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It's time to act against hate speech and hate crimes

MP SPEAKS | The rise of hate speech and hate crimes reflects the seriousness and urgency for the Pakatan Harapan government to formulate an action plan for these acts to be regulated and criminalised.

The recent murder of a transgender in Bukit Tinggi, Klang, and the rise of hate speech targetting ethnicity, religion and even gender call for such a move in Malaysia.

The recent saga that unfolded at the Seafield temple over land dispute and its escalation into a racial and religious matter shows how easily a matter can morph violently into a racial and religious issue.

How many more deaths must Malaysians witness before these deaths are regarded as hate crimes? How many more violent, aggressive, and vile language must Malaysians be the victims of before they are criminalised as hate speech?

In Malaysia, we do not have a specific law to regulate or criminalise hate speech, especially against ethnicities and religious groups or even gender.

While Article 10 of the Federal Constitution declares that every citizen has the right to freedom of speech and expression, this norm is not absolute. Like other countries, there are several restrictions on this freedom in order to protect minorities and people of different ethnicities, religions and sexual orientations and others who suffer from other forms of discrimination and aggression.

In Malaysia, words are sometimes deemed as weapons and more so with the archaic Sedition Act used against voices of dissent and those who have differing views of the government of the day although the intended spirit of the act was to criminalise any intention to “bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against" the government or engender "feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races". The Sedition Act has instead gained notoriety under BN as a tool to silence political critics.

Hate speech and hate crimes constitute a denigration of the reputation of a social group, stereotyped by some national, racial or religious characteristics, accompanied by incitement to hostility, violence and discrimination against the group.

Clear legislation

Racism is one of the main scourges affecting the international community and the same happens in Malaysia as well. It is understandable that hate speech formulated by racist groups, diffused nowadays through many means of communication, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchats and others constitutes an obstacle to overcoming structural racism.

Under international human rights covenants and in other Western democracies such as Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom, hate speech is largely prohibited and subjected to criminal sanctions. In the United Kingdom, section 145 of the Criminal Justice Act imposes a duty upon courts to increase the sentence for any offence under hate crime. Section 146 of this act also extends this aggravated treatment on grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity and disability.

Sections 29-32 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 identify several offences which, if motivated by hostility or where the offender demonstrates hostility, can be treated as racial or religious. This would certainly be the way forward for the Harapan government to formulate a clear legislation to criminalise hate crimes and speech – to use the UK model as a guide and to tailor it according to the Malaysian climate.

In Italy, the police force undergoes training to assist the men in blue to improve their skills in recognising, understanding and investigating hate crimes through the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. This training against hate crimes is something that I truly believe our police force is in dire need of – which is to investigate hate crimes without fear, favour or prejudice.

The government should heed the call of Communications and Multimedia Minister Gobind Singh Deo last September to regulate and criminalise hate speech and hopefully now, hate crimes as well.

It should also pay attention to Minister in the Prime Ministers Department for Religious Affairs Mujahid Yusof Rawa’s submission of three private members' bill to the Dewan Rakyat in 2017, namely the Racial and Religious Hate Crime Bill, the National Harmony Commission Bill and the Equality Bill.

At the end of the day, the spirit and character of the law is to promote peace and respect - keeping the doctrine of the Rukunegara at heart.

Therefore, a legal regime on anti-hate speech is needed and must be complemented with education and awareness on equal treatment, mutual respect, and compassion paired with striking a balance between freedom of speech and repression of hate speech.

In the New Malaysia, it is up to every Malaysian to demolish negative myths concocted and built up by hate speech and in the gravest of cases, the application of criminal sanctions.

KASTHURI PATTO is the MP for Batu Kawan and Wanita DAP international secretary. She also sits on the Parliamentary Special Select Committee on Rights and Gender Equality.

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

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