Home Civil Society Voices Fahmi uses ‘slander’ to justify crackdown on freedom of speech

Fahmi uses ‘slander’ to justify crackdown on freedom of speech

Fahmi Fadzil - BENEDICT LOPEZ

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Lawyers for Liberty (LFL) refers to Communications Minister Fahmi Fadzil’s statement in response to Amnesty International’s criticism of the government’s failure to fulfil its commitment to reform laws that restrict freedom of speech.

The minister said that there is a “difference between freedom of expression and slander”.

This is a strawman response that mischaracterises the report which did not defend slander.

The report instead criticised the actions of the Pakatan Harapan-led government in using repressive laws such as the Sedition Act, the Communications and Multimedia Act, the Printing Presses and Publications Act and other oppressive laws to curtail free speech.

These are the same laws that PH promised in its political manifesto to repeal –  promises forgotten now that it are in power.

To use “slander” as an excuse to crack down on freedom of expression is dishonest, evasive and hypocritical.

Fahmi should not pretend to not know the basis on which these criticisms were made against the government.

These draconian laws, which he and other PH leaders had condemned previously when they were in opposition, clearly infringe on freedom of speech as it gives the government power to shut down any civil or political dissent.

It is two-faced to now pretend that these laws are just or necessary, simply because they are the ones wielding the same laws against the current opposition and civil society.

Slander is not a matter for the criminal law to punish. Anyone slandered can file a civil suit for defamation.

This includes the PM as well if he feels he has been slandered with an allegation that he is “suffering from an illness”. The PM is not entitled to any special protection under the criminal law. All citizens are equal under Article 8 of the Constitution.

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Fahmi’s knee-jerk denial of Amnesty’s complaint entirely ignores that any healthy and functioning democracy should not use laws to clamp down on any criticism or dissent against the government of the day.

It is not for the government to claim ownership of truth and hide behind buzzwords like “fake news”, whose definition is entirely up to the government to decide.

There cannot be a free and meaningful discourse on public interest issues if the government repeatedly threatens criminal action for “fake news” or “slander”.

Furthermore, just because there has been no arrest of journalists does not mean freedom of press is protected or respected by the government.

Fahmi’s own ministry launched the new code of ethics that was widely lambasted as it is a standing threat to journalists for alleged “unethical” reporting. Again, the government decides what is or is not ethical reporting.

The climate of anxiety and self-censorship created by the government is in itself evidence of curtailment of the freedom of the press.

It is also important to note that the government has taken criminal action against citizen journalists by taking down their social media accounts and dragging the individuals for criminal action under the various draconian laws mentioned above.

Fahmi’s reply has also sidestepped criticisms regarding the government’s political pandering to conservative elements by utilising the “three Rs” to justify excessive executive action against anyone who expresses opinions or beliefs that do not fall in line with the views of the perceived majority.

This is a perversion of freedom of speech, which should protect all types of expression, not just what is sanctioned by a purported majority.

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If the minister truly wants to hear feedback, then be honest that PH has failed to carry out its promises regarding the protection of freedom of expression and take steps to remedy the situation.

It is pointless for the government to say that it is open to criticism when it continues to use a panoply of discredited laws against critics. – LFL

Zaid Malek is director of Lawyers for Liberty.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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