KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia's leader said Thursday that a colonial-era law curbing free speech will be retained and strengthened, backpedaling on a pledge two years ago to abolish the Sedition Act as part of political reforms.
The law, introduced by the British in 1948, criminalizes speech or actions with an undefined "seditious tendency," including that which promotes hatred against the government or incites racial discord.
In a speech opening a three-day assembly of his ruling Malay party, Prime Minister Najib Razak said it will be bolstered to include provisions to defend Islam and other religions, and to act against those calling for the secession of Sabah and Sarawak states on Borneo island. Party delegates clapped loudly in approval.
Rights groups have for years slammed the law as restraining free speech and as a tool by the government to silent dissent. At least 14 people including opposition lawmakers, academics and a journalist have been charged under the law since last year, mostly for criticizing the government or ruling officials. Those found guilty face up to three years in prison and a fine.
Human Rights Watch called the move a "major reversal of human rights."
In 2012, Najib said the law represented a "bygone era" and will be replaced with a new law to prevent the incitement of religious or racial hatred. Earlier that year, he also revoked a draconian security law allowing detention without trial and eased public assembly rules.
Najib's coalition performed poorly in 2013 general elections, and some rights groups interpreted his announcement as an attempt to strengthen his grip on power.
The Malaysia-based rights group Movement to Abolish Sedition Act, said it was "deeply disturbed and outraged" by the move, saying the sharp rise in sedition charges in the recent year showed that Najib's government was still reliant on the law to control and suppress dissent.
"There is no room for the Sedition Act in a democratic and modern Malaysia," it said.
New York-based Human Rights Watch warned that social activists and opposition politicians could face a renewed crackdown as the law gives the government the discretion to declare almost anything seditious.