The dictum every cloud has a silver lining couldn’t have been made more resounding by Malaysians who exuberantly responded to the call to help Malaysiakini pay the hefty RM500,000 fine slapped on the portal by the Federal Court on Friday.
This is despite many of these people being weighed down by economic hardships caused by the pandemic.
It is noteworthy that the penalty meted out was more than the RM200,000 demanded by the Attorney General’s Chambers Some observers were left to conclude that the penalty was severely punitive, and to make Malaysiakini an example for other news outlets.
The news portal would have folded without the generous public donations worldwide. Surprisingly, and much like the Attorney General’s Chambers, Malaysiakini got more than it asked for, as if poetic justice was at play.
Closure would have meant a major player, providing a voice to the common people, being snuffed out vigorously. It would have been most unfortunate had Malaysiakini closed down, especially when formal avenues for public feedback, particularly Parliament and state assemblies, have been suspended.
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Malaysiakini was charged with having carried readers’ comments that the attorney general considered contemptuous of the judiciary. The news portal removed the offending comments immediately after it was alerted.
The chilling impact of the judgement did not deter concerned Malaysians from standing in solidarity with Malaysiakini. It was a backlash, to put it another way.
Incidentally, foreign missions and media watchdogs also expressed concerns about the court’s judgment, which was seen to have the effect of eroding press freedom, aside from the judgement having caught the attention of international media.
The court’s decision not only elicited deep concerns from local civil society groups but also opposition lawmakers, who called for consultations between news outlets, civil society, government agencies, the Attorney General’s Chambers and the judiciary to discuss media guidelines that are fair.
In short, this court verdict appears to have enhanced public awareness about the political significance of media freedom and freedom of expression, especially when the public space for expression has been gradually constrained.
This incident also cautions people about the need to be always vigilant against any move that could curb their right to express.
Independent media are crucial in a democracy because they provide checks and balances in the spirit of curbing abuse of power.
Moreover, it is the characteristics of a thriving democracy that robust discussions and debates, no matter how noisy they can be, are considered necessary. Dissent, to be sure, is legitimate.
That is why, it is normal for newspapers in a mature democracy to provide, for example, as much space as possible for divergent views in a conscious effort to inform and enlighten readers without the editor having to look over his shoulder. These views may range from criticising the government and reprimanding the opposition to praising environmentalists.
It is left to the readers to make their own judgements without the government of the day having to steer the former towards a preferred viewpoint through, say, official censorship.
In keeping with this spirit of democracy, Malaysiakini attempts to provide substantial space for readers’ comments, a few of which are gems in themselves.
The news portal may not agree with certain comments, but it nonetheless has the duty to defend the readers’ right to express their opinions for as long as they are not defamatory and do not involve hate speech or incite violence.
The overwhelming response to Malaysiakini’s cry for help should indicate that concerned Malaysians know what is right. – The Malaysian Insight