When the government fears the people, it suppresses freedom of speech

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Instead of clamping down on online comments, surely an enlightened body would address negative perception and provide explanations to counter these critical comments, P Ramakrishnan writes.

In allowing contempt proceedings against Malaysiakini and its editor-in-chief, Steven Gan, over readers’ comments on the judiciary, the judiciary appears to have delivered a lethal blow against our inalienable right to freedom of expression.

Chinese Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo put it succinctly when he stated that “Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity and the mother of truth.”

Malaysiakini and Gan have been cited for contempt. The case has been directed straight to the Federal court, bypassing any judicial opportunity for Gan and Malaysiakini to appeal. It is puzzling that these proceedings are not being initiated at the High Court, as they normally are, giving the defendants access to appeal, first to the Court of Appeal, failing which to the Federal Court in the last instance.

It is clear that thousands of Malaysians regularly read and comment on Malaysiakini’s articles. And many readers post their comments, amounting to thousands of comments. It is virtually impossible to keep track of all the thousands of comments posted by their readers.

So Gan and Malaysiakini chose a sensible way to address this problem by alerting their readers to this touchy issue by carrying a warning as shown below:

TERMS & CONDITIONS

Foul language, profanity, vulgarity, slanderous, personal attack, threatening, sexually-orientated comments or the use of any method of communication that may violate any law or create needless unpleasantness will not be tolerated. Anti-social behaviour such as ‘spamming’ and ‘trolling’ will be suspended. Violators run the risk of also being blocked permanently.

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They have gone further by seeking the cooperation of their readers to alert them when any violation of the above conditions takes place, as can be seen below:

REPORT VIOLATORS

Please use the report feature that is available below each comment to flag offending comments for our moderators to take action. Do not take matters in your own hands to avoid unpleasant and unnecessary exchanges that may result in your own suspension or ban.

As with any responsible online news portal, it is very obvious that they have taken all the precautions humanly necessary and possible to ensure that their conditions are fully observed.

Let us be mindful of the fact that 24-hour online news portals cannot operate the way that the old media do. With the old media, before comments are published or broadcast, they can be easily filtered. It is virtually impossible – technically and practically and, of course, economically – to do that with the new, online interactive media.

Gan and Malaysiakini, in providing all these guidelines appear to have acted very responsibly in keeping with the ethics of journalism. They must be complimented for this.

The authorities should, if they desire so, go after those whose views they don’t approve of – not against Steven Gan and Malaysiakini.

What we have here is a situation where Malaysiakini and Gan did not publish these comments and do not share these sentiments, but they are nonetheless being taken to task and facing punitive committal proceedings.

Malaysiakini can proudly boast of a 20-year unblemished history. Their readers have been highly critical and very vocal in expressing themselves. The fact that there has been no simultaneous and spontaneous outbreak of action with people taking the law into their hands strongly suggests that Malaysians are responsible citizens. There has never – ever – been any disturbance or untoward incidents as a result of these very critical comments posted by readers. In all these years, they have never been cited for contempt. So why, suddenly, this action, this seeming intolerance?

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Instead of charging Gan and Malaysiakini for five comments made by Malaysiakini readers, perhaps the authorities should see this as an opportunity for them to address bottom-up sentiments. These bottom-up sentiments are feedback for the authorities. Instead of clamping down on these comments, surely an enlightened body would address this negative perception and provide explanations to counter these critical comments?

We hope the court will take into account whether the laws restricting freedom of speech infringe on the right of Malaysians to voice their views without any malice. The judiciary must be seen to be on the side of justice, not just the law – and not seen as protecting the interests of the executive.

There is truth in George Orwell’s statement, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

This may be the problem that we are confronted with. This government does not want to hear certain criticisms and therefore it chooses to deny Malaysians their right to hold those views. It fails to understand that everyone is entitled to express an opinion about the things they read. They have every right to express their views online.

Whatever the outcome, we pray that the court would take cognisance of the people’s inalienable and democratic right to criticise whenever necessary. This right, the Federal Court must uphold in line with the solemn oath of our judges to uphold the Constitution.

This right is so eloquently expressed by the former President of the Philippines, Corazon Aquino: “Freedom of expression – in particular, freedom of the Press – guarantees popular participation in the decisions and actions of government, and popular participation is the essence of our democracy.”

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Indeed, if I may add, popular participation enhances the legitimacy of any government to rule any country. On another note, the attorney general and the Federal Court must always be ever mindful that the decision in this case may well set the tone for the media’s continued ability to provide much-needed feedback for the administration of this country.

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Teo Chuen Tick
6 Jul 2020 5.57am

Yes, Rama it is true, the govt.’s action suppresses freedom of speech.
It causes Mkini editors to have cold feet and they have grown afraid of their own shadows.
I had been Mkini ‘commenter’ for some time but its recent actions to ban words like ‘moron’ , ‘eunuch’ . ‘as*min’ in comments to describe some of our nation’s political operatives really puts me off.
For the record it is not the first I have used such words. Yes, they are strong words but I feel strongly against their actions which are detrimental to the welfare of our nation.

If the Mkini editors have become so cowardly, I have decided not to subscribe to it and have terminated my subscription immediately.