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The government’s version of ‘freedom of speech’

Cartoon by Zunar/Malaysiakini

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This shows the government’s reluctance to appreciate and celebrate freedom of expression and dissenting views, observes Mustafa K Anuar.

Within a short space of few days, two ministers issued public statements that gave an impression that the federal government is promoting and protecting freedom of expression and differences of opinions in Malaysia.

But when the thin surface is scratched, we find signs that are disturbing to say the least.

This is because the reality on the ground in general does not match with the assurance espoused by both Tourism and Culture Minister Mohamed Nazri Aziz and Communications and Multimedia Minister Salleh Said Keruak.

To be sure, individuals who have been critical of government leaders and certain branches of the government in recent years have faced police questioning, arrests, detention, legal charges, political harassment or got their books banned – for having written or drawn things, participated in peaceful public protests, or flown yellow balloons with words such as “democracy” and “justice” in public areas.

In the context of Nazri’s recent statement, one can think of prolific and critical cartoonist Zunar and dissenting artist Fahmi Reza as examples of individuals who have had close brushes with the authorities and the law (particularly the Sedition Act and the Communications and Multimedia Act).

Other examples include Bersih 2.0 chairman Maria Chin (arrested for street protest), academic Faisal Tehrani (novels banned), Ahmad Farouk Musa of Islamic Renaissance Front (books banned), G25 (book banned) Zaid Ibrahim (book banned), Ustaz Wan Ji Wan Hussin (book banned), Bilqis Hijjas (yellow balloon case), Lena Hendry (hauled up film screening), Jahabar Sadiq and his The Malaysian Insight associates (action taken for it news reporting), Malaysiakini (legal suit over its readers’ comments) and recently, Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali (questioning over her participation in a public protest).

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Nazri’s contention is that government leaders should develop “thick skin” to withstand public criticism as this is part and parcel of the job.

And yet, the above examples of individuals (and organisations) who have had issues with the state, suggest that the ruling leaders are not inclined to accept criticism or dissenting views.

Salleh, on the other hand, insists that the government does not restrict freedom of information. What it does, he adds, is to monitor “news that are defamatory, racist in nature, threats to national security and those that break the laws”.

The bone of contention here is that many of these laws have definitions that are so broad that they could be applied even to people whose good intention is to provide constructive criticism and feedback regarding the performance of the government of the day.

Which is why, for some critics, laws such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) and the Sedition Act were – and still are – considered undemocratic and unjust. They should either be repealed or fine-tuned.

Writing in his blog, Salleh further argues: “That is the stand of the government on freedom of speech now. How can we say the government is restricting freedom of speech when the opposition are still free to operate blogs that criticise the government, anti-government news portals, publish anti-government party organs and run down the government on social media?”

The language used here indicates a reluctance to appreciate and celebrate freedom of expression and dissenting views. For, in order to fully embrace this democratic notion, one has to see such freedom within the larger framework of democracy, transparency and accountability.

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Thus, it should be a given in a democracy that the opposition expresses opinions that are often critical of the government of the day either in blogs, newspapers or party organs.

To call such legitimate critical views as being “anti-government” in the same breath is demonising and criminalising dissent, as it can conjure up troubling images of “threats to national security” and “moral or social disorder”.

Incidentally, it is hoped that the idea, once floated in the public domain, to register blogs and news portals is not considered by the powers that be as part of the supposed promotion of freedom of expression as it reminds us of the draconian Printing Presses and Publications Act.

People, including government critics, express criticism about ruling leaders and the government because they demand accountability from the very people whose entry into positions of power is predicated on the assumption that they are entrusted to do things on behalf of the people’s interests and concerns.

Umno information chief Annuar Musa rightly cautioned us recently about the dangers of “fake news” in social media because this platform provides the space for certain opportunists to transmit disinformation that could have negative consequences.

Transparency and accountability of the government can help combat the emergence and spread of alternative facts, to borrow Trumpian terminology.

Besides, “fake news” is not the preserve of social media users. It is also found in the media, particularly the mainstream ones owned and/or controlled by the powers that be, where, due to poor ethical standards, unverifiable statements are presented as facts.

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Finally, while developing “thick skin” – as suggested by Nazri – may be a prerequisite to becoming a consummate political leader, one hopes that such fat skin would not be a convenient “shield” for arrogance especially when it comes to the shameful and outrageous misconduct of political leaders, such as power abuse and corruption.

Source: The Malaysian Insight

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