Home minister’s statement is worrying sign for future of freedom of expression

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Lawyers for Liberty are extremely concerned by Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin’s statement on 14 May in relation to false news and seditious statements.

The statement claims that there has been an increase in false news and of seditious nature being shared and warns that the Ministry of Home Affairs will not hesitate to act against those who create provocation or threaten safety and public order. The ministry indicated it would be prepared to pursue all legal action including under the Sedition Act, the Penal Code and the Communications and Multimedia Act.

The home minister classified comments on the royal institution, race, religion, status, position, privilege, sovereignty and rights under the Federal Constitution as potentially seditious.

But these are also issues of public concern which all Malaysians should be free to discuss and debate in a democratic society. After many years of independence, Malaysians must surely now be able to have informed public debates on issues of concern without the authorities resorting to sedition and other coercive measures.

This is a worrying indication of things to come, that this is setting the scene for a return of the Sedition Act and other laws which stifle freedom of expression.

It is a particular concern that the home minister referred to the Sedition Act, a law from the colonial era which was not even enacted by our independent Parliament.

The Sedition Act unreasonably restricts freedom of expression and has no place in modern Malaysia. It should be abolished like in many other countries in the world rather than relied upon by the government.

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While the spread of disinformation and other forms of dangerous speech are serious concerns, they are not excuses for the authorities to classify everything viewed as provocative or “sensitive” as sedition or fake news and subject to criminal sanctions.

In any case, there are many ways in which the government and the authorities can tackle these issues without resorting to criminalising speech.

The threshold for legal restrictions on freedom of expression must remain high, particularly when the speech in question is not hateful, threatening or inciting violence.

We call upon the Ministry of Home Affairs and the authorities not to rely on harsher laws when there are less intrusive measures available to counter disinformation or speech which may cause genuine danger, while still protecting the right to freedom of expression guaranteed under the Constitution.

Melissa Sasidaran is director of Lawyers for Liberty

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