Putrajaya fired over new sedition rules covering cyberspace

Putrajaya’s plan to define the controversial sedition law for cyberspace has drawn fire from several quarters even before the details are out.

Opposition lawmakers and a few others who depend on the Internet and social media applications like Twitter and Face Book to get their messages to the masses today voiced fears the archaic law is being strengthened to clamp down on freedom of speech and cut out criticism against government policies.

Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishamuddin Hussein was yesterday reported saying the guidelines covering sedition on the Internet will be out next week, but not when they would be enforced. Under the ten-point Bill of Guarantees (BoGs) of the Malaysian Multimedia Super Corridor launched in 1996, the government promised not to enforce any censorship.

He added Information, Communication and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Utama Dr Rais Yatim; Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Nazri Abdul Aziz; and the Attorney General’s Office had been roped in to draw up the new rules on sedition.

PAS lawmaker Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad slammed the ruling Barisan Nasional federal government for moving to limit the spaces available for dissenting political views ahead of the 13th general elections, widely believed will be called in the next six months.

“It’s close to elections. They, meaning Umno-BN, want to narrow the space available to us in the cyber media to communicate our messages,” the Kuala Selangor MP told The Malaysian Insider today.

Dr Dzulkefly said the cyber world was the best bet for Pakatan Rakyat parties to reach out to the masses to deliver their messages because they lacked access to the traditional print and broadcast media.

He added that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and individuals critical of the BN government would also likely suffer under the new rules.

“If you look at the blogs that attack the government, they cannot tolerate anymore, so they come down heavily using sedition so nobody will dare to criticise,” said the PAS central working committee member.

“On my blog, I have found comments challenging me that were unjustified. I don’t mind that kind of dissent or attack.

“The issue of sedition is where is the boundary? When do you cross the line?” said the 53-year-old who posts regularly at blog.drdzul.com.

Dr Dzulfkefly said he is against enhancing the sedition act further, noting the authorities had misused the law in its present form and was likely to do once the new rules came into play.

“When it comes to prosecution, it’s always selective,” he said.

Blogger-turned-politician Jeff Ooi was more circumspect in commenting on the changes to the sedition law.

“I’d like to look at the details before I comment. I’d not want the new laws to stifle the freedom of expression of online media,” the Jelutong MP told The Malaysian Insider over the phone from George Town.

He noted the government’s greatest critics were the educated middle-class urbanites.

The ruling Barisan Nasional had lost a historic five states in the 2008 general elections as well as its two-thirds control of the Dewan Rakyat, which is necessary to amend the Federal Constitution but not if it wants to pass new laws.

The DAP man expressed doubt the changes will help to put down the heightened racial tension in present day Malaysia he claimed was being “pumped up” by Umno-owned Utusan Malaysia.

“Traditional media has pumped up racial tensions, for example, Utusan with articles by its editor Zaini Hassan. The traditional laws have not been invoked to deal with such matters,” Ooi said.

He was referring to the Malay daily’s recent opinion piece calling for May 13 to be remembered as a “sacred day” after the bloody racial riots that broke out 41 years ago, prompting Malaysia’s second prime minister Tun Razak Hussein to revise an economic plan granting the Malays certain privileges to lift them from being mired in poverty.

“I suspect it’s an act for BN to stifle the freedom of speech,” he added.

Like Dr Dzulkefly, Ooi questioned the timing of the amendments to the sedition act.

“We’re fast approaching the next general elections. We already have one set of laws but it’s not being invoked.

“Whatever is seditious offline as in traditional media, the same principle should apply,” the politician said.

Lawyer Edmund Bon said he could not see the need for the Home Ministry to “refine” the law further.

“We think the Sedition Act is archaic and should be abolished,” said the Bar Council’s constitutional law chief.

Bon, a vocal civil rights activist tweets and writes with a passion for LoyarBurok.com — a free website that publishes law news.

He said Malaysian society would be moving backwards if the authorities moved to control the spread of information that is widely and freely available through electronic applications like Twitter and Face Book.

“With Twitter and the Internet, this kind of thing is so difficult to enforce and prosecute,” he said.

Bon described Putrajaya’s latest move as a “form of threat” to curtail dissent against government policies.

“The law must go, we should have nothing to do with perpetuating the breaches of the right to free speech on the Internet that will affect everyone and not just Malaysians,” he stressed.

Dhillon Andrew Kannabhiran said he is against the sedition law being enhanced to target online users.

But the founder and CEO of Hack in the Box, the country’s most prominent network security consultant firm, said Malaysia needed a law to deal with cybercrime, which includes acts that incite people to hate or act against a authority and threatens national security electronically.