- Human Rights Watch says Malaysia is cracking down on free speech
- There have been several arrests related to the ongoing 1MDB scandal
(CNN)"In a country full of corruption, we are all instigators."
Artist Fahmi Reza wrote those words over a black and white picture of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, defaced to give the politician thick clown make-up and fangs.
He posted the sketch to Twitter as Najib was facing widespread accusations of corruption amid the ongoing scandal around the government owned 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) fund, never expecting it would land him in court.
"It's actually pretty tame if you compare it with what other people on the internet were posting," Fahmi's lawyer Syahredzan Johan told CNN.
"But it became a symbol of dissent against the current administration."
In June, Fahmi was charged with two counts of violating section 233(1) of the Communications and Multimedia Act that forbids disseminating online content deemed to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass others, and faces up to a year in prison and a fine of $11,000. He is also being investigated for sedition.
Fahmi, who has pleaded not guilty, is one of many victims of an ongoing crackdown by Malaysian authorities that is creating a "culture of fear," according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
"Criminalizing peaceful speech appears part of the Malaysian government's larger effort to tighten the noose on anyone expressing political discontent," said Phil Robertson, HRW's deputy Asia director.
Additional crackdowns on free assembly and protest represent a "huge legal overreach, that completely goes against international human rights standards," he added.
"They are criminalizing activity that should be normal in a functional democracy."
'Culture of fear'
Over the last year, the Malaysian government has increasingly criminalized those who criticize Najib's administration, the report claims.
People have been punished after speaking out about the 1MDB scandal, or making comments on social media deemed "insulting" to Najib or Malaysia's royalty.
In June, 19-year-old Mohammed Amirul Azwan Mohammad Shakri was sentenced to a year in prison for insulting the Sultan of Johor -- the ceremonial ruler of the southern Malaysian state -- on social media. After appealing his case, a court ordered Shakri sent to a reform school until he was 21.
The office of the prime minister and the Malaysian ministry of home affairs did not respond to requests for comment.
"This really calls into question Malaysia's reputation as a rights respecting democracy," Robertson told CNN. "When saving the skin of one man, (Najib), is paramount and the rights of citizens become secondary."
Restrictions on free speech and transparency in government have risen as Najib's political fortunes sank, the report claims.
In April, Malaysia used the Official Secrets Act to censor an auditor general's report on 1MDB, and to prosecute opposition politician Rafizi Ramli for allegedly leaking parts of it. The trial is underway, with Ramli facing up to seven years in prison. He refused to enter a defense after the court would not allow the full report to be entered as evidence.
According to HRW, the Malaysian government has threatened to increase punishment for breaching the Act from seven years to life in prison as a means of preventing future leaks, and used the Peaceful Assembly Act to seek to discourage people from holding public assemblies and protests.
There have also been proposals to tighten communications law to require greater media registration and limit speech online, Robertson said.
"If the government had its way it would stuff the internet genie back in the bottle," he added.
Malaysia has a strong political opposition and civil society, Robertson says, but "they need the support of the international community."
In its most recent country report on Malaysia, the US State Department criticized restrictions on free speech and expression, and controls on public assembly.
The European Parliament warned in December that "the space for public debate and free speech in Malaysia is rapidly narrowing as the government resorts to vaguely worded criminal laws to silence its critics."
In response, Malaysia's ministry of foreign affairs said the government "remains committed to uphold the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and the right of freedom of assembly."
Fahmi's lawyer Syahredzan Johan says international criticism has been somewhat effective in the past, particularly in halting use of the sedition act, but prosecutions have also switched to using newer legislation without "the same stigma and colonial baggage."
"At the end of the day, (the government's) need to hold on to power is more pressing," he added.