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Sedition law frightens and stifles, regional media practitioners warn

A protester is seen holding a placard that reads ‘Repeal the Sedition Act’ during the ‘Walk for Peace and Freedom’ march, October 16, 2014. ― Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
A protester is seen holding a placard that reads ‘Repeal the Sedition Act’ during the ‘Walk for Peace and Freedom’ march, October 16, 2014. ― Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 16 — The Sedition Act must go as it instils fear in the public and muzzles open discourse, a Southeast Asian conference on media and Internet freedom heard on the same day lawyers marched to demand the law be repealed.

The organisers of the Regional Conference on Media and Internet Freedom 2014 also noted that “out-dated” sedition laws still remain, even in modern countries that have long since rejected the former colonial masters that gave them such a legislation.

“There is also a serious problem about how these various laws are being implemented, purportedly to keep society safe, but effectively to instil fear and self-restraint on the discussion of legitimate issues — even placing those who dare to speak out at risk.

“We therefore stand with Malaysian citizens and civil society in calling for the repeal of the Sedition Act,” said the organisers in a statement here.

During the conference, its participants had found that the concept of “sedition” and laws governing it exist in various forms in different countries, although under different names.

The conference said these laws ultimately restrict critical speech about government, policies, political parties, certain social classes and institutions, or religious or cultural practices.

“It might have been necessary for colonial government to suppress speech of people occupied by a foreign power against their will,” said the organisers.

“However, even in modern countries which have rejected the yoke of occupation, many of these laws remain or are being revived.”

The conference is jointly organised by the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), the Centre for Independent Journalism, Malaysia (CIJ), the Centre for the Study of Communications and Culture (CSCC) of the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (Empower), and the Association for Progressive Communications (APC).

Around 100 journalists, academics and members of civil society — mostly from Southeast Asian countries — are attending from Wednesday until Friday.

In solidarity with the “Walk for Peace and Freedom” organised by the Bar Council earlier, participants had also posted photos of themselves holding a flyer with the hashtag “#IsThisSeditious?” during the walk to raise awareness online.

It was estimated that between 1,500 and 2,000 lawyers turned up for the walk to the Parliament, before 10 lawyers led by Malaysian Bar president Chris Leong submitted a memorandum to Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Datuk Mah Siew Keong who received the document on behalf of the prime minister.

Putrajaya has come under heavy public scrutiny for its ongoing sedition crackdown, which has seen at least 20 anti-government dissidents, opposition politicians and a journalist booked in the space of one month.

This is despite Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s promise to do away with the repressive Sedition Act 1948 three times in the span of two years, and replace it with a National Harmony Act with the most recent occasion on September 5.

But with growing pressure from conservatives within his own party, Umno, Najib said recently that the government may not repeal the Sedition Act after all if replacement laws were inferior.

Defenders of the Sedition Act, primarily pro-establishment conservatives including former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, contend that its removal will open the floodgates of attacks against the Bumiputera, Islam, and the Malay rulers in the absence of another pre-independence law that has since been repealed, the Internal Security Act.

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