The lines have been drawn and are very clear
Free speech and Malaysians are the target
MALAYSIA’S ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional (BN), bulldozed and bullied its way into passing a raft of legislations last week, sending a very clear message to the rakyat (citizenry) it is supposedly sworn to protect and serve: Be afraid. Be very afraid.
The new Bills and amendments to existing Bills, universally slammed by domestic and international civil advocates, organisations and (non-government-owned) media, remove all pretence of moderation or liberalism that Prime Minister Najib Razak’s spin-doctors have been spouting since he took office in 2009, after his predecessor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was ousted in an internal power play.
They firmly establish the fact that the Najib Administration only cares to hold on to its rule – for it can be described no other way – with any means at its disposal, fair or foul.
With BN holding a simple majority in Parliament, despite having lost the popular vote in the 13th general election in 2013 (GE13), the passing of the new legislations was a foregone conclusion.
After a stumble early in the week, which saw the Prevention of Terrorism Bill (POTA) 2015 being passed with nary a whimper, the Federal Opposition – the Pakatan Rakyat alliance – rallied and gave a good fight, even becoming embroiled in a 12-hour debate.
All sorts of other records were broken: The first meeting of the Third Session of the 13th Parliament, which sat for 20 days beginning March 9, was adjourned sine die (or without a fixed day for its next meeting) at 4.25am on April 10 after the longest sitting in a day in the history of the Dewan Rakyat.
During the sitting, the Dewan Rakyat (or the lower house) approved 12 bills, comprising six new bills and six amendment bills, according to national news agency Bernama. Eight other bills tabled for first reading and second reading during the session were adjourned to the next sitting. The laws will still have to be approved by the Dewan Negara (the Senate) and ratified by the Yang DiPertuan Agung (the Ruler in Malaysia's constitutional monarchy) before they go into effect.
It is the POTA and amendments in the Sedition Act that are of gravest concern when it comes to the rights of Malaysians to free speech. Together, they allow for indefinite detention without trial, and remove the check-and-balance of a judicial review, as noted in numerous reports in the media.
In a statement issued from Geneva, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said, “The UN Human Rights Office has long urged Malaysia to either repeal the 1948 Sedition Act or to bring it in line with international human rights standards.
“It is very disappointing that the Malaysian Government is now proposing to make a bad law worse,” he was reported as saying by The Malay Mail Online.
After the POTA was passed, The Economist described ours as “a thuggish government” and said it was “time to call Mr Najib out on the widening gulf between spin and substance.”
The Malaysian Bar called it “a repressive law that is an affront to the rule of law and repugnant to the principles of natural justice,” adding that it was “a shameless revival of the Internal Security Act 1960 (ISA), Restricted Residence Act 1933, Banishment Act 1959 and Emergency (Public Order and Prevention of Crime) Ordinance 1969, all of which were previously repealed or revoked in 2011 or 2012.”
“By introducing POTA, Malaysia also violates her international commitment to abide by UN Security Council Resolution 2178, passed unanimously on Sept 24, 2014,” the Malaysian Bar president Steve Thiru said in a statement.
“It is unacceptable that Malaysia – as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council – has adopted a course of action that contravenes a resolution of that very same body,” he added.
Saying that it was outraged and disappointed at how these pieces of legislation were pushed through, civil advocacy non-governmental organisation Empower said it was “appalled, in particular, by the substance of the amendments to the Sedition Act.”
“Provisions with regards to electronic media and devices are unacceptably broad and vague. The amendments include a provision that empowers the Session Court to prohibit a person from accessing any ‘electronic device,’ with no definition as to what would constitute an ‘electronic device.’
“As a penalty it is disproportionate to the alleged crime and opens the door to ridiculous extremes in interpretation, making it near-impossible for a person to function in modern society. It amounts to a total denial of their right to not only freedom of expression, but to full participation in public life,” Empower president Janarthani Arumugam said in a statement to the press.
Who are you protecting?
It’s obvious that the ruling coalition fears the democratising effect of the Internet. Directly or indirectly owning most mainstream media outlets, BN has been too used to controlling the narrative, and has never got used to the idea of the Internet.
In fact, after the historic 2008 general election, when it won by only the slimmest of margins, Abdullah – then still the premier – told an investors' conference that it had been “a serious misjudgement” on the BN’s part to have relied solely on the government-controlled mainstream media.
Since then, it has trained what it calls ‘cybertroopers’ to counter what it describes as lies and misinformation on the Internet, but these have merely been preaching to the choir, or just make ‘sniper attacks’ on online discourse, especially on Twitter and Facebook.
Seeing the Internet as a propaganda battlefield, and not as a means to engage with the electorate and encourage public discourse – something that Pakatan has been guilty of as well, at times – the Najib era has seen a turning of the screws; at times subtle, in more recent times, very much in-your-face.
The first sneak attack was of course the controversial amendments to the Evidence Act in 2012 which saw the burden of proof being shifted: You’re presumed guilty until proven innocent, in cases of online defamation or sedition.
As noted by lawyer and Digital News Asia (DNA) columnist Foong Cheng Leong last week, when read with the Evidence Act amendments – the infamous Section 114A – the Sedition Act amendments become more chilling.
The Sedition (Amendment) Bill 2015 creates liability to ‘any person’ and “thus may include owner, host, editor and subeditor” of “online forums, online news portals, and even Facebook Page/ Group owners,” he wrote.
“Sections 3 and 4 of the Bill introduce the words ‘caused to be published.’ Under the newly amended Section 4(1)(c) of the Sedition Act 1948, a person who, among others, publishes or caused to be published any seditious publication is guilty of an offence.
“So what does ‘caused to be published’ here mean? It seems to cover a website operator who allows a comment to be published on his website (especially in the case where comments are moderated). This also covers a comment or a posting published on a Facebook page,” he added.
Protecting its interests
The Najib Administration has already declared war on journalism – or at least, the part of it that it doesn’t already control.
This is why three editors at The Malaysian Insider, its chief executive and even its publisher were arrested late last month for alleged sedition over a story on the Conference of Rulers, while another BN-owned publication, Harian Metro, got off scot-free despite running a similar report.
And it is going to get worse, as I’ve noted before, with proposed amendments to the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) 1998 and Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission Act 1998 to now involve “improving administrative, preventive and enforcement measures when it comes to ‘monitoring cyber activities’ and to ‘curb the abuse of Internet use’.”
But the Najib Administration has not only declared war on journalists, it has declared open season on all of you, the people of Malaysia: Unless of course, you toe the line and stop asking damnable questions, or – horror of horrors – request transparency and accountability of the Government that is supposed to serve you.
This can be clearly inferred from Home Minister Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s statement that the Sedition Act was expanded to take into account social media, and that although the Penal Code exists to deal with crime, its provisions were insufficient to handle offences committed via social media.
“And that is what the Sedition Act is for,” he was quoted saying, according to The Malay Mail Online.
It is not about the type of crime the Administration is worried about, it’s the medium. The one medium it can’t control, because it is global.
Last December, I wrote that Malaysians have to fight for their rights to a free press, because when they come for you, you will need someone to speak on your behalf. Well, guess what? They are coming for you. This is now a struggle involving all of us.
Article 10 of the Constitution of Malaysia guarantees Malaysian citizens the right to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of association. The Malaysian Government keeps saying it respects this, but its actions say otherwise.
As Joe Strummer and The Clash belted out about 30 years ago, “you have a right to free speech – as long as you’re not dumb enough to actually try it.”
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