MCA has joined calls for reforms to the role of the attorney-general following the Federal Court’s decision which found news portal Malaysiakini in contempt of court over comments made by readers.
MCA civil society movement coordination bureau chairperson, Ng Kian Nam, said his party was worried that the decision sets a dangerous precedent that suppresses the freedom of speech.
He added that Attorney-General Idrus Harun (above) shouldered responsibility for initiating the contempt proceedings.
“Ultimately, Idrus who initiated the controversial contempt of court suit against Malaysiakini editors deserves some rebuke as he is the initiator of the problem, having brought the Malaysian judiciary to shame and undermined freedom of speech in Malaysia,” Ng said in a statement.
“We also call upon the prime minister to implement structural reforms as soon as possible, such as dividing the attorney-general's role as a government legal adviser and as public prosecutor if criminal cases should be charged, and appoint more suitable candidates for relevant positions.
“Only in this way may the independence of our judiciary system and freedom of speech of our citizens be truly upheld,” he added.
Previously, Dewan Rakyat deputy speaker Azalina Othman, who is also Umno's Pengerang MP, had also called for reforms to the Attorney-General's Chambers.
On Feb 19, the Federal Court ruled in a 6-1 decision that Malaysiakini was guilty of contempt of court.
The offending readers’ comments were removed as soon as the news portal was alerted about them and Malaysiakini CEO Premesh Chandran had also apologised before the verdict.
However, the Federal Court imposed a hefty RM500,000 fine against the news portal even though the prosecution had only asked for a fine of RM200,000.
A call for public support to help pay the fine hit the target within five hours.
Ng said after reviewing the offending comments, he found them to be more directed at the attorney-general than the courts.
“After an in-depth analysis of the contents of the readers’ comment, I believe that in terms of facts, the criticisms against the dropping of charges in former Sabah chief minister Musa Aman’s case, are more inclined towards questioning the integrity of the attorney-general.
“This is because the relevant discretion and right to withdraw the charges are mainly decided by the public prosecutor and has nothing to do with the integrity of the judiciary.
“I believe the court should carefully distinguish between criticisms by readers against the attorney-general and the judiciary system in order to maintain the independence and authority of the judiciary,” he said.
Ng also expressed concern at the use of contempt of court provisions to deal with the matter, stating that defamation laws would have been more suitable.
“I believe that the most controversial issue involved in the Federal Court that dealt with Malaysiakini suit is the privilege on the contempt of court, which is rarely invoked by Malaysian courts.
“This legal procedure is only mentioned in Order 52 of the Rules of Court 2012. It does not have an explicit threshold of conviction like the defamation law, and it is generally only used as a means of control in some ongoing cases in which any party is in an open court,” he said.
Ng added that there were also secondary judicial technical issues, such as Article 114A of the Evidence Act, which presumes news portals as editors of readers’ comments.
He said that any judgment of the judiciary must keep pace with the times, especially on the internet which democratises discussions.
“The Malaysian judiciary should not be overly sensitive against interactive platforms on social media or make judgments that are too protective of the attorney-general,” he said.
Parliament urged to initiate reforms
Meanwhile, Upko expressed concern that the decision would have a chilling effect on the freedom of expression.
It called for a review of Section 114A of the Evidence Act, the provisions related to the contempt of court and also the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Content Code.
In a joint statement, Upko president Wilfred Madius Tangau, Upko deputy president Donald Mojuntin and Upko vice-president Ewon Benedick called for the suspension of Parliament to be lifted so as to allow the issues above to be addressed.
“Even before Parliament may resume its functions, Upko calls upon members of the parliamentary special select committee on fundamental liberties and constitutional rights to hold an unofficial meeting.
“All other concerned MPs should also be invited for the extended group to function as an unofficial cross-party caucus.
“Upko is pleased to notice Umno leaders have voiced their concern on Malaysiakini verdict.
“It is time for Umno parliamentarians to join force with the opposition MPs to defend freedom of expression,” they said.
They said the select committee can start the groundwork to review the legal provisions related to online expression and contempt of court, in preparation for reform efforts when the suspension on Parliament is lifted.
“Media practitioners, members of the three Bar associations, academics and relevant civil society groups can and should be fully involved by providing their professional views on the matters,” they said.