Dennis Ignatius: The Last Days of Freedom?

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It was deeply troubling to read last week that pensioner Abdullah Sani was convicted and fined RM2,000 (or one month’s jail) for the great crime of insulting the Minister of Health.

Abdullah was charged under the notorious Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 which criminalizes comments that are intended to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass others. Offenses under the act are punishable by a maximum fine of RM50,000, or up to a year’s jail, or both upon conviction.

Tellingly, the judge (according to media reports) noted that Abdullah’s comments were “not overboard” or “malicious.” Is this an indication that the law is so broadly framed that it allows the government to criminalize even comments that are balanced and in good faith?

The Deputy Public Prosecutor (DPP) asked the court for a deterrent sentence that reflects the “severity” of the offense. “I ask the court to impose a sentence that will serve as a lesson to the accused and also to the public so as to be more sensitive and considerate before making social media postings,” he said.

Surely there is something incongruous about asking for a deterrent sentence that reflects the “severity” of the offense in relation to comments that “are not overboard” or “malicious.” What “lesson” do the authorities wish to teach the public other than that it is not willing to abide any criticisms of its conduct.

It is extremely distressing as well that Abdullah Sani’s case comes on the heels of a number of other cases where politicians, civil society leaders, journalists, bloggers and other critics of the government have been hauled up for questioning and/or charged with offenses under the many odious laws that allow the government to harass, intimidate and persecute its critics.

Nazir Sufari/TMI

Among those under police scrutiny are Steven Gan (editor, Malaysiakini), Patrick Teoh (Radio DJ), Tashny Sukumaran (correspondent for the South China Morning Post), Lai Yuet Ming @ Dian Abdullah (blogger),  Siti Kasim (activist-lawyer), Cynthia Gabriel (Founder, Centre to Combat Corruption & Cronyism), R Sri Sanjeevan (Malaysian Crime Watch Task Force), Fadiah Nadwa Fikri (activist-lawyer), and opposition MPs Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, Hannah Yeoh, R Sivarasa and Dr Xavier Jayakumar.

In addition, Marina Mahathir, Ambiga Sreenevasan and 14 other activists are being investigated for participating in a peaceful rally held on 1st March to express disapproval of Muhyiddin Yassin’s appointment as prime minister. Five protestors and unionists have also been arrested for participating in a peaceful assembly demanding improved working conditions for hospital cleaners.

Even the participants of the recently concluded youth digital parliament are now being “contacted” by the police though their reasons for doing so are as yet uncertain. Given the current environment, one has to wonder if this is yet another “act of intimidation” (to quote one MP).

As a group of civil society organizations warned recently, the government is “increasingly using Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) and laws such as the Sedition Act 1948, the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 and Sections 504 and 505 of the Penal Code to silence freedom of expression, speech and assembly.”  The intention, they warned is to “censor, intimidate and silence critics until they abandon their criticism.”

In a democracy, ministers and elected representatives, servants of the people who voted them into office, should never be shielded from the wrath or criticism of the people. Any government that seeks to use the law to protect itself from public criticism surely forfeits its moral authority to govern.

What is worse, while the government goes to great lengths to harass and intimidate its critics and other citizens on spurious charges of hurting the feelings of thin-skinned politicians, some of those guilty of real crimes like gross abuse of power and corruption benefit from sweetheart deals or have the charges against them withdrawn. What kind of government allows people charged with massive corruption to walk free while harassing and intimidating a retiree over some comments he made on social media?

When Pakatan Harapan leaders wanted our vote, they promised to abolish every last piece of anti-democratic legislation on the books. No doubt it was a key factor in the handsome victory that it won in May 2018. Once in office, however, PH leaders prevaricated and compromised, seeking to amend rather than abolish anti-democratic legislation. Is compromise with inherently unjust laws even possible?

Because of PH’s failure to act when they had the opportunity to do so, the citizens of Malaysia continue to suffer persecution, intimidation and harassment. Indeed, the same politicians who failed to act now find themselves at the receiving end of the very laws they were not sufficiently motivated to abolish while in office.

It’s going to get a lot worse. The only way the government is going to stave off challenges to its position is to silence its critics and criminalize dissent. But don’t despair; soon enough voters will have the opportunity to tell the Perikatan Nasional government what we think about their intimidation and harassment. They may endeavour to silence our voices, but they can never extinguish the yearning for freedom that Malaysians carry in their hearts.