The limit to making Malaysians speechless

MARCH 7 — In recent years, it appears that certain Federal ministers have been prone to contracting verbal diarrhoea. The result—mixed with a dash of balderdash—is the intelligence of ordinary Malaysians get insulted almost on a daily basis. 

What was expressed recently by Communications and Multimedia Minister Salleh Said Keruak is therefore not an aberration. In a blog outburst against the available freedom on the Internet, he warned that freedom of speech is a privilege — not a right — which, if abused, could be taken away. 

Before we move on to the issue of freedom of speech, let’s get one thing straight at the outset: what is a privilege in this context, which can be taken away, is really the position of power that Salleh occupies at this moment. 

Ruling politicians are supposed to represent and serve the interests of the general public who vote the former into power. In other words, these politicians should be beholden to the electorate, not the other way round. 

To be sure, Salleh gained his ministerial post through the “back door” of the Senate, which makes his political position all the more “privileged” — and he should be thankful for that. 

Freedom of speech is a fundamental and inalienable right of the citizenry and hence enshrined in our Federal Constitution and also the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Lest we be misunderstood, freedom of speech is indeed not absolute because there has to be a certain limit to such freedom so as to prevent abuse by certain quarters who are inclined to commit, say, defamation of character especially against public figures. There are laws, such as the Defamation Act, in our country that can handle such abuses by the general public. 

Besides, there is no such thing as absolute freedom of speech in this world. 

It is often said that freedom of speech is the cornerstone of democracy. This is because such freedom is vital to the development of intellectual tradition in society and of a vibrant democracy where individuals or groups can engage in dialogue, discussions and debates, and at the end of the day can also disagree in a civilised fashion without having to resort to violence. 

The implication of this is that differences of opinion are respected and dissent is regarded as legitimate in democracy. In other words, diversity of opinions reflects the diverse groups and interests in society and is celebrated as a social asset. Thus, one who disagrees with the government should not be swiftly and conveniently accused of being “anti-national” and “unpatriotic”, let alone “seditious.” 

Besides, imposing censorship on certain ideas would only drive certain critics and dissenters underground, which may not augur well for the development of democracy. 

In this regard, if one party feels aggrieved by a public statement made by another party in the media, the former should resort to the right of reply. Otherwise, it would be deemed highly anti-intellectual and undemocratic of the party concerned, especially a government, to resort to suspending a publication or blocking a news portal or a blog simply because it disagrees with what was reported, written or said in the media concerned. 

A less generous view would put this ban, blockade or censorship as an act of cowardice on the part of the powers that be. 

Equally important, freedom of speech serves as a bulwark of the citizenry against abuse of power and tyranny by the ruling group. Armed with this freedom of expression and an accompanying freedom of the media, concerned citizens can demand the transparency, accountability and justice of a sitting government. 

That is why the very act of withdrawing freedom of speech and of the media is usually associated with the work of authoritarian regimes that would cringe when public expectation of accountability and justice prevails. 

The jitters of a government that is averse to transparency and accountability become acutely visible when humour, for instance, is employed as an ideological weapon by cartoonists against an undemocratic administration. This explains why political cartoonist Zunar, for example, is being hounded by the powers that be. 

Communications and Multimedia Minister Salleh Said Keruak. — Bernama pic
Communications and Multimedia Minister Salleh Said Keruak. — Bernama pic

Similarly, activist Fahmi Reza unnerves the ruling regime through his caricatures because they make fun of certain politicians. In a sense, his creative art, which is easily accessible in the public domain, undermines to a certain extent the political legitimacy of the people in power. 

Anyway, if Minister Salleh is truly concerned about lies, defamatory and inflammatory writing and reporting, he should start looking into his own political backyard where there are certain BN-related rags (to call them newspapers would do injustice to other newspapers worth their salt) whose stubborn penchant is to disseminate misinformation and reporting that is racist and socially divisive. 

The utterance of this minister and others of similar ilk about their supposed concern pertaining to an abuse of free speech needs to be seen in its larger political context in order to separate the wheat from the chaff. 

This apparent concern comes at a time when a news portal and blogs have been blocked; there’s a suggestion to tighten the screws on the Official Secrets Act; some individuals have been harassed under the archaic Sedition Act; and a hint that bloggers may need to register with the authorities. 

Additionally, there have been leaks pertaining to information and also investigative reporting by a news portal, websites and a few blogs about the biggest financial scandal in the history of Malaysia. 

Obviously, reporting of such humongous scandal that implicates the prime minister does whet the appetite of curious and concerned Malaysians who crave for more. 

So it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand why Salleh is seemingly concerned — in a condescending manner — in this context that we the ordinary mortals may not be able “to differentiate between truths, half-truths, innuendoes, and lies.” 

There has to be a limit to this kind of insults.  

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.