KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - A wave of criminal charges and police probes targeting critics of Malaysia's embattled new government has rights groups worried the country is backsliding on free speech protections following the brief spell of a reform-minded administration.
They say at least eight people have been charged or summoned for questioning for critical social media posts about the government, police or royals since May 6, including opposition lawmakers, journalists and the head of a clean government watchdog group.
"We are beginning to see a reverting to the old government ways where not only were people called in for questioning — people are now getting charged and brought to court," said Thomas Fann, chairman of the local pro-democracy group Bersih.
"They want to send a very strong message that they won't be tolerant of any sort of dissent against them," he said.
Malaysia's long-ruling and corruption-mired Barisan National government was toppled in a 2018 general election that ushered in a reformist coalition led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. But the coalition collapsed this past February when breakaway lawmakers joined forces with the lead party of the previous government, setting off a leadership tussle that saw Malaysia's king name one of the defectors, Muhyiddin Yassin, the new prime minister.
The king claimed Muhyiddin had mustered the support of a majority of lawmakers, but that has yet to be tested with a vote in Parliament. Critics of his "back door government" meanwhile bemoan the political horse-trading that has allegedly kept it together and want to see fresh general elections.
Fann said the investigation and prosecution of government critics had tapered off after Barisan's defeat two years ago and that he feared the recent spike will pressure some lawmakers and journalists to self-censor.
"And that's a real shame because we were beginning to see an opening-up of the media, you know, where media [were] becoming more vocal, more independent." he said.
Among those who have run afoul of the new government is Cynthia Gabriel, founding director of the independent Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism. She was summoned by police for questioning on June 10 over an open letter she penned urging the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission to investigate the horse-trading allegations and possible payoffs to buy lawmakers' loyalties.
Gabriel called her ordeal "an act of intimidation and harassment" meant to silence her and others while Muhyiddin's nascent government was still on shaky ground.
"There are so many factions within political parties and the power grab has never been more intense," she said. "So in all that uncertainty of holding on to power, criticism and dissent have become a major victim as authorities use their power to shut us up and instill fear of a more authoritative state."
Also summoned recently was an opposition lawmaker, Xavier Jayakumar, who criticized the government's decision to shorten a sitting of Parliament on May 18, effectively bumping a planned no-confidence vote off the agenda.
Among those charged have been a blogger over posts about the prime minister and king and a former radio personality for a post that allegedly offended a crown prince.
Malaysia's Center for Independent Journalism said such charges overstepped any legitimate need to preserve public order.
"We need an enabling environment that promotes critical thinking and healthy debates that would uphold democracy and good governance," executive director Wathshlah Naidu said.
"It is time that we reject actions of the state to silence dissenting voices so that freedom of expression and speech can flourish in Malaysia."
International rights groups Article 19 and Human Rights Watch have also chimed in.
“Malaysians should be able to criticize their government and its policies without fear of facing police questioning and possible criminal charges,” HRW deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said in a statement.
Rights groups place part of the blame on the laws the authorities are using for being overly broad, including sections of the Penal Code, Communications and Multimedia Act and Sedition Act. They have been urging the authorities for years to amend them so as to limit the potential for their abuse.
Fann, of Bersih, said Mahathir's administration missed its chance to do so. Had they managed, he added, "I think we would not be in this position where [critics are] as vulnerable as we are now."
The prime minister's press secretary and political secretary refused VOA's requests for an interview. The press secretary for the Home Affairs Ministry, which oversees the national police, also refused. The national police and attorney general's office did not reply to requests for comment.