Freedom of Speech and Expression in Malaysia

Description: A response to the recent cartoon uproar.
        Author: ES (Research)
Everyone agrees that the press is entitled to its freedom. But how does one define and qualify freedom? The recent Danish cartoon crisis explicitly tells the press world that if it does not impose restraints upon itself, it invites confrontation that can lead to worldwide violence and social chaos. Without a doubt, globalisation has its detrimental effect.

Malaysia is not excluded from such disturbing development. The reaction towards New Straits Time (NST) over a Non-Sequitur cartoon by Wiley Miller took many by surprise. Even though the cartoon bore no caricatures of Prophet Mohammad, the Internal Security Ministry said that “the cartoon had breached the conditions of the newspaper’s publishing permit under the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984” (NST, 2006-02-23). The issue was however dismissed by the Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (who is also the Internal Security Minister) after NST offered its “unreserved apology”. 

Set aside the controversial cartoon on Prophet Mohammad, Jesus Christ too suffers humiliation in Western media and art for many decades. In January 2005, a group of outraged Christians in England protested against the West End musical “Jerry Springer – The Opera” which featured a nappy-wearing Jesus character confessing himself to be gay. The Da Vince Code, a widely-read fiction by Dan Brown which has been made into a movie, bears blasphemous depiction of Jesus.  Perhaps Malaysian Christians would take comfort when the Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak was reportedly to have said that “government would not tolerate offensive and inappropriate depictions of Jesus Christ and other religious icons” (The Star, 2006-2-16).

So, freedom of speech and expression is not necessarily good for all societies after all.

Laws in Malaysia

Malaysian citizens do enjoy the right to freedom of speech and expression as provided by Article 10 of the Federal Constitution. Such freedom, nonetheless, is qualified in terms of national security, public order or morality (Article 10.2a “such restrictions as it deems necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of the Federation or any part thereof, friendly relations with other countries, public order or morality and restrictions designed to protect the privileges of Parliament or of any Legislative Assembly or to provide against contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to any offence”). The journalists, in addition, have to contend with a number of other restrictions. Among them are: The Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, Broadcasting Act 1988, Official Secrets Act 1972, Sedition Act 1948, and Internal Security Act 1960.

The Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 imposes stringent licensing requirements. Licenses are granted at the complete discretion of the Home Minister, must be renewed annually, and can be revoked or suspended at any time without the right to be heard. Publishing without a permit can attract a jail sentence up to three years and/or fines. Publication without name of publisher and printer is an offence punishable by jail terms up to one year and/or fines.

 After the Operation Lalang in 1987, the Act was amended to give the Minister “absolute discretion, which was not to be questioned in any Court of Law, to ban publications present and future which he considered prejudicial to public order, morality or security, or likely to be prejudicial to the public or national interest.”  Included also was a new offence of malicious publication of false news (three-year jail sentence and/or fines). 

In his reply to a senator at the Dewan Negara sitting, Datuk Noh Omar, the then Deputy Minister of Internal Security ministry, said that the ministry was monitoring the Press to ensure no publication of articles that “can jeopardise national security, public order, morality, the public and national interest” (Bernama, 2005-5-12).

The Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontier ranks Malaysia 113 out of 167 in its Worldwide Press Freedom Index for 2005. Malaysia was ranked 122 in 2004.

Ethics and Freedom

Media can effectively shape or alter public opinion through various means of reporting. In the multiethnic and multi-religious society of Malaysia, media has not only made significant contribution to socio-economic development, but has also served as instrument that contributes to national integration.

The Prime Minister had earlier affirmed the media that the government recognized the key role of media as a platform between the people and those in power (Star Online, 2005-7-21). The recent years see media, the press in particular, given a greater extent of freedom, provides for participation in the decision-making process by members of society as well as creates social consciousness and cohesiveness. Evidently, the government has a role to play in assuring freedom of speech and expression in society in order to achieve a stable and advance community and develop national aims.

The first duty of an ethical journalist, as stated in the National Union of Journalists’ code of Ethics, is respect for truth and the right of the public to truth. While the journalists profess themselves to be guardians and transmitters of truth, the government and people may at times treat such claim with cynicism or even reject it completely.  The indefinite suspension of the Sarawak Tribune in February 8th is a classic example.

The British socialist, Francis Williams, said in his book on journalism, “The freedom of the press differs from, and ought always to be recognized as greater than, the simple freedom of an entrepreneur to do what he pleases with his property. A journalist has commitments to the commercial interests of those who employ him. But he has other loyalties also and these embrace the whole relationship of a newspaper to its public.” (Dangerous Estate: The Anatomy of Newspaper, London, 1959)

Freedom of speech and expression can be a hindrance to society when majority of the people are not trained to think for themselves but allow their emotion and religious zeal to be manipulated for political gain. This can be illustrated by the demonstration of political parties over the Non-Sequitur cartoon (NST, 2006-2-24). 

While the media must be relatively free from political pressure, it should be held accountable for the interests of society at large. Perhaps the questions are: What is the dividing line between the rights of the press to its freedom and the claims of social responsibility? How should the rights of all in freedom of speech and expression be reconciled with social and public interest?  Most important of all, how we Christians should view and use such freedom?

Rev Wong Kim Kong, the Secretary-General of NECF Malaysia, believes that God intended absolute freedom for men at the beginning of creation. “This plan was thwarted when sin came into the world through the disobedience of Adam and Eve.” Freedom has since been restrained. "Biblical laws were initiated thereof to prevent the abuse of freedom in order to safeguard the moral, religious and ethical well-being of the created order,” he says. While Christians support the principle of freedom and independent media, Rev. Wong cautions us to “think hard and consider carefully before expressing ideas that are bound to cause deep offence.”

A British Statesman and Philosopher, Edmund Burke (1729-1797), has said it well, “What is liberty without wisdom and without virtue?  It is the greatest of all possible evils, for it is folly, vice and madness without tuition or restraint.” Indeed, freedom is the most cherished asset of all human being, but freedom, when misused, becomes a dangerous cause. “Freedom of speech must entail ethical and moral accountability and responsibility to the welfare of society. It should also include the credibility of truth,” adds Rev Wong.

While we praise God for the media people who are courageous to speak the truth and continue to play their role in the nation’s well-being, we ask God for wisdom and integrity that they will not be swayed by material gain or pressure groups. As we are against those who abuse freedom for selfish and political gain, we continue to pray for greater freedom for a “vibrant, honest, constructive” and responsible media that is accountable to public interest, and for Christian journalists and the like to make a difference for God’s glory.

Posted March 15, 2006

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