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The Peaceful Assembly Bill (“the Bill”) was tabled in Parliament for its first reading on 22 November 2011. It must be noted that advance notice was not given save for speculation in the media that it would be tabled on 24 November 2011. There appears to be unseemly haste in introducing this far–reaching and crucial legislation without adequate public consultation1.
This Bill in replacing the present legislative provision in section 27 of the Police Act 1967, introduced several controversial and objectionable provisions for instance,
1. prohibition of street protests (defined widely as open air assembly which begins with a meeting at a specified place and consists of walking in a mass march or rally for the purpose of objecting to or advancing a particular cause or causes);2. prohibition of organisation of assemblies by persons below the age of twenty one years;3. prohibition of participation in peaceful assemblies of children below the age of fifteen years;4. unduly onerous responsibilities and restrictions on organisers and assemblies; and5. excessive fines for non–compliance of the Bill.
These restrictive provisions in the Bill stand in stark contrast to the words of the Honourable Prime Minister in his eve of Malaysia Day speech which was widely applauded by the Malaysian Bar (“the Bar”) and Malaysians in the honest belief that there will be real and genuine reforms. The relevant excerpt of the speech is as follows:
“I often opine that long gone is the era in which the government knows everything and claims monopoly over wisdom. …The Government will also review section 27 of the Police Act 1967, taking into consideration Article 10 of the Federal Constitution regarding freedom of assembly and so as to be in line with international norms on the same matter. … (emphasis added)The decisions we make today will determine the fate and shape Malaysia as it will be in the future, the homeland that we will pass on to our children and future generations. The question is, are we capable of surpassing and challenging the common suspicion that Malaysians with their diverse backgrounds, varying socioeconomic statuses and political understandings which are typical of human nature, can arrive at a consensus to not bow or surrender to the trappings of hate and distrust which would certainly drag us down into a valley of disgrace. Instead, let us all brave a future filled with hope and nobility together. …Be confident that it is a strength and not a weakness for us to place our trust in the Malaysian people’s intelligence to make decisions that will shape the path of their own future. …It is absolutely clear that the steps I just announced are none other than early initiatives of an organised and graceful political transformation. It stands as a crucial and much needed complement to the initiatives of economic transformation and public presentation which the government has outlined and implemented for over two years in the effort to pioneer a modern and progressive nation. …It is neither too early nor too late, but this is the most suitable and precise time for such major estimations to be made and implemented. Though some parties opine that this is too risky, we will proceed with it for the sake of survival, as it has been fifty years since our nation achieved independence, and and nearly five decades since Malaysia was formed. Thus, we stand at the threshold of a vehicle that speeds towards its destination as a fully developed nation.In closing, I wish to emphasise that free of any suspicion and doubt, the Malaysia that we all dream of and are in the process of creating is a Malaysia that practices a functional and inclusive democracy where public peace and prosperity is preserved in accordance with the supremacy of the Constitution, rule of law and respect for basic human rights and individual rights.”
The Bar has expressed its view in its Press Release issued on 22 November 20112 and objects to some of the provisions of the Bill3. It recommends that this Bill be referred to a Parliamentary Select Committee which would engage in a public consultation process consistent with the Honourable Prime Minister’s promise of “a Malaysia that practices a functional and inclusive democracy”. In addition, the Bar will introduce draft amendments to the Bill which will be ready by Tuesday, 29 November 2011.
This Report seeks to demonstrate that the Bill is not “in line with international norms” by identifying several key differences of the Bill with other jurisdictions' assembly acts. The extracts of Suhakam’s recommendations in its Report on Freedom of Assembly are set out in Annexure 3.
These differences are categorised and summarised as follows:
1. Prohibition of Assembly
The Bar is stunned and strongly objects that “street protest” (which is a form of assembly in motion or procession already legally recognised in section 27 of the Police Act 1967) is prohibited. Such an assembly in motion is permitted in most if not all of the jurisdictions which we would consider as having a model piece of legislation. There have been several street protests which were peaceful in Malaysia, for instance, the Bar’s Walk for Justice in 2007 and the recent Bersih 2.0 rally.
The Bar is also concerned that the wide definition given to “street protest” as provided for under the Bill can and shall be used to curtail assemblies which may fall under the definition.
2. Prohibited Places
The Bill provides for an outright prohibition against an assembly held at any “prohibited place” and within fifty metres from the said prohibited place. No such prohibition appears in other jurisdictions which we consider as having a model piece of legislation.
3. Children's participation in or organisation of assembly
Section 4 of the Bill prohibits a person below the age of twenty one years to organise an assembly and the participation of a child below the age of fifteen years in an assembly other than an assembly specified in the Second Schedule.
The regulation of the participation of children is restrictive and contrary to our international obligations under the Convention of the Right of the Child (“CRC”) where Malaysia is a signatory. On 6 June 2010, Malaysia withdrew its reservations to Articles 1, 13 and 15 of the CRC, thus allowing children "the freedom to have their say, and the right to form associations and assemble peacefully".
Minister of Women, Family and Community Development, Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil had said on the same day that the government would give children the freedom to have their say and the right to form associations and to assemble peacefully. She said the move was in line with the recognition given to children's rights as they would be the future leaders of the nation.
4. Restrictions of Assembly
The Bar acknowledges that in other jurisdictions, restrictions and conditions may be imposed on public assemblies. In the UK, even though the words 'as appear to him necessary to prevent such disorder, damage, disruption or intimidation' are stated in the Act, the police may only impose conditions based on date, time and duration, place and manner. In Finland and Queensland, conditions may be placed on payment of clean–up costs, any inherent environmental factor, and cultural or religious sensitivity.
However, in the Bill, the police can also impose other conditions or restrictions not found in other jurisdictions. Further, the OCPD is given wide discretionary powers to impose any restrictions other than those specifically mentioned above as he deems necessary or expedient.
5. Notification of Assembly
In the UK, notification is not needed for a public assembly. Notification is required for a public procession in which 6 days notice is to be given before the date of the procession. In Queensland, the arranger of an assembly shall notify not less than 5 business days. In Finland, the arranger of an assembly shall notify the local police at least 6 hours before the meeting. The Act further provides for late notification if the arrangement of the meeting does not cause significant disruption to public order.
The notification period of 30 days is unduly long and not in line with international norms. Further, the Bill ignores the possibility of an immediate public assembly or a spontaneous assembly.
6. Powers of the Police
In Finland, the powers of the police are spelt out extensively in the Assembly Act. Section 20 states where necessary, the police may, before or during the event, issue orders or instructions on the arrangement of a public meeting or a public event for the purpose of maintenance of public safety or security; the prevention of damage to health, property or the environment or the reduction of the damage to the environment; the safeguarding of the rights and interests of bystanders; and the ensuring of the free flow of traffic. Furthermore, in sections 4 and 19, it clearly provides for the positive obligations of the police in promoting and safeguarding the exercise of freedom of assembly.
In Queensland, the powers of the police are spelt out in the Police Powers Responsibilities Act 2000, where the police may give directions requiring a person to either leave the regulated place or be within the regulated place for a reasonable time limit or move from a particular location for a specified period of time.
In the UK, the powers of the police to arrest without warrant subject to certain circumstances are stated in sections 12(7) and 14(7) of the Public Order Act 1986. The powers of the police are spelt out clearly and published to the public. The UK Human Rights Act 1998, particularly section 3 requires the police to interpret and apply their powers in a manner which is compatible to the European Convention on Human Rights.
Section 21(2) of the Bill provides that the police officer, in exercising the power to disperse an assembly may use all reasonable force. The lack of public disclosure of the standard operating procedure employed by the police, such as how it handles crowd control or demonstrations evokes distrust in the public as to how it will apply this provision. The extent of the exercise of the police’s reasonable force should be clearly identified. It is also important to establish the positive obligations of the police in promoting and facilitating all peaceful assemblies.
7. Non citizens
In the UK, Queensland and Finland, the legislation that govern public assemblies do not make a distinction between the right accorded to citizens and non citizens. In the Bill, however, is clearly stated that the right to organise or participate in an assembly does not extend to a non citizen. The Bar recognises that Article 10(1)(b) of the Federal Constitution guarantees freedom of assembly by citizens only. However, section 27 of the Police Act does not distinguish between citizens and non citizens. The Bill therefore takes away the right of peaceful assembly from non citizens which was recognised by section 27 of the Police Act.
This Bill is not “in accordance with the supremacy of the Constitution, rule of law and respect for basic human rights and individual rights” as stated in the speech of the Prime Minister.
The Bar is hopeful that the Honourable Prime Minister will now reconsider this Bill and amend it by way of the process of public consultation, to ensure that Malaysia will have a legislation which truly enforces, protects and promotes freedom of assembly as guaranteed by the Federal Constitution.
Dated this 24th day of November 2011.
1 The Bar was consulted by the Honourable Attorney General on only certain provisions of the Bill and had made known its views.
2 Annexure 1.
3 Further recommendations are contained in Annexure 2.
Press Release: Peaceful Assembly Bill is more restrictive than present law and must be improved
While the Malaysian Bar welcomes the Peaceful Assembly Bill (“Bill”), which recognises the freedom of assembly as guaranteed by Article 10(1)(b) of the Federal Constitution1 , the Bar is surprised that a “street protest”2 is prohibited, as it is a form of assembly in motion, or procession, that is already legally recognised in section 27 of the Police Act 1967. Such an assembly in motion is also permitted in most, if not all, of the jurisdictions that we would consider as having a model piece of legislation.3 Furthermore, there have been several peaceful “street protests” in Malaysia.4
This prohibition as well as certain other provisions were not disclosed to us as being part of the contents of the Bill, during the consultation process between the Malaysian Bar and the Attorney General’s Chambers.
In its present form, the Bill is more restrictive than present law, and must be improved. The Malaysian Bar proposes that the provisions of the Bill be amended, including:
(1) Allow “street protests”, which the Bill recognises – in the definition of an “assembly” – as including a moving assembly. The prohibition of a “street protest” is inconsistent with section 10(e)(viii) of the Bill itself (regarding the notification process), which refers to an assembly in procession;(2) Permit spontaneous assemblies, following the United Kingdom example, where no advance notice is required where it is not reasonably practicable to give such notice (such as protests against declarations of war);(3) Impose a statutory obligation on the police and government (namely the Minister of Home Affairs, in the Bill) to promote freedom of assembly. The model to emulate is Finland, where the government is required to promote the exercise of freedom of assembly by protecting the right to assemble without hindrance and by providing for the necessities of the assembly, and the police is under a duty to safeguard the exercise of the freedom of assembly;(4) Omit certain conditions that the police may impose under section 15(2), namely “the conduct of participants during the assembly” and “any inherent environmental factor, cultural or religious sensitivity and historical significance of the place of assembly”. The objectives of these restrictions have already been catered to in existing law such as the Penal Code, and the First Schedule of the Bill, but in a less restrictive form;(5) Delete the presumption in section 19 regarding who is deemed to be an organiser, because it is an overreaching provision and goes too far;(6) Omit paragraph (c) of section 21(1), which empowers the police to arrest “any person at the assembly [who] does any act or makes any statement which has a tendency to promote feelings of ill–will, discontent or hostility amongst the public at large or does anything which will disturb public tranquility”; and(7) Remove the prohibition on the participation of, and organisation by, children, as it is restrictive and contrary to our international obligations under the Convention of the Rights of the Child (“CRC”), which Malaysia acceded to in 1995. On 6 June 2010, Malaysia withdrew its reservations to Articles 1, 13 and 15 of the CRC, thus allowing children “the freedom to have their say, and the right to form associations and assemble peacefully”.
On the same day, Dato’ Sri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil had said that the government would give children the freedom to have their say and the right to form associations and to assemble peacefully. She added that the move was in line with the recognition given to children's rights, as they would be the nation's future leaders. In Finland, a person who is without full legal capacity but who has attained 15 years of age may arrange a public meeting, unless it is evident that he/she will not be capable of fulfilling the requirements that the law imposes on the arranger of a meeting, while other persons without full legal capacity may arrange public meetings together with persons with full legal capacity.
This Bill, like section 27 of the Police Act, vests wide powers in the police, who are empowered to impose restrictions and conditions, and to disperse assemblies and arrest participants. The police’s past consistent and atrocious conduct in suppressing assemblies shows that it is crucial that the police change their mindset and abandon the culture of impunity in managing freedom of assembly. In other jurisdictions, the power to impose restrictions and conditions vests in the local authority or a procession commission.
Finally, the Minister of Home Affairs is empowered by the Bill to make regulations for the better carrying out of the provisions of the Act. It is important that these regulations facilitate freedom of assembly, instead of further restricting it.
Only when the improvements outlined above are implemented, would we begin to have a legislation in the public interest, which truly upholds, protects and promotes freedom of assembly.
Lim Chee Wee
22 November 2011
1 Article 10(1)(b) provides that all citizens have the right to assemble peaceably and without arms, subject only to such restrictions as Parliament may impose by law as it deems necessary or expedient in the interest of security of the country or public order.
2 Defined in section 3 of the Bill as “an open air assembly which begins with a meeting at a specified place and consists of walking in a mass march or rally for the purpose of objecting to or advancing a particular cause or causes”.
3 Examples include the United Kingdom, Finland and Queensland.
4 For instance, the Bar’s Walk for Justice in 2007, to demand a Royal Commission of Inquiry and the BERSIH 2.0 rally in July 2011. Most recently, a number of peaceful protests against the amendments to the Employment Act 1955 were held nationwide on 3 Nov 2011. It was reported in the media that “[s]everal police officers were seen directing traffic and assisting protesters” at one such protest, in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.
The Bar’s further recommendations of amendments are as follows:
1. The 1st Schedule should be abolished and replaced with the words ‘suitable place’, followed by several characteristics in establishing a suitable place for peaceful assemblies.
2. Section 6 requires the organiser to ensure that he or any other person at the assembly does not commit any offence under any written law. This is an unfair restriction. The duty in ensuring a peaceful assembly falls upon the police and not upon the organisers. Hence, this section should be revised.
3. The imposition of excessive fines should be reviewed.
Extracts of Suhakam Recommendations in Report on Freedom of Assembly
“b. Amendments under 2.2.a to also provide for following:
Organisers of assemblies to notify the Police of the proposed assembly at least 48 hours before the assembly is due to start. This is to enable the Police to arrange for traffic and crowd control.
Assemblies never to be prohibited but conditions may be imposed on organisers to prevent any public disorder, damage to public property or disruption to community life if there is any real threat. Such conditions may relate to the place at which the assembly may be held, its maximum duration or the maximum number of persons who may constitute it. Conditions should not restrict freedom of expression.
If there is opposition to the assembly or a counter–demonstration, the original assembly should not be stopped or prevented from taking place. The opposing assembly or counter–demonstration to be allowed to be present, within sight and sound of the original demonstration, but kept apart to maintain public order.
A distinction to be drawn between static assemblies and processions as processions require greater effort in traffic and crowd control and may result in disorder in some neighbourhoods such that the Police may wish to prohibit the procession from passing through that area.
Organisers of a procession to notify the Police at least ten days before the procession is scheduled to be held.
Similar conditions may be imposed on organisers of processions as for assemblies.
Subject to the above provisions being implemented, processions may be prohibited if the police officer–in–charge applies to the district council for an order prohibiting the holding of any procession in that district for a period of up to three months, on the ground that particular circumstances existing in that district may result in serious public disorder.”