Malaysia: Crackdown on press freedom protects old kleptocracy, PSM warns

July 15, 2020
The government is attempting to reinstall oppressive structures Malaysians have been fighting against for years

The latest crackdown on journalists, authors and publishers in Malaysia is aimed at protecting former Barisan Nasional (BN) government figures currently facing trial for corruption and money laundering, according to Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) general secretary Sivarajan Arumugam.

It is also fuelled by a nauseating campaign of racism and xenophobia, he told Green Left in an exclusive interview.

“People have been hauled up for questioning ... especially the journalists who did the Al Jazeera documentary that exposed the government’s crackdown on the refugee community,” said Sivarajan.

“Another person writing on refugee detention conditions has been hauled up, too.

“The Al Jazeera report revealed the truth about how refugees and migrants are being treated in Malaysia.

“Malaysia has always been on the watch list for human trafficking, deplorable detention centres, corruption in the immigration and police force, enabling human trafficking along our porous borders.

“These have been exposed and reported many times by local refugee rights activists and by the Malaysian Human Rights Commission, but the problem persists.

“Even though the documentary interviewed local lawyers and a relief aid activist, who agreed with a migrant worker's complaints about mistreatment, the authorities only clamped down on that migrant worker ... [who] was hauled up for questioning and his working permit revoked.

“The local activists were not touched.”

Criminalising criticism

The Al Jazeera report and the attack on the six journalists (including five Australians) who put it together is being used by the government to “ride high on the xenophobic wave” going through the population, said Sivarajan.

“There are also threatened charges around a book cover that is accused of humiliating Malaysia's official emblem.

“The police are trying to hold the Malaysiakini news website liable for comments by readers questioning the credibility of the judiciary. The attorney general took out a contempt case claiming that people’s confidence in the judicial system has been compromised by these comments.”

Malaysiakini editor-in-chief Steven Gan is facing contempt charges because of five reader comments on an article published online. This is a major test of freedom of the press in Malaysia, especially as Malaysiakini was the first critical online media project to create space for critical reporting and comment in Malaysia in 1999. It played a significant role in preparing the ground for the rise of the BERSIH mass democracy movement.

Sivarajan told GL that the judiciary has always been questioned. In an earlier era, former prime minister Mahathir Mohamed even sacked the judges during a crisis in the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO)-dominated government. Separation of powers between the executive and judiciary was also broken, due to the political appointment of judges.

“In 2007, there was another expose of how a senior lawyer was influencing the judiciary (VK Lingams case).

“Just last year, Court of Appeal Judge Hamid Sultan Abu Backer claimed that certain members of the judiciary have been aiding private parties to defraud the government.

“It is also an open secret that promotions will follow in due course, if the judge is compliant in politically sensitive cases.”

Therefore, the public has good reason to challenge and criticise the judiciary's decisions and should have that right, said Sivarajan.

The PSM's then general secretary Arutchelvan (Arul) was arrested a couple of years ago, said Sivarajan, for challenging the credibility of the judiciary, after the party made a statement condemning the jailing of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

“Now, the government has gone a step further by criminalising Malaysiakini for comments on judicial decisions made by its readers.”

Winding back freedoms

According to Sivarajan, the government is attempting to reinstall the oppressive structures Malaysians have been fighting against for years. That mass democracy struggle eventually helped bring about the fall of the corrupt BN government in the 2018 general election.

However, Sivarajan told GL the subsequent Pakatan Harapan (PH) government “failed to take its golden opportunity to dismantle the oppressive Sedition Act, Printing and Presses Act, Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (SOSMA) and the multimedia and communication laws used against political dissent”.

The current government under PM Muhyiddin Yassin took power without a people’s mandate in February, explained Sivarajan, and it is now “geared up to snuff out any possible dissent" and "bring back the days when our country was ruled with the iron fist of the Internal Security Act (ISA)”.

The ISA was repealed in 2012, but its provisions were effectively preserved in SOSMA and other new security laws.

“Now the old devil has come back to haunt Malaysia as these laws are being used in full force,” said Sivarajan. “The unhesitant attack on even a foreign news network confirms their mission to crackdown on the media. We are back to square one.”

The Muhyiddin government has an insecure parliamentary majority and this also drives its crackdown on freedom of expression.

“Prior to the COVID-19 lockdown, there were protest rallies organised against this 'back-door government’ and the numbers were growing at each rally.

“But the lockdown regulations saved the government, as people had to abide by the health regulations and all protest rallies were called off.

“So now, Muhyiddin is trying his best to keep the cap on all protests and public rallies.

“Even pickets by unions are attacked, as we saw when our hospital janitors' union members were arrested by police when they held a picket against their management. The pretext was that they broke the COVID-19 Movement Control Order.

Protecting old kleptocracy

“Muhiyudin wants to ensure that all the kleptocrats now on trial for corruption and money laundering, are let off the hook.”

The swift action by the attorney general against those who question court decisions, is aimed at instilling fear in those who would be critical when the kleptocrats are freed.

“Muhyiddin will go hard against his political opponents, until [former PM Razak] Najib and the other UMNO kleptocrats are cleared of all charges. That will clear his path to call a snap election - enabling those acquitted to contest it freely - and to consolidate his power as PM.”

Sivarajan describes the response of the parliamentary opposition to this attack on democracy as disappointing, because they are still in the parliamentary “numbers game”.

“Horse trading continues amongst [opposition leader] Anwar [Ibraham]'s camp and Mahathir's camp. They are only keen on coming back to power by consolidating support from a majority of MPs. Even though some of their own MPs have been subjected to similar police intimidation, there is no concerted effort by the parliamentary opposition to campaign and rally around these issues.”

Divide and rule

So what prospects are there for a revival of the BERSIH protests seen in previous years?

“While BERSIH has been critical of the freedom of expression and the motion to replace the parliament house speaker, I think it has lost its steam. It’s no longer the central voice to galvanise public dissent against the government,” said Sivarajan.

“There also isn't a common issue to unite the masses.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting on these political developments.

“Working people, post COVID-19, are taking a step backwards from politics to get back on their feet economically,” said Sivarajan.

“Furthermore, people are divided. The Muhyiddin administration has effectively used the migrant and refugee issue to create immense xenophobia among the people. So now a majority of Malaysians are attacking the ‘fall guy’ – the migrants and refugees – while the government is praised for finally tackling the migrant ‘problem’.

“The anger amongst the rakyat [people] when the PH government fell in February has now slowly diminished.

“Racism and xenophobia is at a peak, with mass arrests of migrants, businesses run by migrants attacked, houses rented to migrants now being cleared, Rohingya refugees turned back or deported. The growing support on social media for this inhumane xenophobia is nauseating."

Other groups, besides migrants and refugees, are also being scapegoated.

“Religious authorities have been given a green light to arrest and forcefully rehabilitate people from the LGBT community, especially transgender Muslims,” said Sivarajan.

“The new Perikatan Nasional (PN) Malay-Muslim coalition of UMNO and the Islamic Party (PAS) is on a mission to maximise its power to attack elements considered 'un-Islamic', in the hope of garnering political support from the Malay majority.

“This is the PN's ugly plan to win government.”

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