Malaysian lawmakers announced on Friday that they had tightened the country’s draconian sedition law, imposing a minimum jail sentence of three years and empowering the government to remove online content that is found to be seditious.
The country’s Sedition Act comes from the era of British colonial rule, and allows the government to detain any individual for speech that has a “seditious tendency.” The sweeping expansions to the law come after the government used the law to arrest scores of people in recent weeks.
The latest amendments were passed through parliament after over 12 hours of negotiations that dragged on until early Friday, Reuters reported. The new law allows the government to block any electronic media deemed to be seditious, which extends the government’s power to restrict content online.
The law had previously called for a fine of up to 5,000 ringgit ($1,371) and a possible jail term of three years. This will now be replaced by a mandatory sentence of between three and seven years’ imprisonment, said Deputy Home Affairs Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar. After the amendments, the maximum jail term has also been extended to 20 years from the current three years.
Wan Junaidi added that criticism of the government would, however, no longer be considered seditious speech. Inciting religious hatred in the majority-Muslim country is banned.
The Sedition Act was one of a set of laws that Prime Minister Najib Rizak had promised to revoke after protests in 2012, but its use has continued, and has indeed intensified; it has been used to justify the detention of politicians, activists, lawyers and academics in recent months.
Most recently, the law was invoked against five journalists who were affiliated with a news site that published a report on the possible use of strict Islamic punitive law in the country.
"In order to realize our goal of building a stable, peaceful and harmonious state, the Sedition Act has been maintained," Wan Junaidi said on state television Thursday, according to the Malaysian Insider.
The law has been strongly criticized by opposition groups and rights activists, who accuse the government of using it as a tool to crack down on political dissent. "This is a black day for democracy in Malaysia. There is no freedom of speech under this abusive law," opposition lawmaker N. Surendran said, the Insider reported.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein also condemned the amendments and called for the Sedition Act to be repealed. “It is very disappointing that the Malaysian government is now proposing to make a bad law worse," Zeid said in a statement, adding the act has had a chilling effect on “the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression.”
Since 2014, at least 78 people have been investigated or charged under the Sedition Act, the high commissioner said in the statement. This year, so far, Zeid said at least 36 individuals have already been investigated or charged. He urged the Malaysian government to review all such cases.