Freedom of speech via social media must be protected
14 September 2019
Lawyers for Liberty views with extreme concern the recent surge in online policing of social media posts that touch on sensitive issues such as race, religion and royalty.
On 11 September 2019, four individuals were arrested for making allegedly offensive posts regarding racial and religious issues on social media. The police have also initiated investigations under the Sedition Act 1948 into a case where the King and Queen were allegedly insulted on Twitter by several individuals including Parti Sosialis Malaysia activist Khalid Ismath who was arrested last night.
These arrests are a serious assault on our freedom of speech which is guaranteed under Article 10 of the Federal Constitution. This fundamental right has a high threshold which also covers the freedom to speak about sensitive issues in Malaysia. While some social media posts may be distasteful or considered offensive, the law should not be misused to prohibit such acts of expression as they do not cause any real harm that is normally prohibited by criminal law.
While it is clear that freedom of speech is not absolute, it is only in limited circumstances, when it is absolutely necessary that the authorities may act, in a proportionate manner against social media posts which carry a real issue of incitement, public disorder or security.
A further problem is that our current laws and restrictions on free speech are not clearly defined. Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act is too vague, and any person who makes an “offensive” social media post is a potential criminal under this Act. The Attorney General’s Chambers and the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission must publish clear, consistent and fair guidelines on what constitutes offensive online communication. Without such guidance, citizens are unable to regulate their own actions to ensure they do not unwittingly cross the threshold of possible criminal offence.
Furthermore, comments should not be deemed criminal just because they touch on the royalty. It is for this reason that the Sedition Act must be abolished as the law is overly broad and vague where almost anything controversial can be construed as seditious. Needless to say, the Sedition Act is a pre-Merdeka law that has long passed its relevance in today’s democratic and independent Malaysia.
Arrest for mere social media posts was a shameful and common practice of the previous government that should not continue today. We therefore urge the authorities to cease all unnecessary investigations and arrests relating to social media posts. The law should not be invoked merely to protect people’s feelings and sensitivities against social media as it is not only an abuse of power but also there would be no end to the number of such cases. Instead, non-legal solutions, such as educating society on proper social media boundaries and raising awareness about cyberbullying, would be more appropriate.
Lawyers for Liberty