KUALA LUMPUR, April 9 ― Much has been said about the Sedition (Amendment) Bill, tabled in Parliament this week. There are major concerns about many of the provisions of the Bill. But for internet users, the Bill, if passed, will severely restrict our freedoms online.
The Bill will empower the Sessions Court to make what is known as a “prohibition order” for publication which is “likely” to lead to bodily injury or damage to property, “appears” to promote feelings of ill will, hostility or hatred between races or classes of persons or “appears” to promote feeling of ill will, hostility or hatred between people on grounds of religion.
Unlike many other provisions of the Bill, it appears that the Sessions Court does have some discretion in granting the order. However, the threshold will be low as the bill uses words such as “likely” or “appears”.
For seditious publication by way of electronic means, a prohibition order shall require the person making or circulating the seditious publication to remove the said publication. So if you have uploaded a status onto your Facebook, the order will require you to delete the post. What is more worrying is that the person making or circulating the seditious publication will also be prohibited from accessing “any electronic device”. So, if you tweet something seditious and the Sessions Court issues a prohibition order against you, you will be prohibited from using a smartphone, tablet, desktop and any other electronic device.
Failure to comply would make the person liable to a fine of RM5,000.00, imprisonment of not more than three years, or both. For a continuing failure, the penalty is RM3,000.00 per day and if the person defaults in payment, he is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 1 year.
The Sedition (Amendment) Bill will also now make it an offence to ‘propagate’ seditious publication. ‘Propagation’ is not defined in the Bill; the normal meaning of the word would be to reproduce, disseminate or spread the publication. For social media users and those using smartphones, this would mean that a person would be liable if he or she shared on Facebook or Whatsapp or retweeted a seditious publication, even if he or she is not the maker of the said publication.
The penalty? A conviction will land the person in jail for at least 3 years, maximum 7 years. For the “aggravated” offence under the proposed Section 4(1A), it will be a maximum of 20 years imprisonment.
The internet does not exist in a vacuum. Laws operate online as much as they do offline. There is certainly a case for a more responsible and mature use of social media. But the Bill goes beyond that. Freedom of speech and expression has always thrived online. With these proposed amendments, these freedoms are now under severe threat.
* Syahredzan Johan is a civil liberties lawyer and reader of Malay Mail Online.