His Excellency Muhyiddin Yassin
Prime Minister of Malaysia
Prime Minister’s Office
Federal Government Administration Center
Bangunan Perdana Putra, Putrajaya 62502
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Dear Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin,
The Committee to Protect Journalists, a non-governmental, independent organization that promotes press freedom and the safety of journalists around the world, congratulates you on forming a new government in Malaysia and urges you to make press freedom a top priority. The role of an independent press that can report freely on issues of public concern has never been more important, especially at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic threatens the well-being of the people of Malaysia, who require accurate and timely information to make informed decisions about how to safeguard their health.
As you are aware, the successive United Malays Nasional Organization-led administrations that governed your country for decades pursued antagonistic relations with the media, characterized by frequent harassment, intimidation, and threats under various overly broad and repressive laws. We ask you to turn the page on that unfortunate history and open a new chapter that gives priority to amending and abolishing laws that have been habitually abused to stifle the media.
In particular, we call on your government to immediately repeal Section 233(1) of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, which criminalizes the use of network facilities for communications that could be deemed by authorities as “offensive, false or obscene.”
Convictions under this law, with its broad, vague standards, allow for one-year prison sentences and fines. Malaysiakini journalists, including editor-in-chief Malaysiakini , have been gravely threatened under the law in recent years.
Similarly, we urge your government to abolish or amend Section 505(b) of the penal code, a provision that bans statements intended to cause “fear or alarm to the public” or “commit an offense against the State or public tranquility,” and allows for two-year jail sentences for convictions.
These provisions are far too broad, and are prone to abuse. They also produce self-censorship that ultimately undermines the very public interest they are purportedly intended to protect.
Award-winning journalist Wan Noor Hayati Wan Alias was charged under the law on February 5 for critical social media posts she made about the then government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. She now faces up to six years in prison for three separate posts.
Hiyati, who is currently out on bail, told CPJ that the case has caused her journalist colleagues to self-censor their COVID-19 news coverage over fears they could be similarly charged. The case against her should be dropped before its next scheduled hearing on April 29, which will signal to all journalists that they can report on the health emergency without fear of reprisal.
Additionally, we strongly urge your government to refrain from re-enacting the “fake news” law which was passed by politicians now represented in your ruling Perikatan Nasional coalition and abolished by the outgoing Mahathir Mohamad administration.
That law allowed for six-year prison penalties and 500,000 ringgit ($125,000) fines for “news, information, data, and reports which is or are wholly or partly false.” Journalists, of course, should never face prison time or punitive fines for doing their work of checking and balancing the government. We strongly encourage you to resist any attempts to revive this draconian law by your coalition party members.
CPJ commended the Mahathir government’s decision to drop legal cases against media and journalists, including cases against the independent Malaysiakini news website and editorial cartoonist Zulikiflee Anwar Ulhaque, known as Zunar, which were initiated by the previous UMNO-led government under which you served as deputy prime minister.
CPJ has honored both Steven Gan and Zunar with its annually bestowed International Press Freedom Award for their bravery in the face of persistent and extreme government threats, including potential imprisonment for their journalism. The legal threats that they faced previously should under no circumstances be revisited or revived.
CPJ also encourages you to support the new independent Media Council, approved by the cabinet of the outgoing administration. The Media Council seeks more self-regulation of the media through the abolition of various laws, including the Printing Presses and Publications Act and the Multimedia Act, both of which have been abused by authorities to punish and threaten the free media.
We encourage you to accept the interim Media Council’s proposed legal changes and to allow the independent body to function freely without government intervention or threats.
Your government has a unique opportunity to champion the cause of press freedom in Malaysia, amid a global health crisis where free and independent reporting can save lives. We encourage you to grasp this opportunity, in the name of democracy and reform. Thank you for your attention.
Committee to Protect Journalists