Legal fund to protect freedom of expression of human rights defenders
December 9, 2020
KUALA LUMPUR: A coalition of civil society organisations (CSO) has joined forces to launch a legal defence fund to protect individuals who speak out on issues of human rights.
This is to ensure their freedom of expression is not suppressed.
Organised by the CSO cluster on Freedom of Expression (FOE), the fund is the first of its kind in Malaysia.
It is currently being financed by a number of international groups which have funded similar overseas initiatives, including hosting crowdfunding efforts.
At a press conference to announce the launch, Centre for Independent Journalism executive director Wathshlah Naidu said the fund comes at an important time as she believes the government has allowed the reform agenda to “take a backseat” to prioritise its own “political survival at all costs”.
She added that “what we have seen for the last eight to nine months is a government that is focused primarily on initiating all efforts to silence dissent or those who are critical and completely shutdown alternate discourses or narratives that challenge or question their positions and policies.”
The fund will cover legal fees and other expenses incurred by human rights defenders and members of the public facing investigation or prosecution due to them exercising their right to free speech.
Applications will go to a committee which will rule on the eligibility of the individuals and decide on the amount of assistance that needed to be meted out.
Firdaus Husni, chief human rights strategist at the Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights, said as freedom of expression is guaranteed under the Federal Constitution, it must be staunchly protected.
She said that numerous instances of “harassment, threats and violations of this constitutional guarantee” had been observed this year. These had intensified the need for a fund to help those without the means to defend themselves.
In addition to the fund, the CSO cluster called for the Sedition Act 1948, the Official Secrets Act 1972 and the Printing Presses and Publications Act to be repealed and for the Finas Act 1981, Film Censorship Act 2002 and Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 to be reviewed.
They said these legal reforms will allow for greater freedom of expression across various mediums. These will allow the public to better hold the government accountable for their actions and policies.