KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA — Online critics of the Malaysian government would be well advised not to spend too much money on cellphones.
“Just lost number four,” Eric Paulsen, an outspoken civil liberties lawyer and compulsive tweeter, said Nov. 20 after nearly two hours of questioning at the main police station here over his latest sedition charge.
Paulsen went into the police station with a shiny new Chinese handset, a Xiaomi, and came out without it. At least it was cheaper than the iPhone and two Samsung Galaxies that previously were confiscated from him this year, apparently because they are tools in his social-media activism.
His friend Sim Tze Tzin, an opposition parliamentarian who also was questioned that day, still smarts over the iPhone 6 Plus that was taken from him this year. “Don’t they know how much that thing cost?” Sim said, laughing, after emerging from his own session with the police.
Malaysia, ostensibly one of the United States’ democratic allies in Southeast Asia, is engaged in a broad crackdown on freedom of expression that detractors say is all about silencing critics of Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is embroiled in a corruption scandal. And the crackdown is particularly focused on online commentary, which is proving much harder to control than traditional media.
“The government has at least two intentions,” said Yin Shao Loong, who is executive director of the Institut Rakyat, a think tank, and is aligned with the opposition. “One is to stifle freedom of expression. The other is to harass the opposition and sap their energy and tie them up in court cases that could take years.”
Najib’s government has been making heavy use of the 1948 Sedition Act, a remnant of the British colonial period, which makes it an offense to “bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against any Ruler or against any Government.”
Among the three dozen or so who have been targeted so far this year are Azmi Sharom, a law professor at the University of Malaya who gave his legal opinion on a 2009 political crisis, and Maria Chin Abdullah, the leader of the Bersih group, a civil-society organization that promotes electoral reform, who has been charged with illegal assembly and sedition for organizing huge anti-Najib rallies in August.
Numerous opposition parliamentarians also have been charged with sedition, most of them for criticizing a federal court’s decision in February upholding the conviction of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on charges of sodomy. That case is widely viewed as political.
S. Arutchelvan, a socialist politician, was charged in the past week with sedition for comments he made in February. The well-known cartoonist Zunar, who in September won an International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists, has been charged with nine counts of sedition for nine tweets criticizing the Anwar conviction.
And two newspapers deemed hostile to the government were suspended from publishing.
“Prime Minister Najib Razak and the Malaysian government are making a mockery of their claim to be a rights-respecting democracy by prosecuting those who speak out on corruption or say anything even remotely critical of the government,” said Linda Lakhdhir of Human Rights Watch. The government, she added, should stop using “repressive laws to harass the media and intimidate its critics.”
The crackdown began after the ruling party fared poorly in 2013 elections, said Murray Hiebert, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, but the repression has accelerated amid a corruption scandal that threatens Najib’s hold on power.
Investigators looking into the heavily indebted sovereign wealth fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB, found that almost $700 million had been deposited into Najib’s personal bank accounts, the Wall Street Journal has reported.
Najib, who founded 1MDB and heads its board of advisers, has strenuously denied any wrongdoing. Arif Shah, a spokesman for 1MDB, said the allegations against Najib were “old” and had been “comprehensively addressed” by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, which in August reported that no funds from 1MDB had been transferred to the prime minister’s accounts.
But amid investigations into the fund, Najib has replaced key officials with appointees deemed friendlier. The new attorney general, for example, has dismissed a recommendation from the central bank to begin criminal proceedings against 1MDB.
The prime minister’s office did not respond directly to questions about Najib’s links to the fund, saying the investigation continues, but a spokesman strongly denied suggestions that opponents of the government were being targeted with legal action.
“The Sedition Act does not impinge on free speech or democratic principles,” said Datuk Tengku Sariffuddin, the prime minister’s press secretary. “Most, if not all, countries have legal safeguards on the printed and spoken word in order to maintain public order. It is reasonable for Malaysia to safeguard itself in the same manner.”
Pending amendments to the Sedition Act, he said, would serve “to better protect all religions and to prevent the incitement of racial or inter-ethnic conflict.”
The changes would remove a clause outlawing criticism of the government and judiciary. A provision would be added to outlaw incitement to religious hatred in the country, which is 60 percent Muslim. The amendments, once ratified, also would increase the term of imprisonment for sedition from three years to seven years and add a penalty of up to 20 years in prison for seditious activities that result in physical harm or destruction of property.
The spokesman said that Malaysia has “a thriving online space in which opposition voices and publications are given free rein” and that government critics “are more outspoken than in almost any other country in the region.”
But critics of Najib describe an elaborate effort to silence them. The Malaysian government has long controlled newspapers and TV stations. Although the rising use of cellphones and social media has loosened the state’s grip on information, especially in rural regions, the government is trying to get a handle on the new technologies.
“There are lots of cybertroopers monitoring posts by opposition [members of Parliament], taking screen shots of them and then circulating them and tagging the police chief,” said the opposition parliamentarian Sim, who is being charged for a tweet in which he mistakenly suggested that the former attorney general was manhandled out of office. Sim deleted the tweet when he realized that the photo included was an old one and said it was a genuine mistake. Too late.
“The cybertroopers wrote, ‘Arrest Sim. He’s giving the government a bad name,’ ” the legislator said.
It is not clear whether these online monitors are hired by the government or are zealous volunteers. But they have been effective at alerting the authorities to criticism.
For Paulsen, 42, an ethnic Chinese lawyer who leads a human rights advocacy group called Lawyers for Liberty, problems began after the terrorist attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January.
A government official said such an attack could happen here, prompting Paulsen to send out a tweet about the Department of Islamic Advancement Malaysia, or Jakim, which prescribes the sermons delivered during Friday prayers.
“Jakim is promoting extremism every Friday. Govt needs to address that if serious about extremism in Malaysia,” Paulsen tweeted. The cybertroopers seized on it. The next day, Khalid Abu Bakar, the inspector general of police, who also is active on Twitter, posted a photo of Paulsen and his tweet overlaid with the word “rude.”
Then came Paulsen’s first sedition charge. The second was filed after he tweeted that the most extreme forms of Islamic punishment, such as cutting off hands and stonings, were inhumane. The third run-in with the law was a criminal defamation charge after two tweets suggesting that Najib was trying to avoid questioning over the 1MDB affair.
Paulsen does not deny writing any of the tweets, but he does assert his innocence on the fourth allegation against him, which concerns a Facebook post showing a banner in a march that had been doctored to read, “Chinese pigs go home.”
“It was clearly fabricated to make it look like I had posted this,” he said, adding that it seemed designed to provoke racial divisions.
Paulsen said he thinks the efforts against him are part of a broader attempt to silence criticism of the government on social media. “If you’re from the opposition, are a dissident or are active in civil society, they’re going to come after you.”
But Lakhdhir of Human Rights Watch finds some cause for optimism. “A bright light for Malaysia is the strength of its civil society,” she said, “with many who are willing to speak out despite the risks.”