Malaysia’s civil liberties squeezed as news portals closed, books seized amid creeping censorship: report

Malaysia’s civil liberties squeezed as news portals closed, books seized amid creeping censorship: report

Malaysia’s civil liberties squeezed as news portals closed, books seized amid creeping censorship: report

Malaysia’s civil liberties remain “obstructed”, a report on rights and freedoms across the Asia-Pacific said on Wednesday, citing a litany of closures of news portals and book seizures as examples of an increasingly censorious government under Anwar Ibrahim’s premiership.

The People Power Under Attack 2023 report by civil rights group Civicus and 20 other partners worldwide paints a picture of stagnation in Malaysia’s civic space across five different prime ministers, while pointing to an increase in censorship under Anwar’s one-year administration.

“In June 2023, the news portal MalaysiaNow was inaccessible to some users and blocked by some internet service providers,” it said. “In August 2023, the government blocked some internet users accessing another news site,, as well as news website TV Pertiwi.”

MalaysiaNow, which terminated all of its staff in October due to financial difficulties, was closely associated with the opposition Perikatan Nasional coalition. Meanwhile, TV Pertiwi had published reports critical of the government. The motivation for the block of UtusanTV, however, remains unclear.

Civicus, which has been monitoring and publishing its reports since 2017 categorises countries under five groups – “open, narrowed, obstructed, repressed, or closed” – based on information on freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression and the state’s duty to protect those fundamental freedoms.

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Malaysia is joined by Indonesia and Singapore in the “obstructed” category, with neighbouring Thailand, Philippines and Cambodia faring worse under the “repressed” category, the report added. Vietnam, Laos, and war-torn Myanmar were bottom rated, alongside Hong Kong, as “closed”.

In Southeast Asia, only Timor Leste made progress moving from the obstructed category to “narrowed”, ranking alongside Australia and South Korea.

“But overall the trend is negative,” said Josef Benedict, Civicus Monitor’s Asia-Pacific researcher.

“More Asia-Pacific governments cracked down on citizens’ rights in 2023 than allowed free civic space.”

Despite Prime Minister Anwar’s call for a measured course in implementing the reform agenda that has been the pillar of his 25-year political struggle, the report said his government continues to use restrictive laws to criminalise expression.

That includes the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 which was used to raid bookstores and seize books including several titles on Karl Marx and communism, a poetry book on masturbation, and others deemed critical of the government.


Activist fights for right to not wear hijab headscarves in Muslim-majority Malaysia

Activist fights for right to not wear hijab headscarves in Muslim-majority Malaysia

“The law was also used to justify the raid on outlets belonging to the Swiss watchmaker Swatch and seized over 100 colourful watches from their Pride Collection,” the report said.

The seizure of the watches, made under the argument that it is propagating same-sex relations, which is a criminal offence in Malaysia hogged global headlines and saw the government being sued by the Swiss company who sought to get their merchandise back.

Led by Anwar’s reformist and plural Pakatan Harapan coalition, the government which came into power in November 2022 has also yet to address other controversial laws such as the Communication and Multimedia Act 1998 and the Sedition Act which have been used to silence political opponents, including firebrand Kedah state chief minister Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor.

In the lead up to the elections in 2020, the bloc had pledged to review and repeal these controversial laws in their manifesto.

Anwar has instead cautioned against upending the status quo by reforming policies without taking into consideration the sensitivity of the public. In an interview with local TV station TV3 on Tuesday night, he said reforms must be implemented “wisely” and without sidelining public sentiment.

“Reforms if done too rapidly will lead to the collapse of the system,” Anwar said.

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Illustrating this, the prime minister cited the rush to ratify internationally binding treaties including the Rome Statute and ICERD (International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination) by his predecessor’s 2018 administration, which he described as a “disaster”.

“It was not explained to the people, not presented to the public office and no negotiations were done with the Conference of Rulers,” he said, referring to the country’s nine Malay sultans and other civilian heads of states.

“In the end, the public sentiment was against the government.”

Critics say by putting once treasured reforms on the back seat, Anwar risks tarnishing the reputation of his own Reformasi (reform) banner as just lip service to propel him to power.

In his TV3 interview, the prime minister also pledged his priority on taking office at the tail end of a three-year-long political crisis, alongside the aftermath of Covid-19 is to strengthen the Malaysian economy.

“For me, the challenge is to guarantee that the people, many of whom are farmers, fishermen and the working class, will be comfortable, not the ministers or leaders alone,” he said.

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