COMMENT The increasingly and desperate use of oppressive laws like the Sedition Act 1948 is evidence enough that Malaysia is fast becoming a fascist state. By fascism, is meant a system of government marked by oppressive controls, violent suppression of the opposition, and typically a policy of belligerent nationalism and racist and religious extremism.
Even former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad has voiced his fears of the country becoming a police state following the recent arrest of senior editors and top executives of The Edge media group under the sedition law.
As we commemorate World Press Freedom Day once again, let’s remind ourselves that the journalism’s first obligation is to the truth. Let us also remind ourselves that only a press free of censorship can tell the truth.
Our profession is essentially a pursuit of truth. We need not only to seek the truth but also to speak it. Boldly. Although the federal constitution does not guarantee press freedom, it guarantees the right to freedom of expression; a right to hold an opinion and to express it, however pugnacious that opinion may be.
The pursuit of truth is not merely a lofty idealism but a basic element and ethos of our profession. This is our mandate. We have no other option really; we are either in conspiracy with those who covet to hide the truth or comrades-in-arm with those who fight to free it. We are either journalists or servile apologists of the establishment.
There is no safe space in journalism. We need to understand that and we need to make a choice. That choice defines our professional identity. Our prayer and our hope is that we can find the courage to make the right choice - a choice that will make us free people or slaves to our own cowardice.
The Sedition Act 1948 was amended on April 10, just one month ago. According to a joint statement a week later by the Malaysian Bar, the Advocates’ Association of Sarawak and the Sabah Law Association, “The amendments have dealt a crippling blow to the rule of law in Malaysia, and lend weight to the widely held public perception that we are becoming an intolerant authoritarian state”.
“The amendments do not deal with one of the most offensive elements of the Sedition Act 1948, namely that the intention of a person accused of sedition, whether noble or mischievous, is irrelevant. The offence of sedition therefore remains one of strict liability. Strict liability for criminal offences is an extreme exception in criminal law, and certainly not one that should be used in respect of the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech and expression.
“The amendments also criminalise truth, inasmuch as the truth of the words that are said to constitute ‘seditious tendency’ is not a defence to a sedition charge.”
Crafted by the former colonial regime
In a nutshell, there is no defence for anyone charged under the sedition law. And none when charged has managed to escape thus far. Let us be reminded that the Sedition Act 1948 was not even enacted by Parliament but crafted by the former colonial regime.
The genesis of it is so archaic that it was actually first introduced in Singapore as the Sedition Ordinance 1938 of the Straits Settlements where it was a Crown Colony just as Penang and Malacca were. The main aim was to curtail opposition to colonial rule. Today, it is used to stifle growing opposition to a regime that has become increasingly unpopular.
Following amendments to the sedition law, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein warned the government that the new provisions would “seriously undermine the freedom of expression and opinion in the country, in breach of Malaysia’s federal constitution and its international human rights obligations.”
He also pointed out that the Sedition Act has been applied in many instances to curb the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression in Malaysia - including through the arrests of individuals for merely tweeting their criticism of government policies and judicial decisions.
He said since the beginning of 2014, at least 78 people have been investigated or charged under the Sedition Act and in 2015 alone, so far, at least 36 individuals have already been investigated or charged.
The use of draconian laws like sedition has not been able to prop up unpopular regimes for long. In our context, one prime minister after another has to be forced to step down from intra-party backstabbing and instability. The fourth one was forced to resign after 22 years, his successor did not manage to hang on for long and now the current one is getting ready to ride into the sunset.
Getting rid of prime ministers in quick succession obviously does not work. The truth of the matter is in dismantling the super structures of fascism that have been built up over the long years of oppressive rule. The first step is to get rid of draconian laws like the Sedition Act 1948.
In conclusion, let us be reminded that what we need not be fearful but to be bold and defy such laws like sedition in order to do our job professionally. Journalism, after all, is not merely a job. It is a vocation, a calling even, where our first obligation is to the truth. We need to make that choice today. As the Bible says, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8:32).
This is the text of the presentation by BOB TEOH at a forum jointly organised by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) Malaysia and Universiti Putra Malaysia in Serdang on May 9, 2015. He was general-secretary of NUJ (1984-86) and secretary-general of the Confederation of Asean Journalists (1985-87).