Study: Malaysia’s civic space ‘obstructed’ for fifth year running, while Singapore downgraded to ‘repressed’

Study: Malaysia’s civic space ‘obstructed’ for fifth year running, while Singapore downgraded to ‘repressed’

A group of youth wearing black shirts and personal protection equipment wave black flags during a protest at Dataran Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur July 17, 2021. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

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KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 9 — Malaysia continues to be rated as “obstructed” in terms of its civic space or how much freedom of speech and freedom to peacefully gather is respected in this country, the latest edition of a global study showed.

In the “People Power Under Attack 2021” report released by international civil society alliance CIVICUS Monitor, Malaysia was listed as one of the seven countries or territories in Asia that are categorised as “obstructed”.

When contacted, CIVICUS Monitor told Malay Mail that the report has been released annually since 2017 and that Malaysia’s rating had stayed as “obstructed” since then.

This would make it the fifth year that Malaysia is still stuck in the “obstructed” category. This is despite Malaysia having been highlighted in the 2018 edition of the report as being a “bright spot” in the Asia and Pacific region with progressive steps towards enhancing civic freedoms.

In this report, the civic space for each country can be rated as one of five categories, namely, open, narrowed, obstructed, repressed or closed.

The report defines civic space as the respect that countries have in policy, law and practice for the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression, as well as the extent to which the country or territory protects these fundamental rights.

“In Malaysia where civic space is rated ‘obstructed,’ the CIVICUS Monitor documented in 2021 an escalation of repression of critical voices by the authorities creating a chilling effect on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” CIVICUS Monitor — which is also an online research platform rating and tracking fundamental freedoms in 197 countries and territories — said in a statement.

The latest report is based on analysis of 568 civic space updates — provided by researchers —  involving 156 countries and territories during the period November 1, 2020 to October 31, 2021.

The six other countries in Asia also rated this year as having an “obstructed” civic space were Bhutan, Indonesia, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka and Timor Leste.

Apart from Malaysia and the six other countries with “obstructed” rankings, of the 20 other countries or territories in Asia, four were in the “closed” category (China, Laos, North Korea, Vietnam), and 11 in the “repressed” category (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, Hong Kong, India, Myanmar, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand), while three were rated “narrowed” (Japan, Mongolia and South Korea). Taiwan remained the only one rated as “open”.

Out of these 26 countries and territories in Asia, the only two that experienced changes in ratings were Singapore (downgraded from “obstructed” to “repressed”) and Mongolia (upgraded from “obstructed” to “narrowed”).

“In reality, this means that the basic freedoms of speech, peaceful assembly and association are not being respected in most countries in this region. This decline marks a trend worldwide, as data from the CIVICUS Monitor shows that 89 per cent of the world’s population now live in closed, repressed or obstructed countries,” CIVICUS Monitor said.

Graphic designer Mohd Fahmi Reza Mohd Zarin (centre) is seen outside the Dang Wangi district police station after his release from his overnight arrest and one-day remand April 24, 2021. ― Picture by Hari Anggara

What happened in Malaysia

Among other things, CIVICUS Monitor gave a long list of restrictions of freedoms in Malaysia, including the federal government issuing of a new regulation under the Emergency declared from January to August 2021 with vague and broad provisions to deal with “fake news” about the Covid-19 pandemic.

CIVICUS Monitor also noted Malaysia’s continued use of “repressive laws against peaceful protesters and activists”, such as the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998’s (CMA) Section 233 to silence online criticism of the royalty and politicians.

“In April 2021, artist Fahmi Reza was arrested under the CMA for allegedly insulting the country’s queen by uploading a Spotify playlist that seemingly mocked comments on the queen’s Instagram account.

“In July 2021, activist Heidy Quah was charged under the CMA for comments posted on Facebook in June 2020, alleging ill-treatment of refugees and poor conditions at immigration detention centres,” it said.

Also included in the list was the authorities’ investigation of the artists and human rights defenders behind animated short film Chilli Powder and Thinner which was said to show the story of three youths who allegedly suffered torture under police custody.

“Activists linked to the Sekretariat Solidariti Rakyat (Peoples Solidarity Secretariat) involved in the #Lawan protests faced various forms of judicial harassment. Participants of a peaceful protest outside parliament in May 2021 were called in for questioning.

“In July 2021, a #Lawan protest of around 400 people in the capital Kuala Lumpur observed police blocking protesters, photographing them and setting up barricades,” it said, adding that a joint civil society monitoring report had highlighted alleged police intimidation and harassment both before and after the protest including visits to at least 15 individuals’ homes or offices.

“Peaceful protesters involved in a candlelight vigil in August 2021 were dragged to police cars and restricted access to lawyers. Some were also threatened,” it said.

It also cited news outlet Malaysiakini being found guilty of contempt of court in February 2021 over its readers’ comments regarding the judiciary in one of its articles, noting that such a decision was seen by human rights groups as amounting to harassment on the independent news portal which had reported widely on government abuse and corruption.

“In July 2021, the Federal Court ordered news outlet Malaysiakini to pay RM550,000 in damages in a defamation case filed by a now-defunct Australian mining corporation,” it said.

Singapore has continued to silence dissent by using an ‘anti-fake news’ law against government critics and independent media outlets. ― Reuters pic

What happened in Singapore and Mongolia

As for Singapore’s downgrade from “obstructed” to “repressed” status, CIVICUS Monitor noted that the island nation’s government had continued to silence dissent, including using an “anti-fake news” law against government critics and independent media outlets.

It also noted that journalists and bloggers in Singapore had faced defamation charges with exorbitant fines imposed, adding that a vaguely-worded contempt-of-court law had been used to prosecute activists for criticism of the courts under the guise of protecting the judicial system.

Singapore had also arrested or charged activists organising peaceful gatherings including solo protesters, while a new law passed in October 2021 and known as the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act had also raised concern of civic space possibly being further restricted, it said.

Josef Benedict, Asia-Pacific Civic Space Researcher at CIVICUS noted: “Now Singapore, which claims to be a democracy, is joining this notorious list, due to its array of restrictive laws used to stifle dissent, the attacks on independent media, and a chilling new foreign interference law,.”

When commenting on Asia as a whole, Benedict said: “As authoritarian leaders in Asia seek to hold on to power they have deployed restrictive laws to arrest and criminalise human rights defenders. Scores of activists and journalists are behind bars, facing trumped up charges, and some have been tortured and ill-treated.

“Instead of listening to peoples’ demands, the authorities have also resorted to disrupting peaceful protests in numerous countries, at times under the guise of the pandemic, with excessive or deadly force. Despite these attacks, civil society has not relented and isfinding new ways to push back and to demand their rights.”

As for Mongolia, which was the only one in Asia to have a rating upgrade, CIVICUS Monitor noted that it had in April 2021 adopted a new law to protect human rights defenders and became the first country in Asia to provide such a legal framework.

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