October was Budget month, the annual government document that plans the coming financial year. At a time of growing global economic uncertainty, the 2016 Budget is a critical part in explaining (or not) how Malaysia survives the downturn in oil, gas and commodity prices as debt rises.
But October was also witness to attacks on Malaysia’s freedom of expression, free speech, and a crackdown on activists.
Law professor Azmi Sharom’s challenge against the Sedition Act – calling for the Act to be ruled unconstitutional – was thrown out when the Federal Court disagreed. The judges ruled that the Sedition Act was constitutional, legally implemented during colonial times, and was modified to bring the Act in line with the Federal Constitution. According to the judges’ comments, all current Sedition Act cases faced by academics, activists and politicians are now back in full swing.
This includes cartoonist Zunar’s trial, expected to start in November, and Prof Azmi’s charge – over a comment he made in a public forum about the Perak royalty’s role in the state’s Mentri Besar crisis – will be heard at his trial.
There are also those charged this month under the Sedition Act, such as political activist Khalid Ismath on 13 October with 14 counts under the Act for posting comments on social media that were allegedly offensive to the Johor royalty. Khalid was initially denied bail, following a previous case when someone charged for a similar alleged offence fled the country after bail was granted. On 29 October, Khalid was granted an interim bail of RM70, 000 and had to surrender his passport.
Rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticised the move, pointing out that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has repeatedly broken promises to revise laws that hinder peaceful dissent. Instead, the Najib government has gone on a binge prosecuting its critics.
“The government is making a mockery of its claims to democracy and fundamental rights by treating criticism as a crime,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director. But minister Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim refuted the HRW argument and said it was within PM Najib’s jurisdiction to take such actions.
Others caught in the crackdown are lawyer Matthias Chang, who allegedly worked with Khairuddin Abu Bakar in filing multiple legal suits against 1Malaysia Development Berhad in several countries. They were arrested under the Securty Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (Sosma) and both were denied bail, with their case to be heard on November 5.
Bersih 2.0 also criticised the authorities for charging its Sabah vice-chairperson Jannie Lasimbang under the Public Assembly Act for her involvement in the Bersih 4 rally. This follows a new Court of Appeal ruling that section 9(5) of the Act was constitutional, which means rally organisers who failed to notify the police 10 days before the rally can be charged in court.
Bersih 2.0 continues to pressure the Najib government to come clean, first by making its accounts public and declaring their donations (which amounted to RM2.6 million, with RM664,052 spent on the Bersih 4 rally, leaving a RM1.9 million balance), and by challenging the Prime Minister to reveal the true amount in his personal bank account.
Bersih 2.0 also obtained leave at the High Court to challenge the Home Minister’s gazetting of the ban on yellow t-shirts and other printed materials, which was released two days before the Bersih 4 rally on 29-30 August. Bersih 2.0 also launched a no-confidence vote campaign among the public to pressure their MPs to support such a motion in Federal Parliament.
Unfortunately, Bersih 2.0’s Sarawak court challenge against the Malaysian Election Commission’s (SPRM) redelineation exercise has come to an end. The Federal Court refused Batu Lintang assemblyman See Chee How’s leave on grounds that the matter is now academic.