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Hopes for New Era of Malaysian Free Speech Are High, but Pending

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — For his cartoons skewering Malaysia’s political elite, Zulkiflee Anwar Haque was hit with nine sedition charges and banned from leaving the country.

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Austin Ramzy
, New York Times

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — For his cartoons skewering Malaysia’s political elite, Zulkiflee Anwar Haque was hit with nine sedition charges and banned from leaving the country.

But after Malaysians voted in May to oust Prime Minister Najib Razak and his governing party for the first time in the country’s history, Zulkiflee, who is better known as Zunar, logged into a government database and discovered he was free to travel abroad.

“When the new government came in I expected some changes in human rights and freedom of expression, but I was surprised to see this happen so quickly,” Zulkiflee said. “At the same time, the ex-prime minister and his wife are on a travel ban now. So, funny, you can say it’s trading places.”

Zulkiflee’s discovery was a promising early indicator for supporters of the new prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, and his opposition coalition, which had campaigned against Najib’s tightening restrictions on free speech, among other issues.

Still, some people who were prosecuted for criticizing officials in the past are cautious. They say that while the new government appears to be genuine in its commitment to free speech, they are awaiting concrete action.

“The euphoria is still there,” said Steven Gan, editor-in-chief of Malaysiakini, an independent news site. “A lot of people really believe that there will be change.”

There are several laws still on the books that have been used to restrict criticism.

One is the British colonial-era sedition law that was brought to bear against Zulkiflee, the cartoonist. The other is a “fake news” law passed in April under Najib that made it an imprisonable offense to produce, publish or circulate misleading information — with the government as the ultimate judge of what is misleading. There is also the Communications and Multimedia Act, derisively known here as the “hurt feelings act,” that prohibits offensive messages online and has been used to pursue journalists and dissidents.

“Over the years the repression and the laws that are being used just seemed to increase,” said Linda Lakhdhir, a legal adviser for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.

“The anti-fake-news law that came out just before the election was very clearly designed to suppress any criticism of the ruling party or of Najib.”

Now, the pace and extent of change is in the hands of Mahathir and his new government. And if there is concern, it is at least partly because Mahathir, who previously ran the country from 1981 to 2003, was long known to find one way or another to jail his critics.

Mahathir’s campaign-speech commitment to free speech did seem to waver right after the election, when he suggested that the fake news law needed to be reviewed rather than scrapped entirely, as his coalition had pledged during the campaign.

But his Cabinet officials maintain that the law, which Mahathir himself had been accused of violating during the campaign, will be repealed.

And Mahathir has sent other signals that he will uphold free speech. When police in Langkawi arrested a man on charges of insulting Mahathir after the election, the new prime minister said he disagreed with the man’s prosecution.

Gan and the co-founder of the Malaysiakini site, Premesh Chandran, were charged in 2016 under the Communications and Multimedia Act for publishing a video that criticized the former attorney general over his handling of the scandal at 1 Malaysia Development Berhad, a state investment fund. That attorney general, Mohamed Apandi Ali, has been removed and could face charges for protecting Najib.

While the change in government looks promising for people who are facing charges for criticizing the previous leadership, Gan said he had niggling doubts about what could come next.

“Promises have been made; the first task will be to ensure they stick to the promises,” he said. “For myself, having covered Mahathir for so long, I think the fear is that he may not stick to his promises.”

Many of Mahathir’s allies are former rivals, including people he had jailed, including Anwar Ibrahim, his former deputy prime minister who became the dominant opposition leader after the two men had a falling out.

Lawmakers in the new governing coalition say they believe Mahathir has entered a new stage of his political life, focused on his legacy. Should he revert to his older, more authoritarian tendencies, he would face resistance from coalition partners who hold far more seats in parliament.

Likewise, the public now expects the new government to follow through, said Eric Paulsen, executive director of Lawyers for Liberty, a Malaysian human rights advocacy group.

Paulsen, who was charged with sedition in 2015 over a Twitter post that accused a government agency that manages Islamic affairs of promoting extremism, said he hoped the new government would drop the charge. But that has yet to happen, he said.

“As far as freedom of speech is concerned, we shouldn’t be naive,” he said. “We will see where it goes in the next six months or a year. Things are definitely opening up, and the press is reveling in its newfound freedom.” Malaysian artist Fahmi Reza became one of the most public figures in the fight over free speech in Malaysia when his caricature of Najib as a clown led to his being charged under a law prohibiting online content deemed offensive.

His lawyer, Syahredzan Johan, said the election should mean that Malaysians will now have more freedom to criticize their leaders.

“Since we have a new government that has come to power with the promise of reform, especially with regard to free speech, there is a little bit of an expectation they will not clamp down on dissent,” he said.

But Fahmi is still cautious. This month, he shared advice on Twitter about what people arrested over online comments should say to police.

“Although the government has changed hands, the #HurtFeelingsAct still applies,” he wrote in reference to the section of the Communications and Multimedia Act that prohibits offensive messages online. “You can still be arrested and investigated just for a tweet.”

Tommy Thomas, who was appointed this month as Malaysia’s new attorney general, said that repealing “oppressive laws” was one of the government’s first legal priorities. He specifically named the fake news law and a national goods and services tax, adding that “the list of such laws is pretty long.”

Thomas also declared his support for free speech. “I am happy for everybody to criticize me; it’s part of free speech,” he said. “In fact, I’d rather listen to criticism than praises.”

While Zulkiflee, the cartoonist, has had his travel ban lifted, he still faces nine sedition charges, a record number for a single person in Malaysia.

He hopes the government will abolish the Sedition Act, but says he is unsure if it will follow through.

“Government is government everywhere,” he said. “During the honeymoon era everything is OK; after that they go back to their old tricks. I really hope this is not only a new government but a new Malaysia, with more space for freedom of expression, especially for artists like me.”

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