KUALA LUMPUR, June 29 — Several former Malaysian Bar presidents have urged the attorney general to reconsider the contempt proceedings against Malaysiakini and its editor-in-chief Steven Gan over several comments left by readers in the news portal’s comment section.
The former presidents comprised Datuk Kuthubul Zaman, Datuk Yeo Yang Poh, Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan, Ragunath Kesavan, Datuk Lim Chee Wee, Christopher Leong and Steven Thiru.
They argued that under a ‘new normal’, societies all over the free world have come to both accept and expect readers to post instant and unscrutinised comments on the internet notwithstanding unwelcome consequences arising occasionally as a result.
“Such features and platforms find their rightful place and value in public discourse, in contemporary societies, as part of democratic space.
“Thus, our laws today must be able to accommodate this new normal, and refrain from holding an internet-media agency or its editor culpable for its readers’ comments, unless it intentionally retains the comments after a complaint is brought to its attention.
“To do otherwise will have the unhelpful and counterproductive chilling effect of causing internet media agencies to disable all comments columns.
“It will be analogous to closing all roads because accidents do happen from time to time, despite the best of rules being in place,” they said in a statement here.
They also said the overarching principle was to ensure that freedom of speech is not compromised when one contemplates bringing contempt of court proceedings.
“It is clear that it is only appropriate to resort to contempt proceedings where the administration of justice has been seriously undermined. It is unnecessary to use it as a sledgehammer to crack a nut,” they said, adding that such principles were critical to a functioning democracy.
They pointed out that while the news article was non-controversial, the comments in question despite being entirely unwarranted and indefensible, had been removed by Malaysiakini as soon as it was alerted to the same.
“Scrutiny by the media agency of a particular posted comment occurs if and when a complaint about the impropriety of the comment is made or communicated to it.
“This, we believe, is a responsible approach that the internet media all over the world adopt, except in authoritarian regimes,” they added.
They also claimed that prosecutors' reliance on Section 114A of the Evidence Act in their contempt proceedings is an unlawful reversal of the burden of proof, oppressive and anti-democratic.
“Its utility is spurious. It is a repugnant law that has no place in a true democracy,” they said.
On June 17, the Federal Court three-member bench allowed AG Tan Sri Idrus Harun’s ex parte application for leave to commence committal proceedings against Mkini Dotcom and Malaysiakini’s editor-in-chief.
The bench allowed the leave application on grounds that a prima facie case for contempt was established.
The application was in relation to five comments on an article published by Malaysiakini on June 9 entitled “CJ orders all courts to be fully operational from July 1”.
It was argued by senior federal counsel Alice Loke Yee Ching during court proceedings in the Federal Court that the news portal allowed comments deemed to be offensive and embarrassing to the judiciary to be posted on the comment section of the article.
The company subsequently filed an application to set aside the leave obtained by the AG to commence committal proceedings against them.
The application will be heard on July 2.