by Boo Su-Lyn
The Malay Mail Online
April 8, 2015
Amendments to the Sedition Act 1948 that allow people to be jailed up to 20 years for their remarks is an attempt to stifle all dissent, according to lawyers who dubbed these the “most serious” attack on freedom of speech Malaysia has ever seen.
Civil liberties lawyer Syahredzan Johan also questioned the denial of bail for suspects charged with sedition offences that cause bodily injury or property damage, saying that while prosecutors may try to justify this, it should be the courts’ discretion to decide.
“This Bill makes for a chilling read,” Syahredzan told Malay Mail Online.
“I would say that it’s the most serious assault on freedom of speech and expression that we have seen in this country,” the lawyer added.
Under the Sedition (Amendments) Bill 2015 that was tabled in Parliament yesterday, those who cause bodily harm or property damage with their sedition crimes will now face jail terms of between five and 20 years. Those convicted of general sedition crimes face imprisonment of between three and seven years.
The colonial era law currently imposes a maximum three-year jail term or maximum RM5,000 fine on first time offenders, and a maximum five-year jail term for repeat offenders.
But Syahredzan noted that the amendments to the Sedition Act do not define “bodily injury”, nor do they explain clearly how a seditious act is deemed to have caused bodily injury or damage to property under Section 4(1A).
“If for example, I am a pastor and I say something which has a seditious tendency and my church gets firebombed, it does seem that the elements of S. 4(1A) would be fulfilled, no?” he suggested.
Constitutional lawyer New Sin Yew said although Putrajaya has taken a step forward by decriminalising criticism of the government and the administration of justice in the Bill, it took two steps back by increasing punishments for sedition.
“The prohibition of bail has elevated sedition to the most heinous of crimes such as murder and terrorism,” New told Malay Mail Online.
He also pointed out that amid such amendments, intention remains irrelevant for a conviction under the law and anyone can be found guilty of sedition so long as remarks uttered or published are deemed seditious.
“Even a person speaking the truth can be guilty of sedition. You know the saying that the truth will set you free? Well, in Malaysia, it might put you in prison for 20 years,” said New.
The revisions to the Sedition Act seek to make it an offence to excite “ill will, hostility or hatred” on grounds of religion and race as well as to demand the secession of a state from Malaysia, while maintaining the prohibitions towards exciting disaffection against the rulers or questioning issues such as Bumiputera privileges.
“While there is no such thing as absolute freedom of speech, restrictions imposed cannot be so outside the grounds permitted under Article 10 of the Federal Constitution and so wide and unreasonable that it renders the exercise of such freedom illusory and without real value,” Bar Council constitutional law committee chair Firdaus Husni told Malay Mail Online, referring to freedom of speech under Article 10.
“Such amendments will not in any way accommodate our multiracial and multireligious citizens to understand one another better and foster unity… Further, we already have in place laws providing for offences relating to religion under the Penal Code,” she added.
Constitutional lawyer Nizam Bashir said Section 9 of the Bill appears to contradict Section 3(3) of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 that affirms that there will be no censorship of the internet.
“So, I am unsure if officers authorised under the Communications and Multimedia Act would be acting within the parameters of that Act if an order is given under the proposed s. 9. This may require further thought or further looking into,” Nizam told Malay Mail Online.
Section 9 of the Bill states that a judge shall order the prevention of access to an online publication deemed to be seditious.
Putrajaya previously pledged to repeal the Sedition Act that critics say is used to stifle political opposition and dissent, but later announced in November last year that it will be retained and expanded instead.