Malaysia’s crackdown ‘chilling’ free speech

By Julia Zappei ,AFP

KUALA LUMPUR — A Malaysian government crackdown under its Sedition Act is creating a climate of fear in the country, according to rising numbers of critics who say it could stunt a recent flowering in freedom of speech.

About 40 people �X mostly opposition politicians including leader Anwar Ibrahim, but also student activists, lawyers, academics and a journalist �X have been investigated, charged or convicted under the act this year, activists say. The crackdown, accelerating in recent weeks, is widely seen as an attempt by Malaysia’s longtime regime to reverse years of increasingly boisterous speech that has coincided with tremendous electoral gains by the opposition.

��It has a chilling effect,�� said Ibrahim Suffian, head of independent pollster Merdeka Centre, who adds that many Malaysians are beginning to ��self-censor.�� ��I think we haven’t seen the worst of things.�� The act outlaws speech deemed to incite unrest or insult Muslim-majority Malaysia’s largely ceremonial Islamic royalty. It can bring three years in jail. International organizations have condemned the crackdown, including a group of United Nations human rights experts who said last week it ��threatens freedom of expression by criminalizing dissent.�� The U.S. embassy in Malaysia joined in on Friday, saying it had ��raised our concerns about the rule of law and human rights with the Malaysian government.�� It urged the government ��to apply the rule of law fairly, transparently, and apolitically.��

\Selective Prosecution Malaysia has seen years of increasingly open, largely Internet-enabled public criticism of the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which is frequently tainted by corruption, rights abuses and other scandals. UMNO tightly tethers traditional media, but its critics have harnessed the power of the unshackled Internet in a country with huge rates of social media use. Outspoken independent news sites have helped inspire millions to envision a political alternative in a country where power is monopolized by the Malay Muslim majority, to the chagrin of its sizeable religious minorities. But many fear that flowering is now under threat.