Guilty until proven innocent?


The headline yesterday on the foreign news page in one English language newspaper read, ‘Myanmar to axe censor-media looking forward to more press freedom next month’.

Indeed, for a few months now, story after story has emerged about the opening up of this once heavily-repressed, junta-controlled country now evidently undergoing reform.

Indeed, Myanmar’s Opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is no longer under house arrest by the regime and her name is no longer taboo in the Myanmar media.

And while all this has been going on – and continues to go on at quite an amazing rate – in a country not very far away from our borders, very surreptitiously these past few weeks or so, two events have taken place here at home.

These are events that, I fear, signal, once again, the virtual opposite taking place at home.

First, has been the amendment to the Evidence Act, an amendment, I have been told by reliable friends, which has frightening implications, especially for freedom of expression on the internet.

For whatever it is worth, netizens in Malaysia have often cited the ‘Bill of Guarantees’, conceived by the Mahathir administration in the mid-1990s, that states that the internet will not be censored by the authorities.

Of course, numerous other laws, such as the Sedition Act, are available – and have been used – against those who have posted on the Net. But, nonetheless, many have felt that, at the very least, the ‘Bill’ was there.

Now, it appears that once Amendment 2 to the Evidence Act has been gazetted in Parliament, some things will change.

Basically under this amendment, should some stranger post an article on the internet using your name, or write a seditious letter to a web portal, again using your name, you could be investigated and charged for posting the article or comment.

The assumption under this amended law would be  that you are guilty of the postings and the onus is on you to prove your innocence. Essentially, you would need to prove that you, indeed, are not the writer of the article or comment.

As the Malaysian Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) puts it, ‘If you are being investigated for any Internet-related offence, you are presumed guilty and have to prove your innocence, even if it’s posted by someone else.’

This, if it does become gazetted as law, will certainly drive another nail into the coffin of the long-held belief/myth, even in this country, that one is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

As the columnist Marina Mahathir recently illustrated, there’s actually someone currently impersonating her on the net, posting critical, personal comments that, given that this is Malaysia, may be deemed libellous.

Marina points out that under the amended Act, she could be the one investigated for libel just because her name had been used. And if that were to happen, she would have to prove her innocence.

That is the main reason many are up in arms against this amendment. That is the main reason that those of us who use the internet media – and there are many – need to be concerned, and need to voice that concern because this latest development illustrates yet another form of control imposed by the powers that be.

And ‘control’ is definitely the operative word to use when looking at the second insidious development.

After many years of debate and disagreement between, on the one side, the government and its supporters in the media and academia and, on the other, independent-minded journalists, critical academics and civil society, a ‘media council’ is now being formulated.

For years now, indeed since the late Tun Razak’s time, there has been this tussle between the desirability of setting-up of a government-regulated media council and a self-regulated one.

It appears that this has now morphed into a deal that is being struck – quite quietly, it would seem – between some well-connected media editors and journalists and the government lawmaker and his team.

And what was originally intended as regulation – state or self – for the press, is now being extended as legislated (read state) regulation to cover broadcasting and the online media, possibly even including blogging, as well.

The aim, it has been argued, is to come up with legislation that effectively will ‘turn the stirring call of “reform” into merely a pleasant code word for repression under a different name’.

In short, the very real fear now is that what we will see is a Malaysian media council overseeing notions of `ethics’ and `good practise’, controlled by a law designed by a problematic state.  Given these developments, there clearly is a need to be vigilant.

At the very least, it should make us ask why at this juncture, on the one hand, potentially repressive  laws are  put in place by a state that, on the other hand, shamelessly professes to be reformist?