A statement by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah suggesting that critics of Brunei Darussalam’s new Penal Code may be criminally prosecuted for slander is clearly meant to curb freedom of expression and opinion in the country, the ICJ said.
The ICJ urged the Government of Brunei to ensure full respect for the right of freedom of opinion and expression.
In a speech marking Brunei’s 30th National Day on 23 February 2014, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah said that social media had been used to express opposition to the implementation of the new Penal Code.
He said that those who use social media to express their opinions against the new Penal Code may be committing offences under the General Offences Chapter of the new law. He reportedly characterized some of this expression as amounting to slander, including of the King and of Ulamas, or Muslim scholars. The Sultan also warned that these critics “cannot continue to be allowed to inflict insults” and that they “can be brought to court.”
“Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah’s statement illustrates that human rights, particularly respect for freedom of opinion and expression, is widely disregarded by the authorities in Brunei,” said Sam Zarifi, ICJ’s Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific.
The ICJ has criticized the new Penal Code for being an affront to human rights and at odds with international standards.
The ICJ reiterates its concern that provisions in the new Penal Code are not in accord with the commitment made by Brunei Darussalam as a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to promote and protect human rights in the region.
“Free, unhindered debates on issues like the enactment or implementation of a law are important cornerstones of a democratic society,” said Zarifi.
Freedom of opinion and expression is a right that is affirmed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and guaranteed under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), to both of which Brunei Darussalam is a party. Under international law, any restrictions or limitations must be exceptional, in accordance with the principles of the proportionality and necessity.
The ICJ urged the Government of Brunei to allow free discussion, particular on matters of public importance such as State law and policies and to fully respect the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
Emerlynne Gil, ICJ International Legal Adviser for Southeast Asia, t +66 2 619 8477; email: emerlynne.gil(a)icj.org