So what's that about human rights?

DECEMBER 30 ― This year has seen widespread human rights violations in Malaysia, including attacks on freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, native rights, and the right to privacy.

The government appears to be increasingly intolerant of dissent and resorted to investigating trivial matters like the posting of “insulting” photos of leaders on WhatsApp, posting a video of a press conference, and various Facebook posts and tweets.

If Malaysia is serious about achieving developed nation status by 2020, then the government must acknowledge and respect basic human rights like freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Without the space to express ideas and opinions, society cannot progress.

These are the top 8 human rights violations in the country in 2016, in no particular order:

1. Maria Chin Abdullah’s detention under Sosma

Bersih 2.0 chairman Maria Chin Abdullah was held for 10 days under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (Sosma); she was detained a day before the December 19 Bersih 5 mass rally.

The Attorney-General rejected the view that Sosma is only meant for terrorists, while the police said Maria was detained over funding that Bersih 2.0 had once received from George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, allegedly an offence under Section 124C of the Penal Code that prohibits attempted activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy.

Not everything should be considered a threat to national security. Fighting for free and fair elections is not a threat to democracy. Neither is asking for a change of government. A change of government is, in fact, the essence of democracy; it is about the people’s right to elect their leaders.

2. Pre- and post-Bersih 5 rally protests

More than a dozen people were arrested the night before the Bersih 5 demonstration, purportedly to prevent riots.

A few more people, including PKR politicians Tian Chua and Zuraida Kamaruddin and graphic artist Fahmi Reza, were arrested at the Bersih 5 rally under suspicion of rioting.

It is unclear how marching on the streets peacefully without weapons constitutes rioting. Arresting the key leaders of Bersih 5 is an act of intimidation towards ordinary citizens who may now fear joining street protests in future, even though it is well within their rights to do so.

3. Crackdown on NGOs over foreign funding

The raids of Bersih 2.0 and Empower’s offices under Section 124C of the Penal Code were an act of harassment against civil society. Worse still was the alleged denial of legal counsel during the raid of Empower’s office.

Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi also announced, at the Umno general assembly, the formation of a special task force to investigate organisations that receive foreign funding, purportedly used to topple the government. He highlighted Suaram, Bersih, Malaysiakini, Sarawak Report and the Bar Council.

This apparent witch hunt against civil society is rather disturbing and may lead to the further shrinking of space for dissent, which is already small enough as it is. Civil society is important because speaking as a collective group is far more powerful than individual voices ranting on social media.

4. National Security Council (NSC) Act 2016

The NSC Act came into effect on August 1, granting the government sweeping powers to declare localised emergencies.

Under the law, security forces have vast powers in areas declared as security areas, like the power to evacuate people, impose a curfew, arrest without a warrant, and to stop and search individuals, vehicles or premises without warrants. The authorities are also protected from civil or criminal proceedings, while the Council’s affairs are kept secret.

It is fine if our rights, such as freedom of movement and personal liberty, are temporarily suspended in an actual national emergency. But given the vague definition of “national security” in the NSC Act and the government’s tendency to consider almost everything under the sun to be a threat to “national security”, the law is extremely worrying.

5. Arrests and charges under the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (CMA)

The arrests and prosecution of Malaysians under Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) for purportedly offensive speech on social media against those in power have continued this year. Section 233 prohibits the “improper use of network facilities or network service.”

Among the prominent figures prosecuted and arrested were graphic artist and activist Fahmi Reza and Pertubuhan Pelindung Khazanah Alam Malaysia (Peka) president Puan Sri Shariffa Sabrina Syed Akil. Even the editor of news portal Malaysiakini was charged under the CMA merely for showing a video of a press conference on KiniTV’s website, in which Khairuddin Abu Hassan had criticised Attorney-General Tan Sri Mohamed Apandi Ali.

Prosecuting journalists just for doing their job is completely unacceptable. Malaysia also needs to have a far more liberal definition of free speech, instead of going after every single Facebook post and tweet whenever a nut job, who has nothing else better to do, lodges a police report. Being offensive is not a crime.

6. Zunar’s arrest for sedition

Cartoonist Zunar was again arrested for sedition in December at an event in Kuala Lumpur. Before that, several Umno Youth members disrupted his exhibition at the George Town Literary Festival.

The political cartoonist has already been hit with nine sedition charges last year. Zunar is also barred from travelling overseas.

Drawing cartoons should not be a crime. Satire is a great method of criticism that’s immediately accessible compared to long essays sometimes.

7. Gua Musang Orang Asli arrests

Forestry officials arrested dozens of Orang Asli from the Temiar community in Gua Musang, Kelantan, and destroyed their two-month-old blockade erected to prevent logs from being taken out of a forest reserve.

The Orang Asli blockade was a remarkable display of defiance as they tried to protect their native land and the forest from destruction, pointing out that the 2014 mass floods in Kelantan were caused by excessive logging.

Malaysia has ignored the plight of its native people for decades. Orang Asli and Orang Asal rights, often related to environmental issues, aren’t the sexiest of topics. But we ignore climate change and threats to Nature at our own risk. 

8. Transgender ‘beauty pageant’ raid

The Federal Territories Islamic Department (JAWI) raided a “beauty pageant” hosted at a private dinner function by trans women and detained its organiser.

Lawyer and activist Siti Kasim, who was at the dinner at a five-star hotel, claimed that the religious authorities did not have a warrant and were not accompanied by police officers.

Notwithstanding the fact that the raid seemed to be JAWI’s bizarre acknowledgment of trans women as real women (since the raid was conducted on the basis of a fatwa against beauty contests), charging into a closed-door event, especially without a warrant, is a blatant invasion of privacy.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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