KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 17 — Following a court decision to overturn a ban on three books promoting moderate Islam here last week, freedom of speech group Article 19 has urged Malaysia to repeal the law that was used to initially impose the ban.

In a statement, Article 19 said the Malaysian government should follow suit by repealing or reforming the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 (PPPA) which they described as repressive.

“The Court’s decision is a step forward for free speech and religious freedom in Malaysia,” said Article 19’s Asia programme head Matthew Bugher.

“The fact that books promoting moderation and tolerance could be blacklisted for more than two years underscores the grave danger of discretionary censorship regimes. The government should take a cue from the Court and implement broader reforms to promote the rights of all Malaysians to express their opinions, even if they are controversial.”

It said the PPPA gives sweeping discretion to the Home Ministry to ban publications, which subsequently would open the doors to arbitrary and discriminatory application. 

“Moreover, the vaguely defined criteria established by Section 7 fail to comply with the requirement under international human rights law that restrictions on expression be formulated with specific precision to allow individuals to regulate their behaviour — the requirement of legality — and be narrowly tailored to address a legitimate state objective — the requirement of legitimacy,” said Bugher.

It also pointed out that the Pakatan Harapan government has made strong commitments to reform laws and policies, including the PPPA that restrict freedom of expression when campaigning for the 2018 general election.

“However, since coming to power, the Pakatan Harapan government has backed away from some commitments and has been slow to implement others.

“For more than three decades, the Printing Presses and Publications Act has been a vehicle for suppressing public discourse and trampling on religious freedoms. The Malaysian government should reward the trust of voters by following through on its commitments to reforming repressive laws and promoting freedom of expression,” said Bugher.

In September and October 2017, the Home Affairs Ministry imposed a ban on 22 publications, including three books issued by the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF): a Malay translation of Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty by progressive Turkish scholar Mustafa Akyol and two volumes of IRF’s Wacana Pemikiran Reformis series.

The Ministry’s announcement of the ban indicated that the IRF publications “promote the idea of liberalism” and “deviate from the true teachings of Islam”.

Article 19 was among 62 other organisations and 146 individuals condemning the ban and a broader government crackdown on academics and intellectuals in 2017.

In April 2019, IRF challenging the ban in the High Court, which ruled in favour of the Ministry. The case was later brought to the Court of Appeal.

On February 13, a three judge bench unanimously allowed the appeal by the group to lift the ban on the books.

Article 19 reiterated that PPPA is incompatible with international human rights law and standards relating to freedom of expression.