Friday July 10, 2015
06:23 AM GMT+8
KUALA LUMPUR, July 10 — The zeal with which the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) issued a warning to internet users against spreading false information about state-owned 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) has raised eyebrows among the country’s legal experts.
Lawyers told Malay Mail Online that the internet regulator’s caution yesterday, coupled with a reminder of the penalty risks, appear to be an overreaction by a federal agency to Malaysians having fun with the #1MDB topics that have been trending online.
“If indeed there is information which is false or defamatory being circulated by the public, it is open for 1MDB to take legal action or to prevent the circulation of these false or defamatory information. Not for the state to step in,” Syahredzan Johan said when contacted yesterday.
The civil liberties lawyer also questioned MCMC’s move to use state resources to protect a company that has the power to take legal action to protect its own interests.
Human rights lawyer Andrew Khoo noted MCMC’s warning was issued on the heels of revelations of alleged financial irregularities in the strategic investment fund this past week.
Because of the timing, he believes the federal agency’s action to be an attempt to “assist in protecting the personal image and reputation of the prime minister” who was linked by US-based daily Wall Street Journal (WSJ) to transfers of nearly US$700 million (RM2.6 billion) from the debt-riddled 1MDB.
“The allegations and the alleged documents are matters which are already in the public domain. The news reports are already readily accessible on the Internet.
“It is a waste of time and effort to try and bIock these from being discussed or disseminated. The rakyat have the right to freedom of information, to freely hold opinions, and to share those opinions. As long as they are not advocating hate speech or violent conduct MCMC should not allow itself to be manipulated by partisan politics,” Khoo said.
He said government agencies and government machinery must not be abused to protect the reputation of politicians, even if it is the prime minister.
“Surely it has better things to do,” Khoo said.
Eric Paulsen too questioned MCMC’s priorities, saying there were greater concerns facing the country currently, giving as examples the spread of hate speech online and the use of social media by militant Islamist groups to influence young Malaysians into joining their terror campaigns.
“Surely MCMC must know that you can’t jail and fine every social media user for making fun of 1MDB etc.
“This is a matter of public interest, so all the more reason discussions and jokes about it,” said the executive director of legal aid group Lawyers for Liberty.
He also promised to defend anyone charged with making fun of 1MDB.
Like Syahredzan, Paulsen said MCMC should not be policing the internet on matters that concerned the reputation of a public-listed company.
Lawyer and popular social commentator Azhar Harun said MCMC should be able to distinguish between satirical remarks and those that are “seriously annoying or harassing people”.
Many Malaysians, he said, are deeply concerned, disappointed and angry with the country’s current situation and have resorted to satire and parody as a coping mechanism.
“I view it as creating fear to stop people from discussing certain issues that are deemed sensitive, so this so-called advice is given, this infringes on freedom of speech.
“We need to protect freedom of speech first and not find ways to curb it. And only when that freedom is really abused, and that abuse threaten public order, national security, only then I say we should curb freedom of speech, otherwise things like memes, why are we so serious about these things?” Azhar asked.
In a statement on its Facebook page yesterday, MCMC said sharing false news or altered images related to the investigation on the state-owned fund on social media or on mobile messaging app WhatsApp could be a violation of Section 211 or Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998.
Sections 211 and 233 of the law concern state it is an offence for people to provide electronic content that is indecent, obscene, false, menacing or offensive with the intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass any person, punishable by a fine of not more than RM50,000 or imprisonment of not more than one year.
“The public is advised to stop sharing images that have been altered, false news or any speculation on the investigation on 1MDB through social media, including the WhatsApp application,” it said.
Contacted for clarification, MCMC Strategic Communications senior director told Malay Mail Online that satire, parody and fiction are not included as an offence, quoting Part 7.3 of the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Content Code.