Could simply having an opinion be considered seditious?

Human rights activist Datuk Ambiga Sreenev. — file pic
Human rights activist Datuk Ambiga Sreenev. — file pic

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 16 — Following the police’s sedition probe against a Penang teenager for “liking” an “I love Israel” Facebook page, human rights activist Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan has questioned how just having an opinion could be seen as seditious.

Maintaining that the teenager’s action does not amount to an offence under the Sedition Act 1948, she said the probe against him would only strike fear in the hearts of Malaysians and deter the country’s youth from voicing their views.

“Of course I think it is appalling that they are going after a young student for just liking a page. It doesn’t make sense. Since when is it seditious to have a point of view?” the lawyer told Malay Mail Online when contacted recently.

She said the teacher’s behaviour in circulating and highlighting the boy’s alleged “like” was even “more shocking”.

To probe the 17-year-old teenager for not sharing the same point of view as others is “not just a waste of time” but a “dangerous precedent” as it would discourage the younger generation from formulating their own opinions on issues, she repeated.

“My concern is the message that we are sending to the youth, what are we telling them by doing this? Are we saying they can’t have a view which is a different view?”

“You are stifling fundamental liberties and you are scaring the youth,” the former Bar Council president said, referring to the right to freedom of speech guaranteed under Article 10 of the Federal Constitution.

Many Malaysians — mainly from the Muslim community - have been criticising Israel for its violent offensive against Palestinians in Gaza, with some groups even calling for nationwide boycotts against companies that purportedly support Israel’s efforts.

But Ambiga said Malaysians should not “give in to irrational and emotional responses” despite their protests against Israel’s actions, adding: “We are all against what is happening to Gaza, but I think we really have to be measured in our responses to our own people”.

The activist also expressed concern over how the sedition investigation would affect the teenager as it would leave a “lasting impression” on the 17-year-old student — who will be sitting for his SPM this year.

“I think there must be wisdom and I am hoping police will come to their senses and forget about the Sedition Act charge,” she said.

Yap Swee Seng, the executive director of human rights group Suaram, similarly said the sedition probe “is going to have a chilling effect on people (who want) to express their opinions and feelings”.

Yap said the probe against the teenager amounted to “a clear abuse of power and clear abuse of the Sedition Act”.

“There is nothing in Sedition Act to prevent any public to express their like or dislike of a country.”

He pointed out that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak had already promised to repeal the colonial-era legislation, also saying that the government should uphold the constitutionally-guaranteed right to freedom of expression instead of “clamping down” on it.

Jerald Joseph, a director at human rights group Pusat Komas, said the sedition probe is “violating the concept of freedom of expression”, also claiming that it was a “scare tactic” and “intimidation” of Internet users.

Those who disagree with the youth could have chosen to express their dissenting opinions on his Facebook account or used other methods, he said.

“For a young person who has ideas and thoughts, I think there are other ways to discuss and educate but definitely not prosecuting someone under the Sedition Act for liking a Facebook page,” he said when contacted.

Jerald questioned why the police had focused on the “liking” of the Facebook page when there were many cases of hate speech and other crimes in the country.

“It’s only a waste of our resources when there are so many other serious issues - crimes...and our people are signing up to bomb themselves up under ISIL,” he said, referring to Malaysians who had signed up to join the militant group Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)’s terror activities in Iraq and Syria.

He said Malaysians should be encouraged to freely share and debate their views on the Internet as it would help provide a more “democratic space” and create a more mature society.

“Young people should be encouraged to do that, rather than putting fear into them,” he said.

Yesterday, Penang police chief Datuk Wira Abdul Rahim Hanafi confirmed that the probe of the teenager under Section 4 (1) (c ) of the Sedition Act has been completed, with the investigation papers sent to the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) to decide on whether to press charges.

The police had recorded statements from a total of five people, following the teenager’s police report and a police report that was lodged against him.

The whole issue blew up after a teacher from the teenager’s school allegedly circulated a screen captured image of the controversial post, which prompted attacks from other Facebook users to cut off ties with the student and to “boycott” him.

Another teacher purportedly from the same school, went a step further, leaving on the first teacher’s Facebook page that is accessible only to friends a message that read: “Kita bakor je hahaha [We just burn hahaha]”. The boy had lodged a police report and a police report was also lodged against him.