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The silencing of Malaysia

Sun 2015-May-3 @ MYT 10:33:40 am

Malaysia: A deafening silence

By Jahabar Sadiq
Editor, Malaysian Insider

We can speak our mind, publish our thoughts and be damned. Or in some cases, spend at least one night in the police lockup and wonder if there is jailtime at the end of the tunnel. For some, that is a badge of honor but for most, a symbol of shame.

To be fair, the Federal Constitution’s Article 10 allows for the freedom of expression with limitations. And the ruling government has guaranteed that the Internet will be free from censorship.

So there is freedom, of sorts.

One of the limitations comes from the recently amended Sedition Act 1948, which has cut out several offences that were once considered seditious such as criticising the government or the judiciary but adds new offences to cover the Internet age, ie. retweeting or republishing status posts, blogs, comments and such that are deemed critical or offensive by the prosecutors.

The Internal Security Act, which allowed detention without trial and used regularly in the past against the press and opposition politicians, was repealed in 2012 to be replaced with the Security Offenses Special Measures Act. It grants suspects the right to a fair trial, but allows 28 days of police detention, after which the attorney general must decide whether to prosecute.

Jahabar Sadiq, released after overnight police detention, for reports published by Malaysian Insider

Jahabar Sadiq, released after overnight police detention, for reports published by Malaysian Insider

A new law, the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2015, also allows for detention without trial. It has yet to be gazetted as law, just like amendments to the Sedition Act, but both are chilling in nature.

In many ways then, we have both the best and worst media laws in the region. And with endless possibilities through that spectrum.

Impact on Malaysians

Now, it just needs the Sedition Act to imprison our minds and curb the freedom of expression by way of speech, opinion and information by calling it seditious. Up to April 2015, nearly 200 people have been investigated under the Sedition Act, including politicians, activists and journalists.

They were investigated for either saying something or writing something deemed seditious by interested parties ruling party activists, the police or ruling government ministers and politicians.

But the enhanced Sedition Act goes a step further. It criminalizes those who even repeat by way of retweeting or reposting comments, FaceBook posts or statuses and other materials online.

In one fell swoop, the government can guarantee there is no censorship of the Internet but still enact and use their simple parliamentary majority to pass laws that will make people censor themselves for fear of imprisonment.

What can be more effective than this? There is no need for preventive detention laws when all you need is a law that criminalizes your thoughts?

What now, Malaysia?

The enhanced Sedition Act has been passed and awaits to be gazetted as law to criminalise one’s views and opinions even among the limited few followers and friends in social media. No one will be spared from this law and thus most will just shut up and read without doing anything further for fear of causing disaffection in Malaysia.

The essence of the Internet where the audience is the pipe for news and videos is diminished by this law. The essence of freedom of expression is extinguished by this law.

Our brief flirtation with freedom of expression online is coming to an end in Malaysia unless a current challenge on the constitutionality of the law wins in the court of law.

For now, more Malaysians will rather imprison their minds and stay mute than spend a night in a police lockup. And those who do voice their thoughts, because it is a natural right, find themselves on trial for expressing an opinion.

In a world where more people are freer these days to voice their thoughts, the silence of the Malaysians will be deafening.

Jahabar Sadiq is editor and chief executive officer of The Malaysian Insider, a news portal in Malaysia.

Written for Deutsche Welle to mark World Press Freedom Day 2015

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