Malaysia’s ongoing criminalization of free speech appears to be part of the government’s larger effort crackdown on political discontent amid a deepening international corruption scandal, Human Rights Watch (HRW) says.

In a new 40-page report released today, the New York-based organization documents Kuala Lumpur’s use of “overbroad and vaguely worded laws” to oppress peaceful speech and assembly, including many instances of draconian social media oversight.

“The authorities should cease prosecuting people for criticism or perceived ‘insults,’ and the government should urgently revise its laws to meet international free expression standards,” HRW deputy Asia director Phil Robertson says.

The Malaysian government has particularly sought to punish individuals who have criticized the administration of Prime Minister Najib Razak and commenting on the multi-billion dollar corruption scandal involving the government-owned investment fund 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), HRW says.

The report notes that Malaysia’s Sedition Act and the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) remain the laws most frequently used against critical speech in Malaysia.

“The government has also gone to great efforts to keep controversial information out of the public view, as seen in its use of the Official Secrets Act to shield reports on the 1MDB scandal from the public,” HRW says, adding authorities have “repeatedly” used the CMA to block websites, including those reporting on allegations of government corruption — including Sarawak Report, Medium, Malaysia Chronicle and Asia Sentinel.

It has also “sought to discourage people from holding public assemblies and protests by deploying the country’s overly restrictive Peaceful Assembly Act.”

The report, “Deepening the Culture of Fear: The Criminalization of Peaceful Expression in Malaysia,” highlights numerous examples of Malaysia’s intolerance of critical speech.

That includes Fahmi Reza, who, in January posted on social media an image of a Najib with a “clown face” and later sold T-shirts with the image on it. Reza faces two criminal charges for the post. And in July, a 76-year-old man was detained for three days after allegedly posting an “offensive” image of Najib in a WhatsApp message.

“Extending the use of the CMA to WhatsApp messages that are circulated to a limited and specific group of recipients is a troubling expansion in use of the law,” HRW says.

It also points to the case of, Mohammed Amirul Azwan Mohammad Shakri, a 19-year-old, who has been sent to reform school for nearly two years after pleading guilty to charges of “insulting” the Sultan of Johor on social media. He was initially sentenced to a year in prison.

Malaysian human rights group Suaram has reported at least 13 cases filed in the first half of the year related to social media posts deemed insulting to the Johor royal family.

HRW says that since publishing a similar report a year ago, the Najib government “has continued to use the many overbroad and abusive laws identified in the report to suppress peaceful expression and assembly.”

“With calls to strengthen some of those laws rather than narrow or repeal them, the situation for activists, political opposition members, and those using social media has deteriorated, harming Malaysia’s democracy and its international reputation,” the report says.

Edited by Olivia Yang