Lawyers for Liberty refers to the news report recently that an auxiliary policewoman was arrested by Johor police for allegedly making an insulting remark about the Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim on Facebook.
The arrest was made following a report lodged by a senior police officer who supposedly came across the comment made by this individual on Facebook.
Despite the change in government that was promised to usher in an era of reform, the police are still scouring social media sites and making police reports against citizens on random posts or comments that purportedly disparage or insult the government or those who are in power.
In a democracy, crude or offensive remarks are not acts that warrant criminal investigations. The bar for police action would be if the offending speech may cause direct or imminent physical harm to any individual or a group of people or if it would seriously threaten public order.
The fact that now Malaysians are being arrested for mere “insulting” remarks is a consequence of the failure of the Pakatan Harapan-led government to repeal repressive laws that infringe on freedom of speech, such as Section 233(1)(a) of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (CMA), which is grounds for arrest in the case of this auxiliary police personnel.
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This provision is infamous for its nebulous wording, which criminalises “offensive” remarks without clear definition, allowing the police and the government of the day to expand the definition as they deem fit. This renders the right to free speech illusory and meaningless.
The right to freedom of speech under Article 10(1)(a) of the Federal Constitution is a sacrosanct right that cannot be restricted, save for the exceptions of public order or security or morality spelt out in Article 10(2)(a).
Insults to the government, ministers or politicians do not fall within any of those exceptions. The prime minister, ministers or the government hold no special position in law, nor can any insult to their reputations fall under the “public order or morality” exception.
If insults or crude remarks against government leaders are made criminal, this would pave the way for a dictatorship; it would be the death of democracy.
Does Prime Minister Anwar agree with the arrest of this lady over an alleged insult to himself and will he do the right thing by urging police to release her without charge? Are police resources to be wasted by arresting ordinary tax-paying Malaysians for the sake of protecting Anwar’s reputation?
The PM and others from PH promised to repeal Section 233(1)(a) of the CMA whilst they were in opposition as they said then that the provision violates freedom of speech. The law remains in use in this high-handed manner because of their refusal to repeal it.
A government dedicated to reform must respect the fundamental liberties enshrined in the Constitution. As such, the government must follow through its promise and repeal Section 233(1)(a) of the CMA and other similar laws that arbitrarily criminalise the exercise of free speech. Other provisions of the law such as Section 504 of the Penal Code cannot be used to criminalise mere insults upon government leaders.
Therefore, there must be an immediate halt to all wasteful and oppressive investigations upon citizens who allegedly insult the PM or other government leaders. – LFL
Zaid Malek is director of Lawyers for Liberty