Bar: Ruling allowing govt to sue for defamation enables repression

Malaysian Bar president George Varughese speaks in an interview with Malay Mail at the Bar Council in Kuala Lumpur on August 7, 2018. — Picture by Miera Zulyana
Malaysian Bar president George Varughese speaks in an interview with Malay Mail at the Bar Council in Kuala Lumpur on August 7, 2018. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 2 ― The Malaysian Bar has expressed its concern over a recent Federal Court ruling which would effectively allow the government to sue citizens for defamation, saying it would adversely affect public discourse.

In its response, the Bar urged Putrajaya to introduce legislation to undo the effects of the apex court’s decision, which it has dubbed “regressive and disappointing”.

“The Malaysian Bar has grave reservations about this ruling, which creates a chilling effect on public discourse by effectively enabling the government to repress views, curtail expression and news reporting, and restrict democratic space, through the threat of defamation suits,” its president George Varughese said in a statement.

The Bar said the government needs to be continuously scrutinised by the public, and it is inevitable that its performance will invite public comment and criticism.

“No government that seeks to be open, transparent and accountable in all its actions would wish to have an unquestioning, uncritical, non-discerning or self-censoring population,” he said.

It said any inaccurate or incorrect statements made by the public or the media can be amply and adequately addressed, replied to, or rebutted by the government through the media, without resorting to defamation suits.

“As a public body, the government cannot, and must not, be permitted an opportunity to threaten or take legal action on the basis that it has been defamed by remarks made by anyone.  

“In this respect, the government cannot take offence in the same manner that a private individual may,” he said.

Last week, the Federal Court reportedly upheld the Court of Appeal’s majority ruling that the Sarawak state government and state financial authority could sue for defamation against then Bandar Kuching MP Chong Chieng Jen ―who is now Stampin MP and a deputy minister.

The Federal Court said that the federal government and state governments have the statutory right to do so.

In response, Deputy Minister for Law Hanipa Maidin said a meeting will be held and a committee formed to study the matter, with the former lawyer arguing that the Government Proceedings Act does allow the government to sue but suggested that there was a need to differentiate between defamation and other type of lawsuits.

In addition, Communications and Multimedia Minister Gobind Singh Deo also said Putrajaya should mull changing local laws to either scrap or limit its right to file defamation lawsuits against Malaysians.

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