So TMI caused ‘public confusion’? That’s not an offence, Bar tells MCMC

Bar president Steven Thiru reminded the commission that Malaysians have the right to freedom of speech and expression under the Federal Constitution. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng
Bar president Steven Thiru reminded the commission that Malaysians have the right to freedom of speech and expression under the Federal Constitution. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng

KUALA LUMPUR, March 1 — The Malaysian Bar today urged local Internet regulators to withdraw prohibition of public access to The Malaysian Insider (TMI), saying the block was without basis as the news portal did not violate Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act  (CMA) 1998 as alleged.

Bar president Steven Thiru noted that the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), after ordering the block last week, said it was taking action against TMI because it allegedly published something that caused confusion.

He said the same reason was echoed later by Communications and Multimedia Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Salleh Said Keruak, who reportedly said TMI had “quoted a statement that could cause confusion because it contradicts with official statements by the MACC. They don’t mention who the source is. It could confuse the public”.

“Causing public confusion is not, and cannot be, an offence under Section 233 of the CMA.

“MCMC’s reliance on Section 233 for its action against TMI is therefore without any basis, and oppressive,” Steven said.

“It is quite puzzling that anyone could consider causing public confusion to be an offence at all.”

He added that it was also demeaning and offensive for anyone to assume that the general Malaysian public could be so easily confused by allegedly contradictory statements in the press or because the source of the reported statements was not disclosed.

MCMC blocked access to TMI last Thursday under Section 263(2) of the CMA, citing its alleged breach of Section 233 of the same law.

The following day, police questioned five members of TMI’s editorial staff under Section 124I of the Penal Code, Section 8(s) of the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 and Section 233 of the CMA.

Section 233 of the CMA pertains to improper use of network service and facilities, while Section 124I covers dissemination of false reports that may cause public alarm, and Section 8A of the PPPA covers the publication of false news.

Steven said the MCMC, as a responsible regulator, should only bar public access to websites on justifiable grounds.

“The action taken by MCMC against TMI appears to be unsustainable in law,” he said.

He noted that the regulator has been using the CMA more frequently of late to bar access to websites that appear to be airing dissenting views, citing as examples the blocking of the Sarawak Report whistleblower site and blogs like Medium, Outsyed the Box, Tabunginsider, Jinggo Photopages, Din Turtle, Asia Sentinel and Malaysia Chronicle.

The Malaysian Bar president reminded the commission that Malaysians have the right to freedom of speech and expression under the Federal Constitution, a guarantee that he says meant the media should be given freedom to report on matters of public interest.

“While it is recognised that the freedom of speech and expression is not absolute, any restriction of this fundamental liberty cannot be founded on any arbitrary and unlawful exercise of power by the authorities.

“The Malaysian Bar urges the MCMC to abide by the Federal Constitution, respect the rule of law and immediately withdraw the prohibition of public access to the TMI online news portal,” he said.