KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 18 — Over the last few months, the pressure has been building for Malaysian authorities to rein in freedom of expression on the Internet.
As I have noted before, the Malaysian Government, so used to controlling the mainstream media through a combination of repressive laws such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA – click here to download a PDF of the Act) and ownership (whether directly or indirectly) of all the major media organisations, has never been comfortable with what it sees as the unfettered freedom accorded by the Internet.
These attempts to regulate and monitor free expression have taken a turn for the worst in the last few weeks.
First there was former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who during his tenure had made a commitment that Malaysia would never censor the Internet, now urging the current administration to do, saying that he has since regretted his decision.
This was followed by Communication and Multimedia Minister Ahmad Shabery Cheek announcing that, based on a handful of complaints, the Government would consider blocking social media network Facebook in Malaysia. It was such a ridiculous notion that the minister himself tempered the declaration by noting it would be “radical.”
Not as radical as what followed next. Within a few days, Malaysian police said they would be investigating a 17-year-old school student from the northern state of Penang under the Sedition Act. His crime? For allegedly ‘Liking’ a Facebook page called ‘I Love Israel.’
The teenager has received threats, and the police are also investigating these, including the teacher who painted a bull’s eye on the boy by posting a screen capture of his Facebook page on her own Facebook account.
Much has been written about this issue since. The boy has denied he clicked on the Like button. Many OpEds have been written to point out that liking a Facebook page dedicated to Israel cannot be considered seditious in Malaysia; while others have argued for the boy’s right to free expression.
All good points, but missing some important points that DNA Columnist Foong Cheng Leong brought up in his Bread & Kaya column last week, a key one being: Liking a page on Facebook does not necessarily indicate support for a page. People may ‘Like’ a page only because they want updates on that page to appear on their News Feed, or just to keep track.
Indeed, if that school student was preparing to write an essay on what the Gaza conflict is all about, it would make sense for him to monitor such a page for his research.
Even the most neutral of observers would have to acknowledge that the movement to restrict and regulate the Internet is beginning to build up in the corridors of power, fuelled by extremist and hardliner groups.
In a stroke of good timing, the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Empower Malaysia is about to embark on a national campaign to create greater awareness of our rights on the Internet, a three-year programme that is being supported by the European Union and the Association for Progressive Communications (APC).
APC is an international network of organisations that was founded in 1990 to provide communication infrastructure to groups and individuals who work for peace, human rights, protection of the environment, and sustainability. As of December 2010, it had 50 members in 35 countries.
Empower itself promotes and supports actions that advance justice and democracy, working with women and youth to realise their potential in the areas of political and economic participation, and civil liberties.
It recently invited representatives from civil society, media organisations (including yours truly), and academicians for a meeting to tell us more about this campaign, and to discuss issues affecting freedom of expression, association and assembly; and Internet rights and safety in Malaysia.
Empower’s national campaign will focus especially on Malaysians’ right to freedom of expression, and will consist of three portions: Research; capacity-building; and advocacy. The NGO’s officers acknowledged they would need to gather legal and technical experts who can provide greater clarity, which explains the first two portions, before they can embark on proper advocacy.
“We are not talking about protests, but we need to be a check-and-balance to the Government,” said Empower executive director Maria Chin Abdullah.
“We need to tell them that we have a right to this space – as long as we’re not hurting anyone,” she said, referring to racial and religious sensitivities.
Abdullah is also keen to take this initiative beyond its three-year phase, and make it a long-term effort.
After much discussion, this inaugural meeting laid out the next steps that need to be taken. But the most important takeaway, for me at least, came from Khairil Yusof, cofounder of the Sinar Project, an NGO that advocates for transparency in governance.
What do we mean when we say ‘Internet rights and freedoms,’ he asked, noting that the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which defends rights in the digital world, uses the US Constitution as its ‘baseline.’
“What is our baseline? I think it should be our Federal Constitution,” he proposed.
The point? The Internet doesn’t give us greater rights. It just gives us easier access to those rights, and a platform to practice or fight for those rights.
Malaysia’s Constitution is a pretty solid piece of legislation. If you look at almost any issue that is being discussed in the nation’s political sphere today, it is already provided for in this wonderful document.
For instance, Article 5 provides for basic fundamental human rights.
Article 8 provides that all persons are equal before the law and entitled to its equal protection. Clause 2 states: “Except as expressly authorised by this Constitution, there shall be no discrimination against citizens on the ground only of religion, race, descent, gender or place of birth in any law or in the appointment to any office or employment under a public authority or in the administration of any law relating to the acquisition, holding or disposition of property or the establishing or carrying on of any trade, business, profession, vocation or employment.”
The only exceptions are the affirmative actions taken to protect the special position – not special privileges – for the Malays of Peninsular Malaysia and the indigenous people of Sabah and Sarawak under Article 153.
Article 10(1) grants freedom of speech, the right to assemble peaceably and the right to form associations.
These freedoms are not absolute. Parliament is permitted by law to impose restrictions in the interest of national security, diplomatic relations with other countries, public order, morality, and so on – not to restrict criticism against the Government or political leaders, mind you.
Article 11 provides that every person has the right to profess and practice his own religion, with an exception provided for against proselytisation of other religions amongst Muslims.
“Internet rights and freedoms” are nothing more than the constitutional rights accorded each and every one of us as Malaysian citizens. That is what we’re advocating, and the only ‘fight’ we have is against those who would trample upon that most important of documents, the Federal Constitution (PDF link). — Digital News Asia
This story was first published here.