FREE EXPRESSION

in Asian Cyberspace

On Merdeka eve, free speech online gets a ‘blackeye’

KUALA LUMPUR — The latest buzz in the Malaysian blogosphere is about the apology of a commenter for a remark he (or she) posted on a blog seemingly suggesting that a journalist be shot for an article that disparaged the country’s former prime minister, Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad.

The incident highlights yet again the delicate balancing act that Malaysian bloggers have to do with respect to their exercise of free speech and free expression online, and takes significance especially coming as it does on the eve of festivities to commemorate 49 years of Merdeka, Malaysian independence from British colonial rule.

The individual, who used the alias IImran, issued an apology after posting “Somebody, please shoot this Gunasegaram for good” on Malaysia’s most prolific blogger Jeff Ooi’s site, Screenshots. The reference was to P. Gunasegaram, the executive editor of theSun and NexNews Group who wrote “The Myth of Mahathir’s Invincibility” which was published in theSun last week. The said article was republished on Ooi’s blog and sparked responses from bloggers, including IImran, who apparently did not approve of Gunasegaram’s attacks against Mahathir.

Yesterday, Gunasegaram lodged a complaint with the Communications and Multimedia Content Forum of Malaysia (CMCF) against Ooi’s blog for carrying the said comment. The CMCF was set up under the Communications and Multimedia Act of 1988 and is tasked with monitoring online content and handling complaints.

Gunasegaram’s news organization has held Ooi responsible for allowing the comment on his site, saying that “a threat to hurt someone is criminal intimidation, not freedom of expression.”

“While we have no problem having anyone debate, discuss or even challenge what Gunasegaram wrote and indeed many people have­, threat of bodily harm is another thing altogether and should be taken seriously,” said Ho Kay Tat, Nexnews Group editor-in-chief. “It was irresponsible of Ooi to allow the posting on his website. We do not understand what motivated him to allow it,” he added.

The mediation by CMCF’s complaints bureau has resulted in the parties — Gunasegaram and Ooi — agreeing on the following conditions:

  • removal of all offensive postings by blog commenters
  • for Ooi to continue removing such offensive phrases or words as soon as practicable
  • for Ooi to publish in full IImran’s apology to Gunasegaram for his remark

Screenshots Warning to CommentersOoi has also acceeded to display prominently a further warning (see image) to blog commenters that they are responsible for their own postings and could be liable for any legal action or prosecution.

In his apology, IImran however said that his comment should not be used against Ooi. Said IImran: “In my opinion, Jeff have (sic) given the readers including me, and (sic) avenue to discuss matters of interests. And as can be seen through comments by others on the blog, not everyone condone my writing and this can be simplified to show that Jeff and the readers are in fact an example of a mature online community bent on self-moderation.”

Unlike its stingent media laws, Malaysian cyberlaw upholds the policy of self-regulation with respect to the Internet so as not to stifle the positive growth of the industry.

In the aftermath of this recent fallout, Ooi has taken the opportunity to challenge his fellow Malaysian netizens to start a “civil, focused, intellectual debate” on whether the present cyberlaw in Malaysia is inadequate in policing the Internet and the behavior of Internet users.

“Tell us if the notion and principles of self-regulation that Malaysian cyberlaw had intended cannot work in Malaysia,” said Ooi, consciously reminding commenters not to resort to offensive language on his blog.

This is, however, not the first time that Malaysian authorities have questioned Ooi for his blog’s content. Early this year, he came under police scrutiny for “inciting racial disharmony” as alleged in a New Straits Times report over a Mohammed cartoon strip it published.

Apparently, the cause of the “racial disharmony” was his post criticizing the NST for publishing the “offensive” cartoon but which also carried a small version of the caricature that he immediately took down. No case has been filed against him though.

Last year, Ooi was brought to the Criminal Investigation Division for questioning in connection with a September 2004 post titled “Islam Hadhari and Money Politics” where he asserted that Islam Hadhari — or “civilizational Islam,” an interpretation of Islam promoted by Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi that focused on Islam’s compatibility with economic and technical development — is inconsistent with political bribery. Ooi described the two forces as “water and oil which do not mix.”

The post received a remark from a commenter who identified himself only as “Anwar” saying that “Islam hadari and money politics is just like shit and urine that’s how to make comparison.” Ooi immediately deleted the words “shit and urine” and even blocked the IP address of “Anwar.” But the mainstream media still faulted him for failing to control his forum and allowing “opinion that is regarded as ridiculing Islam to be published.”

The outcome of a police investigation in the said case remains pending.

August 30, 2006 - Posted by | Free Expression in Asia

1 Comment »

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