The Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4 Center) celebrates the recent Federal Court decision to dismiss the defamation suit by National Feedlot Corp Sdn Bhd (NFCorp) and its chairman, Mohamed Salleh Ismail, against former Pandan MP Rafizi Ramli as a landmark case which reasserts a citizen’s right to express freely on matters of public interest.
It was found that the allegedly defamatory statement Rafizi made was, in fact, fair comment, and therefore, he could not be liable for damages for defamation. In Malaysia, fair comment is a statutory defence against defamation which ensures the right of an individual to comment on a matter of public interest as long as it is based on true facts and is not malicious.
The freedom for a citizen to comment freely on public interest issues is fundamental to a strong, accountable democracy. It ensures that every member of society has a voice and the power to influence issues that affect them and their community. The right to fair criticism is pivotal to government transparency and accountability, as it enables the citizenry to ask questions of those in power and hold them responsible for their actions.
In recent times, Malaysia has witnessed the troubling use of strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP suits) by public figures facing criticism, to intimidate and silence regular Malaysians who speak up.
SLAPP suits are often defamation suits intended to burden vocal citizens with the legal process, thus draining their time, money, and energy and essentially punishing them for exercising their right to fair comment. SLAPP suits also have the knock-on effect of silencing wider society by sending the message that speaking up comes at a cost.
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The Federal Court decision comes at an especially crucial time for Malaysia, where now, more than ever, Malaysians of all backgrounds must be supported when speaking out against injustice. Whistleblowers, for example, are a group still severely under-protected by law, specifically the Whistleblower Protection Act 2010.
This decision from the highest court in the land is vindication for those who have faced legal threats and intimidation for merely exercising their rights as citizens of this country. Fair comment is a fundamental aspect of our freedom of speech, as enshrined under Article 10 of the Federal Constitution, and must be protected.
However, without reform of the present legal framework, SLAPP suits will continue to be used by those who have the resources to silence regular, everyday Malaysians who call out and criticise their failings.
As such, C4 Center calls for:
- Public officials who have initiated SLAPP suits against their critics to immediately withdraw their lawsuits
- Parliament to enact anti-SLAPP laws that allow for an early dismissal of such cases and that penalise abuse of the legal process
- The Whistleblower Protection Act 2010 to be amended to provide protection to those who exercise their legal right to fair comment
- The legal fraternity to update ethics codes to ensure that SLAPPs are a sanctionable offence, which penalises lawyers who abuse the court process
– Center to Combat Corruption & Cronyism (C4 Center)