BANGKOK - A leading human rights group is warning that the Malaysian government is increasingly taking a tougher line to limit free speech amid a growing "climate of fear" in public debate, including focusing on ordinary citizens on social media.
The report, released by the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) Thursday, comes amid ongoing pressure on Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak over allegations of corruption linked to the sovereign wealth fund, 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
Human Rights Watch report
The 40-page report says the Malaysian government has sought to curtail debate over the allegations and limit protests calling for Najib to step aside.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said the government is drafting further laws aimed at silencing critics as well as intimidate amid concerns over the political situation in the country.
"What we're seeing is a deepening of the culture of fear in Malaysia and this has intensified over the past two years and particularly since Prime Minister Najib has been called out by citizens and the political opposition in Malaysia about his involvement in the 1MDB financial scandal," Robertson said.
Human Rights Watch says the government is pressing on with legislation to "criminalize peaceful speech and assembly".
Investigations into the allegations are ongoing in Switzerland, Singapore and the United States.
The charges relate to more than $3.5 billion being diverted from the 1MDB fund that Najib set up in 2009. Both Najib and 1MDB have denied any wrong-doing.
Swiss prosecutors Wednesday said they were launching criminal proceedings against the Zurich-based Falcon Private Bank for alleged money laundering activities linked to 1MDB.
Falcon Bank's subsidiary in Singapore was shut down by regulators this week, with authorities arresting the local branch manager and fining him on anti-money laundering breaches.
Other Singaporeans, former private bank employees, have also been charged in cases linked to the 1MDB allegations.
Crackdown on critics of government
The Human Rights Watch report says the government has sought to punish individuals who have criticized the Najib administration commenting on the 1MDB scandal or making comments on social media deemed "insulting to Najib or to Malaysia's royalty".
The rights group said the government has also used the Official Secrets Act to shield reports on the 1MDB scandal from public view.
Robertson says criminalizing peaceful speech is part of the Malaysian government's larger effort to tighten the noose on those expressing political discontent.
"What we've seen is well over 100 persons pulled up on Sedition charges, on communication and media violations which deal with content that are put online," he said.
"What we see is a full-on onslaught by the government against the citizens, certainly the activists but also the political opposition. There is well over a dozen opposition MP's [members of parliament] who are facing political charges," he said.
Political opposition to the government
Among those charged under the Sedition Act is Tian Chua, vice president of the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), who was convicted and sentenced to three months in prison.
Analysts say a further test of the government's harder line on political gatherings is expected to come in November when a new opposition backed party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, or Bersatu (United) Party, is to stage street protects.
Bersatu is led by a former member of the governing United Malay National Organization (UMNO) deputy Prime Minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, who was sacked by Najib after Muhyiddin challenged him over his role in the 1MDB fund.
The Bersatu party is backed by former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad, who had earlier failed to convince the UMNO party to oppose Najib.
The party has also been endorsed by imprisoned de facto opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who is serving a five year jail term for sodomy - charges his supporters say were politically motivated.
The Malaysian government has not yet responded to the Human Rights Watch report.
Source: Voice of America