Centre for Independent Journalism Malaysia

The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) views with incredulity the suggestion mentioned by the Communications and Multimedia Minister Ahmad Shabery Cheek for all social media users to register with the Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC).

Aside from such registration creating huge bureaucratic, administrative and technological challenges, it will also constitute an infringement on freedom of expression. CIJ reiterates that curbs on freedom of expression cannot be imposed willy-nilly but only when a clear threat to national security, public order or public morality can be demonstrated, and the restriction can be shown to be necessary and proportionate.

Requiring all social media users to register with the MCMC is clearly unnecessary and disproportionate to the aim Shabery has listed – to make it easier to prove the identities of those who make seditious or defamatory remarks online. The authorities have already prosecuted a number of individuals who posted comments online using pseudonyms, and have demonstrated that they have the technological resources to identify the actual persons behind anonymous postings. Furthermore, courts in other jurisdictions have already wrestled with the issue of potentially defamatory posts online and developed clear principles of when the identity of an anonymous contributor can and should be revealed. There is no necessity to impose registration requirements that are onerous, both to MCMC and internet users, in the guise of necessitating better evidence gathering for sedition and defamation cases.

Moreover, the offence of sedition is one that should be repealed. CIJ is alarmed at Prime Minister Najib Razak’s recent statement that the Sedition Act will be maintained and even strengthened. It is most disappointing that our nation’s leaders are propagating the view that silencing dissent and critical comments is the best way forward in maintaining harmony. We reiterate that only speech that advocates hatred and incites discrimination, hostility and violence should be liable for criminal prosecution. Clamping down on any other speech can create and has created a chilling effect on the right to freedom of expression.

Instead of trying to silence everyone who may potentially utter insulting words, our leaders should instead focus on the root causes of intolerant behaviour and expression and bring about “real changes in mindsets, perceptions and discourse”. To quote the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression Frank La Rue, “a broad set of policy measures are necessary, for example in the areas of intercultural dialogue or education for diversity, equality and justice and in strengthening freedom of expression and promoting a ‘culture of peace’… The strategic response to expressions deemed as offensive or intolerant is more speech: more speech that educates about cultural differences; more speech that promotes diversity and understanding; more speech to empower and give voice to minorities and indigenous peoples.”

Instead of working on dealing with the root causes of intolerance, our government appears to be taking a short-term view of attempting to silence all dissenting views instead. This will be damaging in the long run and will not bring about lasting harmony as differences, prejudices and stereotypes only become further entrenched. Our leaders should instead acknowledge the importance that freedom of expression plays in combatting racism and intolerance and use the public platforms that they have to promote understanding, and not fear.

CIJ thus calls on the government to disregard the suggestion for registration of internet users and to repeal the Sedition Act without delay.