Malaysia has strengthened its controversial sedition law, imposing a minimum jail term of three years and allowing the government to block online media deemed to be seditious, lawmakers said on Friday.
The toughening of the Sedition Act, which dates back to British colonial rule, comes after a crackdown in which scores of people have been detained under the law in recent weeks since opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was jailed in February on sodomy charges.
The latest amendments to the law passed through parliament after more than 12 hours of debate that dragged into the early hours of Friday. The changes drew criticism at home and abroad, including from the United Nations.
Under the new law, the government can block electronic media that is deemed to be seditious, extending its reach into Malaysia’s largely uncontrolled online media landscape.
Last month, authorities arrested editors from an online news portal for sedition, sparking outcry over the wide usage of the law.
Harsher penalties for those convicted under the amended law include the removal of a fine of up to 5,000 ringgit ($1,371) and a possible jail term of three years, to be replaced by a mandatory jail term of between three and seven years, said deputy home affairs minister Wan Junaidi Tuaku Jaafar.
Despite the harsher punishment, criticism of the government or the judiciary will no longer be regarded as seditious, Wan Junaidi said.
Courts will also determine whether a person charged under the act can be released on bail, although suspects can be prevented from leaving the country.
Earlier this week, Malaysia passed an anti-terrorism bill allowing for the reintroduction of detention without trial, which had been removed under Prime Minister Najib Razak’s ambitious reform agenda in 2012.
The Sedition Act was one of a series of laws that were meant to be repealed. However, Najib held back after disastrous election results in 2013 and the law has since been used against opposition politicians, journalists, academics and activists.
“You have to bear in mind that circumstances change. From time to time, we need to re-evaluate things,” Najib said late on Thursday.
The government move to toughen the Sedition Act further was criticised by opposition politicians and rights groups, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
“It is very disappointing that the Malaysian Government is now proposing to make a bad law worse,” Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein in a statement before the parliament vote.