Malaysia Dateline

How far will Muhyiddin go to curb freedom of speech?

Around the world, governments have been using Covid-19 as justification to impose “fake news” laws that concurrently stifle freedom of speech and press.

Malaysia is no different. As monitored through IPI’s Covid-19 Press Freedom Tracker, Malaysia is among 18 countries that have passed “fake news” laws that imposed penalties and jail time for alleged fake news during Covid-19.

It isn’t just about the pandemic however; the punishment could also extend to those who criticize the government’s effectiveness, for example questions pertaining to the emergency ordinance.

The regulation would allow for anyone who was found guilty of creating, publishing, and circulating “fake news” to be fined up to RM100,000 and/or serve a three-year prison sentence.

Under the emergency ordinance, police are allowed to take “necessary measures” in regards to fake news which includes requesting access to personal passwords and encryption codes with fines for those who refuse to cooperate.

While actual fake news is extremely problematic particularly during a pandemic, a government using it as pretense to remain in power is a slippery slope that may lead to full blown authoritarianism.

The PN cabinet was able to circumvent the Malaysian parliament and introduce the “Fake News” law during the emergency ordinance which was imposed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The law drew international and local criticisms with the International Press Institute (IPI) categorizing the move as “a severe threat to journalism and free expression”.

“It is highly regrettable that Malaysia, which has promoted its democratic credentials in the past, has now joined a list of authoritarian states around the world that have misused the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent states of emergencies to usher in new laws to censor free expression.” said IPI.

The last time a similar law came into effect was in 2018 when former Prime Minister Najib Razak was faced with increasing calls to step down due to his suspected involvement in the multibillion dollar 1MDB scandal.

Pakatan Harapan(PH) abolished Najib’s ‘Anti-Fake News Act 2018’ after coming into power.

Muhyiddin is certainly trying to distinguish himself from his former coalition. Where PH encouraged discourse, PN seems to be shutting it down.

The Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights (MCCHR) have claimed that PN in its first 100 days have already scored lower on freedom of expression compared to the previous administration.

It’s not hard to see why; there’s has certainly been a concerted effort to demonize and stop any form of criticisms levelled at the Prime Minister and Perikatan Nasional as a whole.

PN Senator Datuk Razali Idris came under fire for saying “criticizing the government is the worst mental health illness affecting the country” and even suggested a law that would criminalize insults towards the leaders.

Muhyiddin hasn’t just placed a leash on ordinary Malaysians, press freedom and journalistic integrity has also been severely threatened under PN.

The escalating crackdown on press freedom saw many victims including, Al-Jazeera for their immigrant expose, Malaysiakini for publishing readers’ comments on its website, and journalist Tashny Sukumaran for her report in the South China Morning Post on migrants being arrested in Covid-19 red zones.

Opposition politicians are also on Muhyiddin’s radar. For example, DAP’s Hannah Yeoh was called in for questioning by the police over a tweet which questioned PAS on their child marriage stance.

Muar MP Syed Saddiq on the other hand was required to help in police investigations over an interview given with Al-Jazeera where he discussed Muhyiddin’s new government.

Even Sungai Pelek assemblyman Ronny Liu was questioned by the police for his Facebook posts on the Thailand protests.

No official explanation was given as to why a Malaysian would not be allowed to post about the massive protests that were taking place in Thailand.

As Malaysians living under the Muhyiddin administration slowly witness the decay of free speech, many fear how much worse it can get.

Observers believe that as long as Muhyiddin suffers from leadership insecurity and unstable parliamentary support, there will be an escalating crackdown on any party that is critical of PN.

It wouldn’t be unreasonable to predict more suppression of alternative views while Muhyiddin navigates means of stabilizing his government.