Human Rights Watch today condemned Malaysia's escalating crackdown on opposition speech and urged the government to lift its ban on public rallies in the capital. The ban, implemented on March 25 for an indefinite period, applies to all outdoor gatherings in Kuala Lumpur of more than four people. The ban comes on the heels of restrictions on the popular opposition newspaper Harakah, the Islamic opposition party PAS (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia), and the critical media.
"This is not the first time the Mahathir government has tried to silence outspoken opposition voices," said Joe Saunders, deputy director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "One year ago, it was Anwar and his supporters. Now it appears to be PAS's turn. But the ultimate casualties are Malaysian democracy and human rights."
The prohibition on rallies follows public protest around the government's increased repression of opposition media. On March 1 the Home Affairs Ministry restricted the popular Harakah newspaper to two issues per month, down from twice weekly, and banned it from newsstands. About 200 people peaceably protested the restrictions on March 14. Seven were arrested, including prominent human rights lawyer Sivarasa Rasiah, opposition supporters, and journalists. The circulation of Harakah, published by PAS, soared last year following its strong critique of the arrest and trials of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. In January, the newspaper's editor and printer were arrested under the Sedition Act for an article critical of the government. Their court cases are still pending.
Another target is Detik magazine. On March 27, the Home Affairs Ministry refused to renew its publishing permit. A third, the youth magazine Al-Wasilah, has also received notice that its license may not be renewed when it expires in August.
Under Malaysia's 1984 Printing Presses and Publications Act, all print media must apply annually for publishing permit renewal. There is no legal remedy or judicial review when the Home Affairs Minister refuses to renew a permit. Under the act, "[a]ny decision of the Minister . . . to suspend a license or permit shall be final and shall not be called in question by any court on any ground whatsoever," and "[n]o person shall be given an opportunity to be heard with regard to . . . suspension of the license or permit."
"Rights guarantees have no meaning when they can be taken away at will by government decree," continued Saunders. He urged that the act be repealed or amended in line with international standards to prevent it from being used to repress or restrict freedom of expression.
In last November's elections, Malaysia's ruling party UMNO (United Malays National Organization) lost ground to PAS in several districts, including the control of Terengganu state, although it retained its two-thirds majority in parliament.