Malaysiakini Letter

The fine line between hate speech and freedom of speech

Malaysian Progressives United Kingdom (MPUK)  |  Published:  |  Modified:

Had this article been posted by The Malaysian Insider ( TMI ), there is a chance you wouldn’t be reading it right now. Censorship is a growing issue and Malaysia is known to have some of the toughest censorship laws in the world.

In a statement last week, the Foreign Affairs Ministry said that while Malaysia upholds freedom of speech and the right to information, such freedom and right must be exercised responsibly and with accountability.

TMI was banned last month on grounds of national security. No official statement has been released since then, although the ban has been confirmed by Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) enforcement chief Zulkarnain Mohd Yasin.

But TMI was not the first. The Edge was suspended for three months for its coverage of 1MDB, claiming that it threatened public order and national security.

British-based portal Sarawak Report ( SR ) also saw its access blocked because it “violated Internet laws”. SR was responsible for the published reports and documents alleging graft and mismanagement of 1MDB. Actions against the press appear politically motivated, and this worries us.

Self-professed visual activist Fahmi Reza recently released an image of Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak as a clown, alluding to the news that the PM had been cleared of any allegation of corruption by attorney-general Mohamed Apandi Ali. Fahmi’s Twitter account was promptly given a warning by the cyber police.

What was his response? Uploading a parody image of #KitaSemuaPenghasut. Graphic Rebel for Protest and Activism (Grupa) also responded by releasing a slurry of images centred around the clown theme.

One must ask the question of whether censorship is ethically justifiable. The power of visual communication can be seen through graphics by the likes of Shepard Fairey of Obey and the street art of Banksy - they evoke powerful emotions.

Protest placards in recent years have been not just about what’s written on the boards, but also the attention-grabbing typography and colours. This has led to a movement of visual or design activism. In fact, visual activism has the power to incite the people by providing a relatable symbol to unite under.

Fahmi has been questioned by police and the MCMC just last week, investigated under Section 233 of MCMC Act and Section 504 of the Penal Code. This has attracted the US, which has come out strongly to criticise the government over its crackdown on press freedom. It even went as far as suggesting that the extent of press and Internet freedom in the Southeast Asian country could affect prospects for expanded bilateral cooperation.

What are the limits to freedom of speech?

Communications and Multimedia Minister Salleh Said Keruak responded in his blog arguing that freedom of speech is not an absolute right and claimed that: “In the west, the limits of freedom have been pushed beyond what we in the east can accept.”

At the same time, he also mentioned the importance of being critical, saying that “discourse and the exchanging of ideas and opinions are the foundation of advancement and learning” and that Malaysians must able to differentiate between truths, half-truths, innuendoes, and lies.

Should this be his reason for censorship; where should the line be drawn? A balance should exist between protection of an individual’s reputation and maintaining freedom of expression. Salleh is effectively blurring the nuances between the terms ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘hate speech’.

  • Freedom of speech is the right of people to express their opinions publicly without governmental interference, subject to the laws against libel, incitement to violence or rebellion.

  • Hate speech, on the other hand, is speech that attacks, or insults a person or group on the basis of national origin, ethnicity, colour, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability.
  • Hate speech is often the limit to freedom of speech, and it is condemned in many societies. However, in Malaysia, the limits - according to Salleh - is so long as we “maintain peace and safeguard the multiracial values, norms and practices” because “we in the East have limits”.

    Loads of terms are being used, but not explained. To what extent does banning reports and graphics actually promote peace in Malaysia? Does stability refer to the society or the ruling party? Does this view truly represent Eastern values, or are these the government-imposed values? What are Eastern values to begin with?

    Under the Communications and Multimedia Act of 1998, the MCMC specifically referred to Sections 211 and 233 of the Act, which prohibit the provision of “content which is indecent, obscene, false, menacing, or offensive”, it continued, “the improper use of network facilities or network service” to temporarily block SR .

    However, while both of these sections provide for fines as penalty for violating the law, it didn’t justify the act for blocking such a site.

    If a minister could imply that Malaysians should accept the curtailing of freedom of speech, perhaps it is not a surprise that we are looking at an unprecedented amount of media censorships in recent times. We have, for so long, tolerated repressive media controls under this regime.

    It is high time for the law to clearly gazette the nature of prohibited speech, for as long as it remains ambiguous, it is subject to abuse by authorities.

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