19 February 2021
KLSCAH expressed regret at the Federal Court’s decision today that Malaysiakini was convicted of contempt of court and was fined RM500,000 because the RM500,000 fine is higher than the RM200,000 fine required by the Attorney General’s office. If Malaysiakini cannot afford the relevant fines, it will be facing closure. This move is like suffocating the media’s role as the Fourth Estate in a democracy.
KLSCAH believes that the landmark decision will set a precedent for online media outlets to face penalties for their readers’ comments in the future. It especially cited Section 114A of the Evidence Act 1950, stating that news organisations must be responsible for offensive comments, and charges were filed against Malaysiakini.
This move does not only deter journalists and readers but also further damage and oppress freedom of speech, setting off a ‘chilling effect’ and affecting the space for discussion concerning the interests of the people.
After the 2012 amendment of the Evidence Act 1950, Section 114A was added to clarify that anyone, including the government, can initiate legal and criminal proceedings against social media users or network service providers if they believe that one’s postings bring contempt of court.
KLSCAH believes that Section 114A will hinder the free flow of online information, create fear to silence dissidents and opponents, making it the most powerful tool to suppress freedom of the press.
Furthermore, Section 114A has deviated from the original intention of the ‘presumption of innocence’ principle. The prosecutor can preemptively believe that comments of the defendant are already offensive; it assumes that the defendant is already guilty without evidence. On the other hand, the defendant can provide their comments as evidence that they have no intention to cause harm. This ironically goes against the tide of said principle.
In this age of technological explosion, the internet is prone to becoming a breeding ground for offensive messages, slander etc. The media certainly plays an important role in controlling their websites and social media pages; however, citing Section 114A to control Malaysiakini goes against the current, especially with many emerging media outlets choosing to move into the internet space. This law will further restrict the modus operandi of online media.
Therefore, KLSCAH appealed to the government to abolish legal provisions that curb the development of the internet, such as Section 114A. This is because the definition of offensive messages extracted by the prosecutor is very vague, and there are no clear rules and regulations on how network service providers should manage their online presence so that they will not violate the law.
KLSCAH hereby suggests that the government and the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) should study and explore alternatives to control offensive comments on the internet, instead of implementing various laws to clamp down on the operation of online media and restrict online users’ messages. Instead, they should relax control on news media, standardise a trustworthy social media community management model, and ensure the freedom of online media operations. While giving the public a moderate amount of online messages, do not use online comments to rashly impose unnecessary charges on the media.
Image source: MalaysiaKini