With revised Sedition Act, only ‘cute kittens’ left on social media

Lawyers for Liberty (LFL) executive director Eric Paulsen said if the colonial-era law were to be applied to its fullest extent, social media and the Internet would not be able to function in Malaysia. ― File pic
Lawyers for Liberty (LFL) executive director Eric Paulsen said if the colonial-era law were to be applied to its fullest extent, social media and the Internet would not be able to function in Malaysia. ― File pic

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KUALA LUMPUR, April 10 ― The amendments to the Sedition Act 1948 that prohibit disseminating seditious speech could kill social media and turn the internet into a silent place beyond recognition, activists said yesterday.

Lawyers for Liberty (LFL) executive director Eric Paulsen said if the colonial-era law were to be applied to its fullest extent, social media and the Internet would not be able to function in Malaysia where people reportedly spend about five hours online each day, out of which three are spent on social media.

“Users would probably err on the side of caution and only share non-controversial contents, example, cute kittens,” Paulsen told Malay Mail Online.

Putrajaya tabled changes to the Sedition (Amendment) Bill 2015 today that include replacing the offence of importing seditious publications with the offence of propagating seditious publications.

The amendments were passed at 2.30am this morning, after over 12 hours of debate.

Civil liberties lawyer Syahredzan Johan said the Bill does not define “propagation” and that the word would typically mean 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,” Syahredzan wrote in an article titled “Sedition (Amendment) Bill — internet users beware!” on Malay Mail Online, referring to social media giant Facebook and mobile messaging app WhatsApp.

Khairil Yusof, coordinator of Sinar Project, a group that uses open source technology to monitor the Malaysian government, said the proposed amendment will have a “chilling” effect on free speech.

“It could kill social media,” Khairil told Malay Mail Online.

“It won't be feasible to enforce it, because often when something goes viral, it has like 50,000 shares on Twitter, and gets emailed and ‘WhatsApped’ around. It'll be hard to track them all down. Malaysians are used to sharing these things because, unlike Singapore, we have an entire generation that's used to internet freedom,” he added.

Former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad had promised that the government will never censor the internet when he opened the Multimedia Super Corridor during his time in office.

News portal The Malaysian Insider reported the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) last September as saying that 64 per cent of the Malaysian population has social media penetration.

The internet regulator’s 2013 Industry Performance Report also reportedly states that out of the 19.2 million internet users in Malaysia, 15.6 million are active on Facebook. According to the report, Malaysians are online for five hours every day and that three of the five hours are on social media.

Social activist Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan said the proposed prohibition of sharing remarks deemed seditious is a “nasty” way of controlling social media, pointing out that the legal definition of sedition is vague and that intention is irrelevant for a sedition conviction.

“What they are unleashing on the Malaysian public is unforgivable and undermines the rule of law. I would go so far as to say they are unconstitutional as any restrictions on freedom of speech must be reasonable and these are not,” Ambiga, who is also a former Malaysian Bar president, told Malay Mail Online.

Bersih 2.0 chairman Maria Chin Abdullah denounced the amendment in the Bill as a “draconian” violation of Malaysians’ constitutional right to freedom of expression.

“It will make people afraid to share anything, because anything under the sun can be seditious,” the electoral watchdog chief told Malay Mail Online.

The police have arrested and charged several politicians and activists this year under the Sedition Act for their tweets critical of the establishment.

The amendments to the Sedition Act, a colonial-era law, also prohibit those who make or circulate electronic publications deemed seditious from accessing “any electronic device”. 

Section 10A of the Bill also states that a judge shall order the prevention of access to an electronic publication deemed seditious if the creator of the publication cannot be identified.

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