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Malaysia: Blocking websites to prevent protest violates international law

In this 28 April 2012 file photo, protesters take part in the Bersih (Clean) demonstration near Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) in Kuala Lumpur
In this 28 April 2012 file photo, protesters take part in the Bersih (Clean) demonstration near Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) in Kuala Lumpur

REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad

This statement was originally published on on 27 August 2015.

ARTICLE 19 calls on the Malaysian government to retract threats to block websites which promote or report on the upcoming "Bersih 4" protests. Furthermore, we call for a public commitment to abide by international obligations to respect the right to protest. The Malaysian government should guarantee the free flow of information around the "Bersih 4" protests, and refrain from treating them as illegal.

"Malaysia's international image is being tarnished by the government's complete and continuing disregard for the rights to freedom of expression and protest," said Thomas Hughes, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19. "Attempts to block websites to prevent people exercising their rights, and debating matters in the public interest, is unacceptable."

Ahead of planned protests on 29 and 30 August 2015, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) has threatened to block websites which encourage people to take to the streets, following statements by the Home Ministry and police indicating the protests would be unlawful.

Under international freedom of expression standards, powers to block websites should only be exercised in exceptional circumstances, and only ever by a court or similar body which is independent of political or other unwarranted influences. ARTICLE 19 has raised concerns over the powers of the MCMC in this regard, and called for changes to the law which would safeguard against the blocking of websites as a tool to crack down on dissent.

International standards also require that the blocking of entire websites, for any period, to restrict the free flow of information about protests, and to frustrate the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, is wholly illegitimate.

The protests, known as "Bersih 4", are being organised by a coalition of civil society organisations to demand institutional reform and greater transparency in government. The protests come in the wake of an ongoing corruption scandal which has already seen a crackdown on online and print media. The MCMC has also warned people against sharing information about the protests on social media.

The Home Ministry claims the protest organiser, "Bersih 2.0", has not registered as an association under the Societies Act, and is therefore unlawful. The organisers claim they are a coalition of registered organisations and therefore do not require a separate registration. Kuala Lumpur's police claim that organisers have not sought permissions for the use of public spaces to protest, violating the 2012 Peaceful Assembly Act.

International human rights standards permit any person or association to organise a protest, regardless of whether the entity is registered or not. Moreover, the right to protest should not be contingent on receiving permission from the authorities. Previous applications of the 2012 Peaceful Assembly Act have attracted international criticism.

The government has claimed that declaring the protests unlawful, and blocking websites sharing information on them, is necessary to prevent acts that "incite the people against the government". They also claim that the protests threaten unrest, the spread of "seditious propaganda", and "harmony in society".

ARTICLE 19 reiterates that the rights to freedom of expression and protest must not be restricted in order to insulate the government from criticism and shut down legitimate public debate. This, in reality, serves to compromise security and stability rather than advance it. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, has repeatedly called for Malaysia to repeal the Sedition Act 1948, and open democratic space in the country, including for dissent.

These developments are only the latest in the government's attempts to close civic space and target criticism of the government. It follows the blocking of whistleblowing website Sarawak Report, the harassment of its journalists, and the suspension of publication permits for two newspapers, the Edge Financial Daily and the Edge Weekly.

ARTICLE 19 calls on the Malaysian Government to:

- Retract its statement regarding the illegality of the upcoming Bersih 4 protests;

- Publicly commit to respect the rights of individuals that participate in the Bersih 4 protests;

- Retract threats to block websites sharing information on the Bersih 4 protests, ensuring that freedom of expression online is fully protected.

We also reiterate our call for Malaysia to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The government must unblock Sarawak Report, reinstate the publication permits for the Edge media, and engage in comprehensive reform of all laws that undermine the rights to freedom of expression and protest.

What other IFEX members are saying
  • Besieged Malaysian PM Doubles Down on Online Censorship Ahead of Anti-Corruption Rally

    No sooner was it announced, then the crackdown was rolled out. Already, the Bersih 2.0 website is reportedly inaccessible from all three of Malaysia's mobile providers, with blocks from wired Internet providers likely to follow soon. Technology activists from the nonprofit Sinar Project have promoted the use of the censorship circumvention module of EFF's Surveillance Self-Defense as a way for Malaysians to overcome the blocks.

  • Malaysia: Restrictions on freedom of expression around Bersih 4.0 must be lifted

    On August 27, ARTICLE 19 signed a joint letter to the Prime Minister of Malaysia, expressing concern about the recent restrictions on freedom of expression in the country, including those on news website Sarawak Report, and the revocation of the publishing permits of two newspapers.

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