Link to official publication: SEDITION ACT 1984
What is the Sedition Act?
The Sedition Act 1948 is a restraining law; it tells you what not to do. Among other things, “seditious” actions can include those that have a tendency to incite hatred towards a ruler or against any government; excite people to take over any government territory using unlawful means; bring into hatred or contempt the administration of justice in Malaysia; and promote feelings of ill-will and hostility among different races and classes.
Amnesty International says the law is an “outdated and repressive piece of legislation” that has been primarily used against opposition politicians but in recent months have included journalists, students and academics.
When did the Sedition Act first come into force?
It’s an archaic British law, introduced to Malaya in 1948 and amended shortly after the 1969 riots. It was used against local communist insurgents.
What does this mean? It means the founding fathers of our nation did not legislate it. It was actually imported directly to become our law and was retained after Merdeka. The last prosecution for sedition in the United Kingdom was in 1972. In the UK, sedition as an offence was effectively abolished in 2010.
Does the Sedition Act apply to both verbal and written speech?
The Sedition Act applies to any act, speech, words, or publications. Under “publications”, the Act interprets it as anything written or printed or in any other manner capable of suggesting words or ideas, and every copy and reproduction or substantial reproduction of any publication. Sedition is different from defamation, which includes libel (published defamation) and slander (spoken false statement of defamation).
What is considered seditious?
What is considered “seditious” under the Act is very wide. Section 3(1) of the Act uses the phrase “seditious tendency”. According to a Suaram report, theoretically even an article on water cuts may amount to sedition, since it could be interpreted as the tendency “to raise discontent or disaffection amongst the subjects of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong or of the Ruler of any State or amongst the inhabitants of Malaysia or of any State.” Many have said the problem lies with the arbitrariness of determining what is actually “seditious”, making the law very political.
What are the punishments for those convicted?
If one is found to violate the Sedition Act for the first time, the maximum term of imprisonment is three years or a fine of not more than RM5000 (or both). Oh, and if you are an “innocent receiver” of seditious materials and you consciously do not hand the materials over to the police, you may also be liable for possession of seditious materials under section 7. A lesser sentence is imposed: a fine of RM2000 or imprisonment not more than 18 months or both.
Who has been prosecuted under this act and why?
The wideness of the provision plus the interpretation of the courts has led the Sedition Act to become very vague. It has been used in the past to prosecute Lim Guan Eng for criticising the Attorney General over a rape case, to raid online news portal Malaysiakini and to charge Adam Adli, a 24-year-old student activist who wanted to overthrow the government. The Act has also been employed in investigation of UMNO-owned newspaper Utusan and two right-wing bloggers for “racial sedition” after publishing materials seen to provoke anti-Chinese sentiment.
What’s the future of the Sedition Act?
In July 2012, Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that he would repeal the Sedition Act because it “represents a bygone era” and that it was part of his reforms to develop Malaysia into a progressive democracy.
In 2013, Najib Razak said he planned to replace the Sedition Act with a National Harmony Act that “will emphasise the nurturing of the spirit of harmony and mutual respect among Malaysians of various races and religions.” At the beginning of the 2013 legal year, the Attorney General Tan Sri Abdul Gani Patail acknowledged there will be repeal and replacement of the Act. But during the 2014 UMNO General Assembly, the Prime Minister said that the Sedition Act will stay and there will be amendments to strengthen it.
Does parliamentary privilege apply to the Sedition Act?
Nurul Izzah, MP for Lembah Pantai, was arrested and detained under the Sedition Act in March 2015 after reading a speech in Parliament written by her father Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. While MPs are protected in parliamentary proceedings under Article 63(2) of the Federal Constitution, there is an exception for those charged with Sedition. This exception, under Article 63(4), was inserted via an Emergency Ordinance amendment in 1970. However, since all declared Emergencies were lifted in 2011, some lawyers have argued that the amendment is void and that the arrest was unconstitutional.
What does the government say?
In September 2014, a Malaysian government spokesperson denied that Najib Razak was backtracking on his promise to repeal the Sedition Act and said it will take time to find a piece of legislation that balances the right to free speech and protecting Malaysia’s diverse population from racial or religious hatred.
Now, two months later, Najib has announced at the United Malays National Organisation annual party convention that the law will be retained without explaining why he changed his mind.
Najib said he would also add more clauses to the act, which will protect the sanctity of Islam, prevent insults to other religions, and take action against anyone who calls for the cessation of the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak.