Sedition crackdown deplorable, says The New York Times

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KUALA LUMPUR: The New York Times has condemned Putrajaya’s ongoing sedition blitz and said it was a “deplorable attack on free speech and a serious threat to democracy”.

The influential US daily said in an editorial that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak should keep his promise and immediately repeal the colonial-era Sedition Act.

“Najib’s crackdown is a deplorable attack on free speech and a serious threat to democracy. He appeared to understand this danger when he promised to repeal the Sedition Act. He should do so immediately,” the daily said.

Putrajaya’s ongoing sedition dragnet has hauled up a string of opposition politicians, social activists, law academicians, and news portal Malaysiakini and one of its journalists, as well as Muslim preachers, all of whom have either been charged with sedition or are under investigation.

The wave of sedition charges has been roundly criticised by groups including the independent Malaysian Bar Council, which has called it “an intense period of oppression against the citizenry and regression in the rule of law”. Its use has accelerated, especially since the general elections in May 2013 in which the opposition won the majority of the popular vote yet failed to take Parliament.

“The Malaysian government has increasingly employed the Sedition Act, a British colonial-era law, to intimidate and silence political opponents. The law criminalises speech uttered ‘to excite disaffection’ against the government and defines sedition so broadly that it is an invitation to authoritarian abuse,” said The New York Times’s editorial.

“Prime Minister [Datuk Seri] Najib Razak had promised to repeal the act, but, since the general elections in May last year, his government has made full use of the law to hound his critics.”

The New York Times said the elections seemed to have shaken the government enough for it to arrest and prosecute an array of politicians, journalists, academics, students, religious leaders and civil society activists who did not advocate the overthrow of the government.

“For example, a senior opposition politician was charged with sedition for criticising a decision by the appeals court in a statement to the news media,” the editorial said, referring to PKR vice-president N Surendran.

Surendran, who is also the Padang Serai MP, pleaded not guilty to a statement he had released on April 18 titled: “Court of Appeal’s Fitnah 2 written judgement is flawed, defensive and insupportable”. He allegedly released this statement at the office of news portal Malaysiakini. Critics have also questioned why certain right-wing groups and politicians, who had made more seditious remarks in the past, have been spared the sedition dragnet.

Political analyst Dr Lim Teck Ghee previously said that Malaysia was approaching a situation where vocal racists and religious bigots could get away with saying or writing with impunity — often to the extent of inciting racial violence while moderates were charged for relatively innocuous statements or speeches.

“This is a travesty of justice, which is unprecedented in our political history. It’s also a black mark which will permanently blot Najib’s administration,” said the director of the Centre for Policy Initiatives. — The Malaysian Insider

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on October 8, 2014.