KUALA LUMPUR Human Rights Watch on Thursday expressed concern over planned amendments to a Malaysian media law that would give broader powers to the authorities to stifle online dissent, amid a wider crackdown on free speech and assembly.
The U.S.-based rights group's report comes as Prime Minister Najib Razak battles criticism over his handling of a multi-billion dollar financial scandal at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
"What Malaysia is trying to do is put the internet genie back in the bottle, back to a time when the government had greater control over information received by its citizens," HRW Asia deputy director Phil Robertson told reporters.
Amendments to the Communications and Multimedia Act have not been publicly disclosed. Media reports have said they could require news portals and political blogs to register with the government, increase penalties for offences under the act and broaden powers for the authorities to take down online content.
Neither the prime minister's office nor the communications and multimedia minister, Salleh Said Keruak, responded to requests for comment.
Salleh was previously quoted by the New Straits Times newspaper that the proposed amendments were designed to safeguard against online abuses such as pornography, extremism and gambling.
The HRW report said a rising number of Malaysians were investigated over the past year for criticizing the government. It follows an earlier HRW release last year on the increasing use of criminal laws to stifle dissent.
"We found that there were few countries in Southeast Asia worse than Malaysia when it came to the rapid deterioration of human rights... it's like a bad movie sequel," Robertson said.
Despite a longstanding government pledge not to censor the internet, authorities have blocked several websites and news portals carrying reports critical of 1MDB and Prime Minister Najib.
Authorities have also cracked down on anti-government rally organizers, opposition leaders and activists.
Among them was artist Fahmi Reza, who faces charges under the act for a caricature of Najib with a clown face.
1MDB is the subject of money-laundering investigations in at least six countries. The U.S. Department of Justice filed lawsuits in July to seize dozens of assets from 1MDB, saying $3.5 billion was misappropriated from the fund.
Najib has denied any wrongdoing and said Malaysia will cooperate in the international investigations.
(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Editing by Nick Macfie)