The iffy existence of freedom of speech


The iffy existence of freedom of speech
By Zan Azlee

Controversial musician and YouTuber, Namewee, was detained by the police yesterday after he posted a Chinese New Year video clip that involved dogs. He mentions in the video that dogs from different places make different sounds and in Malaysia, they go “Mari mari wang wang!”. The video, of course, is a satire.

Several police reports were made against him and he had gone to Bukit Aman to give his statement. He was detained under Section 298A of the Penal Code and Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act and according to authorities, it is to facilitate investigations because his video was deemed to have a negative impact on racial harmony.

Namewee, through a representative, released a statement on his Facebook page, saying that he is not afraid because he believes in the country’s justice system. He is no stranger to controversy and police detention because he has regularly been called up for questioning and detention for his satirical YouTube videos.

In other news, political activist Adam Adli Abdul Halim (photo below) has been acquitted from a sedition charge from a speech he gave in 2013. He was convicted in 2014 and sentenced to one year in prison. The court then concluded that it was excessive and changed it to an RM5,000 fine. After five years, the court finally decided that there was a misdirection in the law.

These are not unfamiliar cases and it gives a very confusing perception of the freedom of speech in Malaysia. On one hand, it gives the impression that the country has freedom of speech because people are saying what they want to say and even if they do get detained, the justice system will exonerate them. On the other hand, it also shows that the authorities will just clamp down.

It is true that in the more recent past, there haven’t been many convictions that are related to freedom of speech or freedom of the media. However, the detention and arrests (citing the need to question and investigate) that are made, have been happening fairly frequently. These detentions usually mean those detained can be in the lock-up from one to three days.

In a way, this can be seen as an intimidation or scare tactic done by the authorities because no one in their right frame of mind would want to be detained and investigated. Obvious satire and even political speeches should be left alone if true freedom of speech exists in Malaysia. Even journalistic reports and commentary, for that matter.

Over the years, we have seen cases where people’s lives have been negatively impacted because they have been detained, investigated, sometimes convicted and then acquitted. Adam Adli’s case mentioned above is one example. Another example would be Bersih leader Maria Chin Abdullah (in photo) who was detained for 11 days prior to a planned demonstration.

She was later released and after almost a year, the authorities decided to drop the case against her. She was detained under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (Sosma) 2012, which allows the authorities to detain her for up to 28 days without charges if they felt there was a cause of concern when it comes to national security.

Another example of a similar case is the three-month suspension imposed by the Home Ministry on newspapers The Edge Financial Daily and The Edge Weekly after they published an expose consisting of reports that revealed the 1MDB corruption scandal that involved the prime minister.

Although the courts finally decided that the Home Ministry had acted irrationally and illegally with regards to the suspension (and they were ordered to pay the publishers damages, as it was already too late because the suspension had taken its course (just slightly shorter than three months).

It was too late for The Edge Communications Sdn Bhd because indirectly, their operations and business were affected due to the suspension. A news portal, The Malaysian Insider, had to be shut down due to financial constraints and an apparent staff downsizing had to take place in the organisation.

Freedom of speech is an integral part of democracy and of nation-building. It shouldn’t be stifled and the authorities should definitely not be intimidating and scaring the people when it comes to this. If there is nothing to hide, then the authorities should not be afraid. At the end of the day, it serves everybody well if freedom of speech prevails.

[This article was originally written for and published at Malaysiakini.com]

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