Sedition - strangling free speech for centuries

Jasmine Cho


LETTER | If you are even minimally interested in politics and human rights, you will have heard of someone being detained or charged under the Sedition Act 1948.

Just yesterday, headlines about the Muslim preacher Wan Ji Wan Hussin, whose sedition sentence was extended to a year, jumped out from the news. But what exactly is this law with the strange name, and how is it one of the biggest threats to a democratic and free society in Malaysia?

The exact definition of the law is an act that criminalises speech with “seditious tendency”, meaning any speech that would “bring hatred or contempt or to incite disaffection against” or engender “feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races”.

It is a lot of complicated words strung together, but if you are left scratching your head after reading that description, join the club. The definition of the law is so vague and ambiguous that it makes the perfect weapon for the government and judicial courts to silence their critics.

The sedition silencing was used with vengeance during former prime minister Najib Abdul Razak’s term. You criticise the prime minister? Sedition. You insult a judge on your social media accounts? Sedition. You write a blog that the royals find distasteful? Sedition.

Pakatan Harapan was aware of the dissatisfaction of activists and regular citizens regarding the trend of using this law to curb free speech, and pledged to repeal these laws in their election manifesto, emphasising that they would not target individuals who wish to peacefully express their opinions.

But, as we have seen time and time again, it seems that, once in power, Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his coalition have let these promises slip their minds. At least six activists continue to face charges under the Sedition Act for engaging in activities protected under international law.

Right now, Malaysian citizens are in shock at the rejection of Wan Ji’s appeal against his conviction for making seditious remarks against the Selangor sultan on Facebook seven years ago.

Let that roll around in your mind for a bit. A Facebook post from seven years ago about the sultan of Selangor is reason enough to extend this poor man’s prison charge to at least a year.

It’s not hard to recognise the utter hypocrisy going on here - the same government that pledged to rid Malaysia of a law that strangles free speech is now using that very law to silence anyone who criticises their and the royalty’s authority.

A government lawmaker, Charles Santiago, put it simply when he stated that the continued use of the government to target people under the ruse of sedition “could give rise to the perception that Pakatan Harapan is opportunistic”. This episode, like many before, has cast major doubt concerning Harapan’s sincerity when it comes to creating a truly democratic Malaysia.

We must not forget the roots of this debilitating Sedition Act. It is based on one of Britain’s oldest laws, an archaic edict tracing back to times where no one questioned the divine rights of the royalty, the clergy, or the feudal system - meaning anything said against the authorities was equal to blasphemy.

When one was accused of sedition, a session was held in secrecy. There were no charges, right of appeal, juries or witnesses and once convicted, the guilty party was sentenced to death.

Are we that backwards that in a supposedly democratic country like Malaysia, we still maintain a law with such outdated connotations? One that keeps a hand pressed against the mouth of free speech?

It is time for Harapan to make the repeal of the Sedition Act a priority and stop the fake promises. We want to squash the fear of police knocking at our door for expressing our opinion. We deserve free speech, and we demand it now.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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