KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA — In the hours leading up to prominent Malaysian graphic artist and activist Fahmi Reza’s release from police detention on Saturday evening (24 Apr), civil society groups have condemned his arrest under the Sedition Act for allegedly insulting the nation’s Queen.
The offending content entails a playlist Fahmi had made on Spotify titled “This Is Dengki Ke?” — a play on one of the most commonly seen playlist names on the music streaming platform and the Queen’s recent remarks on social media.
“Dengki Ke?” refers to Permaisuri Agong Tunku Azizah Aminah Maimunah Iskandariah’s Instagram comment reply on her now-deleted post on 19 Apr.
She was responding to a user who had asked her if the palace chefs had been vaccinated after the queen posted several pictures of dishes that she and the chefs had prepared.
The user’s comment was one of the multiple comments made by social media users after a controversial report by Asia Sentinel alleged that the King and his family were among several members of the Malaysian elite who had received the Sinopharm vaccine in the United Arab Emirates in Jan.
The vaccine has yet to receive regulatory approval from Malaysia’s health authorities.
According to Asia Sentinel’s unnamed sources, Sultan Abdullah was given an additional 2,000 doses for his family and friends to bring back to Malaysia.
The excess vaccines “were used for business partners and friends”, Asia Sentinel wrote.
Written in informal Malay, “Dengki ke?” roughly translates to “Are you envious?” or “Are you jealous?”
As anger began to mount among social media users, particularly on Twitter, the Queen then deactivated her Instagram account. She had, however, returned to the social media platform on Tuesday morning.
Queen Azizah’s portrait graces the cover art for Fahmi’s 101-track playlist. The description of the playlist read: “100 dengki songs, all in one playlist. Fuck censorship.”
After receiving numerous reports, Spotify had repeatedly removed the cover image, title and description of the playlist, which prompted Fahmi to upload the playlist on Apple Music.
— Fahmi Reza (@kuasasiswa) April 23, 2021
Bukit Aman Criminal Investigation Department director Huzir Mohamed said that Fahmi was held in remand for a day after being apprehended on Friday evening (24 Apr).
Other than the Sedition Act, Fahmi is also being investigated under Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998.
Communications and Multimedia Minister Saifuddin Abdullah, however, told Bernama on Saturday that his Ministry will not interfere in the investigations and will leave the matter in the hands of the police.
Rights groups such as SUARAM have since called for his release. Fahmi was released at 6.01 pm on Saturday.
Solidarity for Fahmi Reza. @kuasasiswa political graphic activist was arrested by the polis and being kept at Dang Wangi Police District Headquarters.
— Suara Rakyat Malaysia (@SUARAMtweets) April 23, 2021
National Human Rights Society (HAKAM) president Gurdial Singh Nijar questioned the need to arrest Fahmi over the playlist, saying that the police can call the artist “for an interview during working hours if they need anything”.
“This police action seems to be overreaching and has earned the ire of people who view this as premature punishment to imprison Fahmi in a police cell,” he said in a statement.
Gurdial opined that Fahmi was “doing little more than exercising his literary licence to present a satire around a comment making the public rounds”.
MISI: Solidariti in a tweet said that Fahmi’s arrest signals to the people that “the elites will insult us, exploit us, and the police will protect them when we speak up”.
“The people will not be fearful of the elites’ threats,” it said.
Penangkapan Fahmi Reza adalah mesej kepada Rakyat
Golongan elit menghina kita, mereka mengeksploitasi kita, dan polis akan melindungi mereka apabila kita bersuara.
Rakyat tidak akan gentar digertak golongan elit.#KitaSemuaPenghasut
— MISI: Solidariti (@MSolidariti) April 23, 2021
ARTICLE 19 urged the police and other Malaysian authorities to cease their harassment of Fahmi, whose arrest last night was done by forced entry into his residence and “leaving a hole in his front door”.
The latest investigation against Fahmi, it said, is “a further example of the government’s use of Malaysia’s legal framework to harass activists and stifle political commentary”, given how the artist was already questioned about political caricatures he posted on social media last month.
Nalini Elumalai, ARTICLE 19’s Malaysia Programme Officer said in a statement that “criminalising humour and critical commentary will stunt political discourse and chill civic engagement”.
The Sedition Act — a colonial relic — and the Communications and Multimedia Act, said ARTICLE 19, are “pieces of legislation that have been aggressively applied by the authorities against human rights defenders, journalists, political opponents, and members of the public”.
“They serve to protect the most powerful institutions—often referred to as the 3Rs: race, religion and royalty—while arbitrarily restricting criticism, dissent, and in Fahmi’s case, political satire,” it said.
ARTICLE 19 said that the broad, ambiguous wording of the Acts render them “highly vulnerable to abuse” and easily arbitrarily applied “to suppress criticism of the government or monarchy”.
“Fahmi’s arrest reminds us that the campaign to abolish the Sedition Act and Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act must continue,” said Nalini.
“These laws threaten artists, activists, and ordinary Malaysians who wish to express a controversial opinion or simply make a joke at the expense of a powerful individual,” she added.
A well-known political dissident in Malaysia, Fahmi was previously jailed for a month in 2018 and fined RM30,000 for drawing and publishing a caricature of then-Prime Minister Najib Razak in the form of a clown.
Fahmi said in a statement through his lawyers on Saturday that parody and satire as a form of protest “should continue to be allowed to be practised and defended”, particularly “in a country where a graphic artist is being censored, arrested and locked up for his artwork”.