|A young woman buying a newspaper in a Kuala Lumpur bookstore. Photo: David Robie|
But they are also cautious about plans for replacing the Sedition Act – made law in 1948 under British colonial rule and used against political opponents since independence – with a National Harmony Act as part of a political liberalisation policy.
“History has not made it easy to give up the untrammelled powers of the executive in favour of civil liberties to be arbitrated by the judiciary,” said the New Straits Times in an editorial headed “Freedom in harmony”.
The newspaper said the surprise announcement of the law change by Datuk Seri Najib Razak showed the prime minister was firm in his promise to “find the fine balance” that would realise the constitutional provision of free expression for every citizen while keeping the peace.
However, the Times also stressed some areas with the legal changes were “non-negotiable” because they defined the political character of the multiracial nation.
“They are the ‘the monarchy, maintaining unity and the people’s rights’,” the paper said without explaining further.
Delivering the keynote address at the 40th anniversary Asian Media Information and Communication Centre (AMIC)-Universiti Teknologi Mara international conference at Shah Alam, near the capital of Kuala Lumpur, this week, Information, Communications and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim said Malaysia needed to set up a social media council.
Social media had not only become the latest trend but it was now a necessity for the Malaysian community with about 12 million users of media such as Facebook.
“Through the council, they can think on and delve into issues on our community, security and legal obligations including giving education to school and university students,” he said.
His comments came in the wake of concerns expressed at the conference that Malaysia was exerting a greater ‘chilling” control over digital media with the controversial new Evidence Act, especially Section 114a, which puts local internet users at risk with the burden of proof being shifted to them over legal breaches.
Masjaliza Hamzah, of Malaysia’s Centre for Independent Journalism, gave the conference an insightful presentation questioning the country’s reforms around new media.
Earlier this month, Syed Abdullah Hussein Al-Attas was arrested and detained under the Official Secrets Act as a result of a complaint by a group of 30 people over controversial posts about the Sultan of Johor.
A young woman who was with him at the time of his arrest is also being held, according to the media freedom organisation Reporters Sans Frontières.
Three years ago, Karpal Singh, chairman of the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP), was charged with sedition after being accused of insulting the Sultan of Perak state.
Over the sedition law issue, the Star reported Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin as claiming that repeal of the act was proof that the government was not making “empty promises” about political transformation.
The newspaper also reported that the proposed harmony law was being given the “thumbs up” by civil society groups and professional advocacy bodies.
Human rights group Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) chairman K. Arumugam said the new law must protect every individual’s fundamental liberties.
“If it will enable public expression and growth of information in the media, then we will welcome such an act,” he told the Star.
Malaysian Bar president Lim Chee Wee said the government must ensure that the new law “refrained as much as possible” from “criminalising speech and ideas”.
In its editorial, the New Straits Times asked whether the “negative space” being shut down by the repeal of the Sedition Act could be replaced by an expanded “positive space” under the proposed harmony law.
“From 1948 to the present, seditious words written and spoken about have been outlawed. And, for the most part, quite rightly so. Society, however, has changed from the onset of the Emergency and subsequent racial troubles to a better informed and demanding present.
“The arbitrary exercise of authority belongs to the past, and while what has been protected must continue to be protected, this should be done more judiciously.”
The Times editorial was apparently referring to the so-called Malayan Emergency, a guerrilla war fought by the military arm of the Malayan Communist Party with Commonwealth forces between 1948 and 1960, and cross-cultural clashes such as in March 2001.
The newspaper also called on citizens to support the “moral courage” and “political commitment” of the government while being patient about “temporary imperfections”.
Dr David Robie was at the AMIC conference to give a paper on East Timor, West Papua and peace journalism.