Stop clampdown on campus freedoms, rights group says

Universities in Malaysia should stop using “broadly worded” laws to silence students and restrict debate on matters of public interest, according to Human Rights Watch, or HRW, in a statement issued last week.

Malaysia’s University and University Colleges Act, or UUCA, also known by its Malay acronym AUKU, and university disciplinary rule associated with it prohibit students from taking part in party political activities on campus, joining groups or saying anything that “may reasonably be construed” as expressing support for “any society, organisation, body or group of persons which the Board determines to be unsuitable to the interests and well-being of the students or the university”.

“Universities should be places of open discussion and debate,” Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director, said in a statement issued on 21 February. “Students should not be penalised for peaceful speech under the guise of enforcing school discipline.”

Laws that impose criminal penalties for peaceful expression are of particular concern because of their chilling effect on free speech, according to HRW. These include Malaysia’s Sedition Act, used to target critics.

HRW singled out the University of Malaya for using the UUCA to repeatedly sanction students for speaking out on matters of public interest, ban speakers from campus, and block student assemblies.

It pointed to the most recent example, on 16 February this year, when the university penalised six students for holding a press conference in December 2015 without the university authorities’ permission.

The University of Malaya started disciplinary proceedings after the student revealed at the press conference that the university planned to impose a new monthly limit on students’ internet usage.

On this occasion the students were only delivered a stern warning. But HRW said the University of Malaya has used “the broad discretion granted by the UUCA” to enact disciplinary rules forbidding students from holding any assembly or circulating any document without prior approval, and from conducting themselves in any manner which the university deems "detrimental or prejudicial to the interests, well-being or good name of the University… or to public order, safety or security, morality, decency or discipline”.

In May 2014 the University of Malaya served four student union representatives with 'show cause' letters threatening disciplinary action after the students displayed placards criticising the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, and United States’ actions in the Middle East during an on-campus town hall session attended by US President Barack Obama.

The university alleged their actions had damaged its “reputation and interests”.

Fahmi Zainol’s, then secretary-general of the University of Malaya students’ union, was later suspended by the university for two semesters in November 2014 as punishment for his role in arranging a speech by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, a University of Malaya alumnus, the previous month.

‘Drop all cases’

HRW has called on the Malaysian government to drop all prosecutions and close all investigations based on peaceful expression both on campuses and beyond.

The Sedition Act, separate from UUCA, has been used to charge scholars, students, journalists, lawyers and opposition politicians for speaking out, with the number of cases rising dramatically in the past two years, HRW highlighted in a report released in October. The report criticised “overly restricted laws as a tool of repression” in Malaysia.

The report Creating a Culture of Fear: The criminalization of peaceful expression in Malaysia said the Sedition Act goes well beyond the standard definition of sedition, which has generally been interpreted to require an intention to incite the public to violence against constituted authority or to create a public disturbance or disorder against such authority.

While the government claims that the restrictions on speech in the Sedition Act are intended to deal with “threats against peace, public order and the security of Malaysia”, in both language
and application they sweep far too broadly to justify that claim, according to HRW.

According to Amnesty International, in 2015 alone at least 91 people were arrested, charged or investigated for sedition – almost five times as many as during the law’s first 50 years of existence.

Student activist Khalid Ismath had three sedition charges brought against him in October 2015 for a Facebook post denouncing the Malaysian police for abuse of power. He is currently awaiting trial.

Academic acquitted

In September 2014, a University of Malaya law lecturer Azmi Sharom became the first academic to be charged under the Sedition law for a comment on the constitutional crisis in the state of Perak. The case cast a chill over academics.

However, in a surprise move on 12 February, Malaysia’s attorney general announced he would “discontinue prosecuting” Sharom under the act. The attorney general, Mohamed Apandi Ali, said he was using his discretion to halt the prosecution “in the interest of justice”.

Sharom was acquitted of the sedition charges on 18 February by a Sessions Court.

“Azmi Sharom should never have been prosecuted in the first place," HRW’s Robertson said in a statement. “But at least now there appears to be a flicker of candlelight in the dark tunnel of Sedition Act prosecutions being brought by the Malaysian authorities against numerous lawyers, NGO activists, opposition MPs, and academics.”

The Sedition Act is a colonial-era law introduced in 1948 to combat the independence movement. In 2012, Prime Minister Najib Razak vowed to repeal the law, but reneged on the promise and instead strengthened and widened its scope.