Malaysia: PM’s resignation must restore respect for freedom of expression and assembly

The resignation of Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin follows months of political turmoil, economic hardship and a dramatic deterioration in human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and assembly, Amnesty International said today.

On 16 August 2021, after a tumultuous 17 months in office, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin resigned, yet will stay on as interim leader until a successor is appointed.

Following the Prime Minister’s resignation, the next government must urgently restore respect for freedom of expression and assembly. 

Rachel Chhoa-Howard, Amnesty International's Malaysia Researcher

“Over the past 17 months, the government has responded to a wave of public anger brought about by political infighting and official handling of the Covid-19 pandemic by curtailing free speech. In recent weeks, this also extended to peaceful assembly.”

“Amid an ongoing political crisis, the authorities have wielded repressive laws to investigate or arrest not only activists, journalists and protesters, but also members of political opposition and the general public to quell dissent. It is crucial that the next government learns from the past and ends attacks on peaceful critics.”

Investigation and harassment of peaceful protestors

In recent weeks, the government has used excessive powers to enact a crackdown on freedom of assembly. Despite Muhyiddin’s resignation, police called in five people yesterday for questioning after they participated in a peaceful protest that called for him to step down. A journalist was also questioned over an article based on a press statement released by protest organizers.

A state of emergency was lifted on 1 August 2021, yet a strict ban on assemblies and gatherings remains in place as part of restrictions imposed to curb the spread of Covid-19. By implementing blanket bans on demonstrations and dispersing peaceful assemblies the authorities are failing to respect the right to peaceful assembly and expression.

While governments can legitimately impose restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly for public health reasons, these restrictions must be necessary and proportionate.

Dozens of people have been summoned for questioning after participating in the “Lawan” demonstration on 31 July 2021, which demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Muhyiddin amid continuing political turmoil and concern over the official handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Hundreds of people attempted to march to Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square). After being blocked by police, participants resorted to gathering nearby.

Following the demonstration, police visited protesters’ homes and have so far called over 20 people in for questioning, including participants, organizers, journalists and other observers. In addition, commissioners from the National Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM) were called in for questioning, prompting the public body to release a statement of concern.

Members of Parliament questioned over protests

Police are also questioning members of parliament over a demonstration held on 2 August 2021, after parliamentary sessions were suspended following the detection of several cases of Covid-19 among MPs and parliament staff. Parliament had only been in session for one week after its suspension in January 2021. As MPs tried to gain access to the parliamentary estate, riot police blocked the road to the Houses of Parliament in an intimidatory show of force.

Marching instead to Dataran Merdeka, MPs criticized Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and his cabinet for bypassing the King when they revoked the emergency ordinances – a step they said broke usual protocols – and ignoring repeated calls for parliament to reopen.

After the protest, police announced they would be questioning all 107 members of parliament who were present under laws including the Peaceful Assembly Act and the Prevention & Control of Infectious Diseases Act.

Besides MPs, at least 30 media workers have been questioned following the demonstrations, which represents a clear violation of press freedom.

“The Malaysian authorities are employing tactics to intimidate activists, members of political parties, journalists and others who have participated in peaceful protests, by subjecting them to police questioning, investigations and visits to their homes and offices,” Rachel Chhoa-Howard added.

“The authorities must allow peaceful assemblies to resume in line with reasonable and proportionate Covid-19 prevention protocols. Parliament should also be allowed to sit and scrutinize government policy to ensure adequate oversight after being prevented from doing so for such a long time – including virtually if there are concerns over Covid-19.”

A wider crackdown on peaceful expression

Civil society activists, opposition politicians, journalists, and social media users have also been targeted by police and investigated under numerous repressive laws used to stifle dissent.

Those targeted include a high school student accused of “breaching the peace” after she posted a TikTok video criticizing a teacher who allegedly joked about rape in class in August, as well as four individuals who criticized the Chief Minister of Kedah on Facebook over a joke he told about Covid-19 related deaths.

Since 13 August, at least seven activists linked to the Lawan demonstration have also been questioned by police in the past week over a possible upcoming protest.

Although these examples describe just a few cases, they represent a broader crackdown on freedom of expression that is sending a chilling message across the country and leading many to self-censor.

“Freedoms have deteriorated ever since the Perikatan Nasional government assumed power in March 2020, and recently the situation has worsened,” Rachel Chhoa-Howard said.

“The next government must end the criminalization of peaceful expression, both on and offline, and also restore respect for the rights to freedom of association and the press.”