an anti-corruption officer.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government censored the media, primarily the print and broadcast media. In addition to controlling news content by banning or restricting publications believed to threaten public order, morality, or national security, the government prosecuted journalists for “malicious news,” took little or no action against persons or organizations that abused journalists, and limited circulation of some publications. The government requires a permit to own a printing press, and printers often were reluctant to print publications critical of the government due to fear of reprisal. The government refused to issue printing permits to some online media outlets that were critical of the government. Such policies, together with antidefamation laws, inhibited independent or investigative journalism and resulted in extensive self-censorship.
Despite these restrictions publications of opposition parties, social action groups, unions, internet news sites, and other private groups actively covered opposition parties and frequently printed views critical of government policies. Online media and blogs provided views and reported stories not featured in the mainstream press.
The government occasionally censored foreign magazines, foreign newspapers, and foreign-sourced television programming, most often due to sexual content.
The government restricted radio and television stations the same as it restricted print media, which predominantly supported the government. News about the opposition in those fora remained restricted and biased. Television stations censored programming to follow government guidelines.
The government generally restricted remarks or publications, including books, it judged might incite racial or religious disharmony. The Ministry of Home Affairs maintained a list of 1,577 banned books. As of December the government banned 44 new books, ranging from several works by local political cartoonist Zunar to popular fiction such as the Fifty Shades of Grey series of books.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law includes sections on civil and criminal defamation. Criminal defamation is punishable by a maximum of two years in jail, a fine, or both. The law states that true statements can be considered defamatory if they contravene the public good. The government used these laws, along with provisions against sedition, to punish and suppress publication of material that criticized government officials and policies.
National Security: Authorities frequently cited laws protecting national security to restrict media distribution of material critical of government policies and public officials. In its statement regarding the blocking of Sarawak Report in July, the MCMC claimed the website could “affect the peace and cause national instability, disrupt public order, and affect economic stability.”
Nongovernmental Impact: Progovernment NGOs sought to limit freedom of expression through criminal complaints of allegedly seditious speech. Progovernment NGOs also sometimes attempted to intimidate opposition groups through demonstrations. In a September rally planned by progovernment NGOs, the organizers demanded the government take action against antigovernment protesters and reinstate preventive detention for political opponents of the government.
The government generally maintained a policy of open and free access to the internet, but authorities monitored the internet for e-mail messages and blog postings deemed a threat to public security or order.
The government warned internet users to avoid offensive or indecent content and sensitive matters such as religion and race. In August the MCMC blocked websites promoting an NGO-organized mass rally calling for Prime Minister Najib’s resignation and political and economic reform.
Authorities used the law prohibiting sedition to combat dissenting views online. In February authorities charged human rights lawyer Eric Paulsen for a Twitter post criticizing the Malaysian Islamic Affairs Development Department.
Sedition and criminal defamation laws led to some self-censorship by local internet content sources such as bloggers, news providers, and NGO activists.
The law requires certain internet and other network service providers to obtain a license, and permits punishment of the owner of a website or blog for allowing offensive racial, religious, or political content. By regarding users who post content as publishers, the government places the burden of proof on the user in these cases. NGOs and members of the public criticized the law, noting it could cause self-censorship due to liability concerns.
According to the World Bank, approximately 17 million persons (67 percent of the population) accessed the internet.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government placed some restrictions on academic freedom, particularly the expression of unapproved political views, and enforced restrictions on teachers and students who expressed dissenting views. The government requires all civil servants, university faculty, and students to sign a pledge of loyalty to the king and government. Opposition leaders and human rights activists claimed the government used the loyalty pledge to restrain political activity among these groups.
Although faculty members sometimes publicly criticized the government, public university academics whose career advancement and funding depended on the government practiced self-censorship. Self-censorship took place among academics at private institutions as well, spurred by fears the government might revoke the licenses of their institutions. The law imposes limitations on student associations and on student and faculty political activity. The government could also use laws prohibiting sedition to limit academic freedom.
The government regularly censored films, editing out profanity, kissing, sex, and nudity. The government also censored films for certain political and religious content. The government did not allow films in Hebrew, Yiddish, or from Israel to be shown in cinemas. Although the government allowed foreign films at local film festivals, it censored sexual content by blocking screens until the concerned scene was over. Media censorship rules forbid movies and songs that promote acceptance of gay persons (see section 6).