Malaysia’s emergency proclamation could be used to ‘infringe on freedom of expression’

This statement was originally published on on 13 January 2021.

The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) is greatly alarmed by the government’s request for a state of emergency in Malaysia, and shares similar concerns raised by other human rights NGOs about the need for and repercussions of an emergency.

Immediately following the proclamation of emergency, the Malaysian Multimedia and Communication Commission (MCMC) issued a statement to warn the public that it would monitor the spread of disinformation, as well as statements deemed to touch on the sensitivity of the 3Rs – Royalty, Religion and Race. MCMC also said legal actions could be taken under Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act. Besides that, the prime minister said the emergency is not a “military coup” and “curfew will not be enforced”. Yet, he also said that an ordinance can be proclaimed to provide enforcement powers to the Malaysian Armed Forces.

Such warnings and increase in power signal the government’s intentions to curb our ability to engage effectively in public life. Why such an immediate impulse to silence critics? This foretells a possibility that this emergency is likely to be used to justify arbitrary arrests and investigations that infringe on freedom of expression (FOE) and other fundamental liberties. This also shows the possibilities of heightened military presence and attempts to further curtail our liberties, which must not be undermined during a public health crisis, and especially not under the guise of an emergency.

The Prime Minister’s announcement on the proclamation of emergency, coming just a day after the Movement Control Order (MCO) was reinstated in a number of states, raises the question on the justification and necessity to declare a state of emergency when there are already existing measures available to curb the alarming rise of COVID-19 cases in Malaysia. These include the current measures under the MCO, Conditional Movement Control Order (CMCO), the regulations under the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988 and other related Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). It is also unclear how the emergency order is specifically aimed at facilitating or strengthening measures necessary to flatten the COVID-19 curve.

We are further alarmed by the prime minister’s announcement that Parliament proceedings and state assembly sittings will be suspended during the emergency period. Elections, including by-elections and snap elections, will also be suspended. These moves undermine and threaten the sanctity of our parliamentary democracy. Unfettered powers of the executive during the emergency period and the void of parliamentary oversight will mean that we will lose the necessary checks and balances as the government attempts to overcome the pandemic. The imposition of an emergency on a sceptical public, at a time when the prime minister and his government is already struggling with legitimacy, warrants a higher threshold of accountability through legitimate checks and balances like Parliament.

Besides that, the media must be guaranteed the space to do their jobs and hold the powers that be to account and to function with independence and with no fear of repercussion for carrying out their critical reporting functions. Access to information and necessary public data should also be promoted during this time, not restricted.

We, thus, urge the government to:

  • Create a safe environment for discussion and criticism by refraining from using scare tactics and arbitrary applications of repressive laws to sanction and intimidate those who criticise them;
  • Pledge to promote media freedom and our right to information, especially in dealing with the pandemic, and not use the emergency as a guise to arbitrarily curtail them or create an environment of fear by censoring or punishing journalists and netizens seeking information;
  • Base government responses and actions such as military intervention and legal action on the basis of necessity, proportionality and legitimacy, and in accordance with the rule of law and good governance;
  • Allow Parliament and state assembly sittings to convene, virtually if not physically, while abiding by the necessary COVID-19 SOPs;
  • Undertake extensive research to replicate good practices on how elections can take place during the pandemic while safeguarding democratic participation – and while noting the risks of holding an election now, do not suspend this constitutional right, and;
  • Mitigate COVID-19 responses and flatten the curve by providing imminent support critical to the overburdened healthcare system, increase mass testing, escalate the efficiency of contact tracing and roll out the vaccines without delay, rather than focusing on the emergency.

The failure of the ruling regime in implementing COVID-19 mitigative and preventative measures through existing laws and procedures demonstrates the lack of leadership, foresight and a coordinated effort in managing the pandemic. Furthermore, the move by the prime minister to call for an emergency reeks of political opportunism and a quest to retain power in the context of a volatile political landscape currently at an impasse.

It is incumbent on the government to protect our fundamental human rights and not be complicit in misusing the emergency for personal or political expediencies.

13 January 2021

Ms. Wathshlah G. Naidu
CIJ Executive Director

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Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) is a network of human rights journalists in Uganda working towards enhancing the promotion, protection and respect of human rights through defending and building the capacities of journalists, to effectively exercise their constitutional rights and fundamental freedoms for collective campaigning through the media.

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