Brunei’s Tightening Grip on Freedom of Expression

Author: Matthew Woolfe
Published:

In a piece she wrote in 2014, well-known Bruneian journalist Quratul-Ain Bandial lamented the lack of freedom journalists in Brunei have to do their job, noting that although there is no censorship board that vets what the media publishes, journalists continue to live in constant fear of “overstepping the invisible line in the sand that defines what [they] can or cannot say.”

This fear is commonplace in Brunei, where everyone from journalists to the average person on the street watches what they say. Self-censorship is something that Bruneians are conditioned to practice from an early age. For example, children are sometimes told not to ask “wrong” questions about religion or the royal family; the signal from adults is that there are some things they just shouldn’t think too much about. This mentality has created a society where it has become the norm not to question the “wisdom” of the authorities. For those who do, the law can be used to exact a heavy price.

This mentality has created a society where it has become the norm not to question the “wisdom” of the authorities

Like neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia, Brunei has a Sedition Act that can be used to silence dissent. For the most part, a culture of fear has been enough to stop people from speaking out, and there’s been little need to use the law. But the case of former government employee Shahiransheriffudin bin Shahrani Muhammad (also known as Shahiran Shahrani) shows that things might be changing as the authorities increasingly tighten their grip on freedom of expression in Brunei.

Shahiran’s story

On 16 July 2017, Shahiran Shahrani did what many of us do on a daily basis without much thought: he logged into his personal Facebook account and posted a few comments about different issues. Less than two weeks later, on 27 July 2017, Shahiran was charged under Section 4 (1)(c) of the Sedition Act, which relates to the publication and distribution of anything deemed seditious.

An avid and outspoken blogger, Shahiran frequently shares with his followers his frustrations and reactions to government policy and the direction in which Brunei is heading. That night, he’d shared his concerns and criticisms of new government regulations on halal certification that were being introduced by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and how those regulations would affect small businesses. His comments struck a chord and Shahiran’s post went viral.

Brunei’s Sedition Act broadly defines “sedition” as any act that has the intention, among other things, of bringing into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the country’s Sultan and Government or to raise discontent or disaffection amongst the people. The country is ruled under an absolute monarchy; although there is a parliament, no elections have been held since 1962.

Brunei Freedom of Expression - New Naratif
Nur Khalisah Ahmad

While it’s hard to see how a post about halal certification could be construed as having “seditious intent”, the Brunei Government nevertheless chose to pursue the charge against Shahiran.

If found guilty under Section 4 (1)(c) of the Sedition Act, Shahiran faces two years imprisonment and a fine of B$5,000 (US$3,669). But the Sedition Act isn’t the only thing he has to worry about: he’s also facing charges for contempt of religious authority under Section 230 of Brunei’s Syariah Penal Code.

These charges have never been made public and the Ministry of Religious Affairs didn’t provide Shahiran with a copy of the charge sheet despite numerous requests to do so. From what was verbally communicated during his interrogation at the Ministry of Religious Affairs and from a statement that was made by a ministry official at his trial, Shahiran understands that he’s being charged with insulting or opposing a royal decree on religious matters, insulting a member of the Muslim Council, and questioning the rulings of the Muslim Council. The trial for these charges has been scheduled to commence at the conclusion of Shahiran’s sedition trial; if found guilty under syariah law, he’ll face a combined total of nine years’ imprisonment and B$16,000 (US$11,748) in fines, on top of any sentence he might receive for the sedition charge.

Coverage and awareness

While cases like Shahiran’s are rare in Brunei, they serve to perpetuate a chilling effect, reminding Bruneians to shy away from topics perceived to be politically sensitive. Such cases usually don’t even need to lead to court hearings or convictions; although not the country’s first sedition case, Shahiran’s is the first to go to full trial.

Yet this distinction doesn’t appear to have been enough for Brunei’s media to write about the case. There’s barely a mention of Shahiran’s charges in the local press. A former journalist told me that this was likely because the local media approaches anything to do with religion and the Ministry of Religious Affairs with extreme caution; sedition is also a very sensitive topic that news outlets tend to shy away from.

They have every reason to be concerned. The country’s restrictive media laws and regulations allow the government to close a newspaper without giving prior notice or showing cause, and newspaper publishers and editors may be prosecuted if they’re found to have published anything considered to have seditious intent. Journalists who produce material deemed “false and malicious” may be fined and imprisoned.

While cases like Shahiran’s are rare in Brunei, they serve to perpetuate a chilling effect

In November 2016, Brunei’s second largest newspaper, The Brunei Times, was forced to shut down after reportedly being issued with an official order to “cease publication and operations”. Although management at the paper cited “business issues, reporting and journalistic standards… and issues relating to business sustainability” as reasons for the sudden closure, it’s widely speculated that the order for the paper to be shut down followed a complaint filed by the Saudi Embassy over an article The Brunei Times published two weeks earlier about an increase in Hajj and Umra visa fees for Bruneian residents. At the time of the paper’s closure, all employees of The Brunei Times were made to sign a non-disclosure agreement preventing them from discussing the reasons for its closure.

It’s not only the local media that has refrained from reporting on anything that may portray Brunei in a negative light. Prior to news spreading that the Brunei Government was about to fully enact the final phases of the Syariah Penal Code, Brunei barely received a mention in international media reports. Even last year’s indictment of two of Brunei’s most senior judges for allegedly embezzling more than B$7 million (US$5.1 million) from Brunei’s court system wasn’t enough to attract much attention from regional and international news outlets. This lack of interest on the part of the international media has helped perpetuate the false impression among the outside world that, for the most part, Bruneians are happy with the status quo and wholeheartedly entrust their government to always act in their best interests.

In a troubling sign for the future of freedom of expression in Brunei, an unnamed woman was in February 2019 taken in for questioning under the Sedition Act by the Royal Brunei Police Force over a series of WhatsApp messages she had sent criticising the police. While few details are known about the case and whether further legal action is being taken against the woman, the police force confirmed in a statement on their website that officers had detained a woman after receiving reports about several messages being circulated on WhatsApp. The statement went on to remind the public that anything deemed to be incitement and contempt of government servants is a serious offence.

The implementation of the final phases of the Syariah Penal Code in April has placed further limitations on free speech and freedom of expression in Brunei

The implementation of the final phases of the Syariah Penal Code in April has placed further limitations on free speech and freedom of expression in Brunei. While most of the media attention focused on the brutal penalty of death by stoning for gay sex and adultery, less noticed was the fact that blasphemy and declaring oneself as non-Muslim (apostasy) are now offences punishable by death, imprisonment or whipping. Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has since announced that the country’s long-standing de-facto moratorium on executions will continue, but the fact remains that disproportionate penalties have been stipulated in ways that will further entrench a climate of fear. And, as Shahiran’s case indicates, it seems that aspects of the Syariah Penal Code that restrict free expression will be wielded far more often against Bruneians than clauses that target the LGBT community.

Yet, despite the Brunei government’s tightening grip on free speech, opposition to the new syariah laws is seeing an unprecedented number of Bruneians coming out and publicly criticising the government on social media platforms. It remains to be seen how the government will respond to a more vocal population and what it will mean for freedom of expression in Brunei once all of the international attention shifts away once more.

In November 2018, Shahiran fled to Canada, where he is currently seeking asylum.  The prosecution in his sedition case has indicated that they will pursue the charge against him in absentia.  The status of Shahiran’s syariah charges is unknown.

* CORRECTION: In the original version of this piece we mistakenly wrote that the fines Shahiran faces under syariah law was BN$6,000. The amount is actually BN$16,000. We have corrected this; apologies for the error.

 

Illustrations by Nur Khalisah Ahmad
Nur Khalisah Ahmad is a Visual Artist & Founder of Kaleidoscope Studio (Ks.Bn), a social enterprise and creative agency dedicated to nurturing the arts in Brunei. Her vision is to inspire positive change through design and art. She works with NGO’s and artists to design events and awareness-raising campaigns about social and environmental issues. Reach her at Lisa@KSbrunei.com.

Matthew Woolfe

Matthew Woolfe is the Australia-based founder of The Brunei Project, an independent initiative that raises awareness about human rights issues in Brunei.

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