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LETTER | Freedom of speech under attack in Malaysia

LETTER | With Malaysiakini's recent contempt of court case, many are left wondering what state our country’s freedom of speech is in. How has freedom of speech been curtailed by this recent case?

In the majority judgement lead by Court of Appeals President Rohanna Yusuf, the Federal Court ruled that Malaysia was liable for third-party comments on its news portal and was fined RM500,000.

This sets a dangerous precedent that news portals and possibly social media sites would have to closely monitor public comments on websites, and are responsible for these comments posted by third parties.

Its implications are two-fold. Firstly that online debate and dialogue would be censored and that secondly, independent and free media would be infringed upon. The practical implications of such liability could mean news portals closing comment sections altogether. A dangerous question would then also be raised, could comments be systematically removed?

As stated by the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), this case stands to limit the reach of the free press especially with the use of Section 114A of the Evidence Act 1950. The 2012 amendment, regressively, states that the publisher of the content is presumed to also be the publisher of comments on the website.

This amendment was met with caution and protest. Several large websites held an Internet Blackout Day on Aug 14, 2012. Perhaps a protest of such is again in order.

The CIJ has reiterated its call for Section 114A to be repealed, and I believe rightfully so. There must be a distinction between a publication’s content and third-party public comments. The former must not be held liable for the latter. This was the minority judgement of the sole dissenting justice, Judge P Nallini.

The media and news play a massive role in educating and providing healthy criticism, this ruling stands in the way of this mission. News without healthy criticism and opinions would constitute plain propaganda; clear oppression of discourse.

A publisher's right to publish

Prior to the Malaysiakini case, news spread that former Attorney-General Tommy Thomas had written a book containing memoirs of his time in Pakatan Harapan’s shortlived federal administration.

While incredibly well-received, becoming a quick best-seller, the authorities went out of their way to unnecessarily raid the publisher’s offices, seizing material following police reports lodged. The publisher’s role in Thomas’ controversial memoirs was to be investigated.

The publisher, Gerakbudaya, should be free to publish material at its own discretion. Freedom of speech is diminished when the state can command what should be published. As Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) Deputy Chairperson  S Arutchelvan commented, "Why are public bodies wasting public funds on pointless investigations?" We see all too clearly that freedom of speech has come under attack.

The people's verdict

These cases set a dangerous precedent, and we should be wary. In my opinion, the judiciary should be taking a more proactive and constructive role in dealing with criticism. Again, in Nallini’s dissenting judgement she lamented that Malaysiakini had taken appropriate steps to combat the ‘objectionable content’.

That being said, I believe that the most important verdict out of this ordeal is, as a Twitter user put it, the verdict of the people. Within hours of news breaking that Malaysiakini was being fined RM500,000, Malaysians poured in by the masses to show solidarity and support with donations and messages of solidarity.

The movement was an extension of the #KitaJagaKita campaign. The judiciary must be wary to stay in touch with the rakyat to avoid the dangerous feeling of an ‘us’ vs ‘them’.

Malaysia and Malaysians deserve mature and independent journalism, manifested by our solidarity. We’ve shown today, that we are willing to pay for it. The judiciary, for all its good faith earned this year, should not turn to censorship and oppressive laws. #KitaJagaKita


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

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