Freedom of expression; a reality in M’sia


IN developing Malaysia, the freedom of speech and assembly has always been a contentious issue.

In our multiracial and multicultural nation burdened with the dark memory of the May 13 incident, the government has always leaned towards curbing that freedom of expression. There are many laws prohibiting the uninterrupted exchange of views in public forum and the media. Of course, there is always the dreaded ISA.

At the other end of the spectrum, civil societies and opposition political leaders have called for an opening of the Malaysian sky, citing the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, Broadcasting Act 1988, Official Secrets Act 1972, Sedition Act 1948, and Internal Security Act 1960 as instruments which violate the freedom of speech guaranteed to them under Article 10 of the Federal Constitution.

This is not an abstract political debate. It enters our public political conversation around us everyday.

Take the highly charged incident of the cow-head protest for instance. A bunch of about 50 self-proclaimed residents of Shah Alam dragged a cow head in protest against the move to relocate a Hindu temple into their mostly Muslim-Malay neighbourhood. Since the cow is considered sacred by the Hindus, this incident carries the undertone of grave religious and racial provocation. It could start a riot between the Muslim Malays and the Hindu Indians.

Fortunately for Malaysia, the Indian community was very self-restrained, and they refrained from retaliatory actions, showing that Malaysia has indeed progressed beyond the dark ages of May 13. Malay-Muslim leaders from both the BN and the PR have also taken the admirable stand of condemning the cow-head protest as un-Islamic.

Finally, the Home Ministry crumbled under public pressure and charged a number of the cow-head protestors for illegal assembly and for sedition.

I disagree with the charge of illegal assembly, because any group of citizens ought to be respected for their right to protest anything under the sun. They should enjoy their right to peaceful assembly in public places.

Their religiously tinged and highly offensive action of protesting with the cow head ought to be punished. But the sedition law in our country is deeply flawed. Perhaps this is where a new race relation act would be helpful.

The surprising thing is that nobody in this unfolding drama has defended the right to free speech by this group of protestors. That is because most Malaysians know instinctively that the cow-head incident is both morally and legally wrong. The freedom of speech cannot be misused to do wrong things.

Let us revisit the work of John Stewart Mill, the great English thinker, philosopher, legislator, and political theorist. His defining work on Liberty has since been the prescribed mandatory reading for all law students taking any course on jurisprudence in law schools all over the world.

We are now familiar with his famous words, “We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.”

But Mill is not saying that the state can leave citizens to do and say what they like. All freedoms are qualified. More than any other philosophers, Mill was the one who developed the ‘harm principle’. You can say and do what you like, as long as you do not harm others.

This is what the cow-head protestors had done; they had brought great harm to the dignity and self-respect of the Hindu faithful!

In the case of the town hall meeting between the Selangor Menteri Besar Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim and the 200 residents of Section 23 in Shah Alam, the dialogue soon degenerated into a one-way expression of rage by the residents against the MB.

There, the residents were also wrong because they had harmed the dialogue by denying the MB his right to his free speech. Freedom of speech does mean giving both sides equal time in mutual peaceful respect. This principle has also become a standard for excellence in journalism, a standard that is not always observed in Malaysian mainstream media.

The after math of the cow-head incident has another lesion for Malaysians on freedom of speech.

The Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) has been hounding the staff of the net news portal Malaysiakini for airing two video clips on their website, one on the cow-head protest and the other on a press conference held by the Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein.

According to MCMC monitoring and enforcement division senior acting director Abdul Halim Ahman, in his letter, the display of both videos on the news portal “is an offence under Section 211/233 of the CMA”.

Under the Act, any individual found guilty of publishing content “which is indecent, obscene, false, menacing, or offensive in character with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass any person” is liable to a fine of up to RM50,000 or a jail sentence.

We have to ask: who has the Malaysiakini reports harmed through their two videos? The answer is “nobody”!

Malaysiakini was merely trying to do their job by reporting to their readers two factual events that had happened, just like many other print and online media organisations. To stop them from doing so would be guilty of oppressing their right to free expression, and Malaysians’ right to information.

The limelight has to be turned on the MCMC itself. Why are they doing this unjustifiable harassment of Malaysiakini, the country’s premier internet newspaper that has won national and international acclaim for excellence in independent and critical journalism?

Who are the individuals making decisions and executing those decisions to investigate into a non-crime by Malaysiakini? What kind of academic qualifications do they possess and how are they recruited and trained for their job? How do they judge whether any Internet content is ‘offensive’ or not, based on their subjective criteria, or some clearly stipulated standards? Are they qualified enough to question the Malaysiakini editor-in-chief Steven Gan, a seasoned journalist of considerable repute?

Because of the overwhelming popularity of Malaysiakini, the MCMC action has been seen as another attempt by the ruling parties to deprive the people’s freedom of expression on the Internet.

There are some 16 million Internet subscribers in Malaysia. There are half a million bloggers, 30 per cent of which are socio-political bloggers working at citizen journalists. Most print newspapers have their online version for Internet viewers.

Apart from Malaysiakini, there are other net news portals like Malaysia Insider, Malaysian Mirror, The Nut Graph, and Chinese news portals include Merdeka Review and The Rock News, as well as the Chinese pages on Malaysiakini and Malaysia Mirror. They are all sober serious media organisations practising a high standard of journalism often lacking in mainstream media.

The alternative media has arrived in Malaysia. The beauty of this new media is that there is no way to control the freedom of expression you find in virtual space. The Internet is so vast, that the minute you plug one hole in the flow of information, ten other holes will appear on the net minutes later.

In fact, the emerging alternative media has changed the media business in Malaysia altogether. Sites like Malaysiakini and Malaysia Insider have made the mainstream media superfluous. You can cease your subscription to your newspapers and still get better news and views on the Internet.

The rash action of the MCMC against Malaysiakini is a sign that some decision makers at the top level of government are still stuck in their time warp. They are trapped in their archaic mindset that they must control the airwaves in order to protect the people.

The freedom of expression is no longer a gift to be given by the government. The arrival of the alternative media has given Malaysians a free platform for them to demand and enjoy their right to information and expression as a matter of right.

(The writer can be reached at [email protected])