An Australian-based journalist has been briefly detained and is under investigation for sedition in Malaysia after editing a book that was later banned by the Malaysian government.
Kean Wong is a Malaysian citizen but a permanent resident of Australia, where he has lived and worked for about 30 years.
He was detained in Malaysia on Monday while trying to renew his passport, his supporters say, but released on Wednesday morning.
According to a statement posted online by Article 19, a charity that supports free speech and civil society, Wong was under investigation for editing Rebirth: Reformasi, Resistance, And Hope in New Malaysia.
The book was banned on 1 July 2020 as the government deemed it potentially prejudicial to public order, security, and national interest, according to the statement.
“Kean Wong’s arrest, after 3 years from the time the book was banned, demonstrates the State’s concerted effort to suppress the public’s ability to both inform and to speak out without fear of censorship,” the statement said.
“We urge the authorities to cease all investigations with immediate effect and demonstrate their commitment to upholding the rights bestowed upon the people by the Federal Constitution of Malaysia and under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“The Sedition Act and the Printing Presses and Publications Act are archaic legislations with broad provisions, often arbitrarily used as a weapon to silence any critic.”
Wong was detained at the Kelana Jaya Immigration Office while applying for passport renewal and he was taken into police custody at Dang Wangi police station, according to the statement.
Guardian Australia has attempted to contact Wong’s family for comment. The office of the foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, was also contacted for comment.
In a statement, a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson said the Australian High Commission in Kuala Lumpur had raised the matter of Wong’s detention with the Malaysian government prior to his release.
“Australia fully respects the independence of Malaysia’s justice system. We will continue to monitor the case closely.”
A Malaysian police official confirmed Wong remained under investigation in a statement published by the New Straits Times.
The Federal Criminal Investigation Department’s director Datuk Seri Mohd Shuhaily Mohd Zain also confirmed Wong was being investigated because of the book’s cover, which features a modified national coat of arms.
The book featured articles from New Mandala, a website that publishes writing about south-east Asia and is based at the Australian National University.
Human Rights Watch have repeatedly warned against the crackdown of Malaysian authorities on free speech, including detaining comedians and artists for material including satirical Spotify playlists and cartoons.
Article 19 and the other organisations, including Amnesty International Malaysia, said the Malaysian government should repeal sedition laws, as it had promised.
“In the interim, we request that a moratorium be imposed, pending repeal or amendment of such legislations.
“We ask all interested parties to support the protection of the inherent right of all to freedom of expression.”
According to his biography on the Griffith Review, Wong is based in Sydney and has worked as a journalist and editor in Australia, Asia, Europe and the US for the BBC, the Economist, the ABC, the Australian Financial Review, the Straits Times of Singapore, the Sun of Malaysia and BFM Radio.
He also co-founded Malaysia’s Centre for Independent Journalism and is a committee member of the Australia Asia-Pacific Media Initiative and the Malaysia and Singapore Society of Australia, according to a biography published for a recent event hosted at ANU.