Activists hopeful for free speech, but stay wary

Lawyers for Liberty executive director Eric Paulsen said the new government has yet to drop the sedition charge against him. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
Lawyers for Liberty executive director Eric Paulsen said the new government has yet to drop the sedition charge against him. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

KUALA LUMPUR, June 19 — Although several activists are optimistic about the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government’s promise to protect freedom of speech, they remain cautious pending concrete action.

US paper The New York Times (NYT) reported Lawyers for Liberty executive director Eric Paulsen, who was charged with sedition in 2015 over a tweet allegedly accusing the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim) of promoting extremism, as saying that the new government has yet to drop the charge.

“As far as freedom of speech is concerned, we shouldn’t be naïve,” the human rights activist was quoted saying.

“We will see where it goes in the next six months or a year. Things are definitely opening up, and the press is revelling in its newfound freedom.”

Steven Gan, editor-in-chief of news portal Malaysiakini, told NYT that he had doubts about what could come next even though the change in government appeared promising for those who were prosecuted for criticising the previous Barisan Nasional (BN) administration.

“Promises have been made; the first task will be to ensure they stick to the promises,” Gan was quoted saying.

“For myself, having covered Mahathir for so long, I think the fear is that he may not stick to his promises,” he added, referring to Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Dr Mahathir, who became Malaysia’s seventh prime minister, was previously criticised for clamping down on free speech when he first held office from 1981 to 2003 as PM under BN.

After the 14th general election last month, Dr Mahathir suggested that the Anti-Fake News Act 2018 should be reviewed instead of out rightly abolished, but Communications and Multimedia Minister Gobind Singh Deo said later that the government hoped to repeal the law during the first Parliament meeting.

Besides the Anti-Fake News Act that was introduced by former Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s administration, activists have called for the abolition of other existing laws that they say were used against government critics, such as the Sedition Act 1948 and Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 that prohibits annoying or abusing individuals online.

Cartoonist Zunar said he hoped the new government would repeal the Sedition Act. ― Picture by Saw Siow Feng
Cartoonist Zunar said he hoped the new government would repeal the Sedition Act. ― Picture by Saw Siow Feng

Cartoonist Zunar, whose full name is Zulkiflee Anwar Haque, still faces nine sedition charges even though his travel ban was lifted soon after the election.

He reportedly said he hoped the government would repeal the Sedition Act, but was unsure if PH would uphold its pledge to do so.

“Government is government everywhere,” Zunar was quoted saying.

“During the honeymoon era everything is OK; after that they go back to their old tricks. I really hope this is not only a new government but a new Malaysia, with more space for freedom of expression, especially for artists like me.”

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