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[Joint Statement] Malaysia: States must call out violations of civic freedoms at upcoming UN review

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CIVICUS, the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), and SUARAM call upon states to use the upcoming human rights review of Malaysia at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to call out its ongoing failure to fully implement previous recommendations related to civic freedoms.

On 25 January 2024, Malaysia’s human rights record is going to be reviewed at the 45th Working Group Session of Universal Periodic Review (UPR).  In April 2023, our organisations submitted a stakeholder submission for the UPR, where we highlighted a range of issues related to fundamental freedoms and the protection of human rights defenders (HRDs).

Out of the 11 civic space-related recommendations it received in 2018 during the previous cycle of the UPR, Malaysia has only partially implemented three recommendations. The country’s lack of action raises questions on how serious the government is about upholding its international human rights obligations.

Since the last review, the government has continued to arrest and prosecute people for their online criticisms of the state, religion, and the monarchy. This is done primarily through Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) 1998, the Sedition Act 1948, and other laws.

Media outlets and journalists have faced harassment for reports which are deemed to be critical of the government. In fact, many of them have been called in for questioning by the police. Meanwhile, some foreign journalists have been deported. Whistleblowers have also been targeted. Likewise, the authorities have targeted writers and sought to ban books under the restrictive Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) 1984. With impunity, non-state actors have questioned, threatened, and attacked artists.

“The continued failure of the Anwar Ibrahim Government to repeal the Sedition Act 1948 and other restrictive laws makes a mockery of Malaysia’s membership at the UNHRC. The government should use the upcoming UN Human Rights Council review to make commitments to reviewing and repealing these laws in line with their international human rights obligations”, said Mary Aileen Diez-Bacalso, Executive Director of FORUM-ASIA

In the submission, we highlighted how the Peaceful Assembly Act (PAA) 2012 still falls short of international standards. There are onerous requirements in the law to provide detailed information about the protest and its organisers. The law still lacks an exception to the notice requirement for spontaneous assemblies. Furthermore, the law makes it a criminal offence for people under 21 years old to organise and participate in protests. In addition, it denies non-citizens the right to organise or participate in protests.

In recent years–especially during the COVID-19 pandemic–protesters faced intimidation and harassment ahead of protests. Police blocked roads and arbitrarily arrested protesters. Following protests, police have also summoned organisers and participants for questioning. This is a form of harassment and intimidation.

“It is extremely worrying that peaceful protesters continue to face restrictions in holding demonstrations. The police continue to harass peaceful protesters. The Peaceful Assembly Act must be reviewed as recommended by the UN Human Rights Council in 2018 in order to ensure that it is consistent with international law. The police must be instructed to respect and protect the people’s right to peaceful assembly,” said David Kode, Advocacy and Campaigns Lead at CIVICUS.

Our organisations also raised concerns about the judicial harassment experienced by human rights defenders. They also face threats and harassment from non-state actors. HRDs are vilified for the important work they do. There has also been a failure to ensure accountability for the enforced disappearances allegedly carried out by state agents, namely the Special Branch or the police intelligence unit.

The legal framework governing the operations of civil society organisations and political parties–the Societies Act 1966–remains unduly restrictive and heavily burdensome. In recent years, the Act has been used to delay or reject the formation of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and political parties, especially those expressing their opposition.

“The government must take steps to establish a protection mechanism for human rights defenders. It should do more to promptly and impartially investigate all forms of harassment, threats, and attacks made against human rights defenders. It is also time to review the archaic Societies Act in order to fully guarantee the people’s right to freedom of association. Such laws should be used to empower people rather than to block the formation of NGOs and political parties,” said Sevan Doraisamy, Executive Director of SUARAM.

We call on UN member states to echo the following recommendations to the government of Malaysia:


  • Repeal the Sedition Act 1948 and Penal Code sections 298 and 298A. Drop all charges and quash convictions of individuals–who are merely peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression–prosecuted under these laws.
  • Review the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 and the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) 1984 in order to ensure that the legislation is in line with international law and standards on freedom of expression.
  • Amend the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 to fully guarantee the people’s right to freedom of peaceful assembly as provided in international law and standards. Provide an exception to the notice requirement for spontaneous assemblies where it is not practicable to give advance notice.
  • Repeal provisions that prevent children and non-citizens from participating in protests.
  • Halt the systematic questioning and harassment of protesters following protests under the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012.
  • Provide human rights defenders with a safe and secure environment, allowing them to carry out their invaluable work.
  • Conduct impartial, thorough, and effective investigations into all cases of harassment, intimidation, threats, and enforced disappearances endured by HRDs. Bring the perpetrators of such offences to justice.
  • Ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Take active steps to ensure that all domestic legislation is consistent with the treaty.  Its provisions must be implemented in both policy and practice.


Civic space in Malaysia is rated as “Obstructed” by the CIVICUS Monitor