Repeal Sedition Act now; the law is no longer needed

Do you still remember Wan Muhammad Azri Wan Deris? I won’t blame you if the name doesn’t ring a bell, but how about Papagomo?

Wan Muhammad Azri, better known by the moniker Papagomo, is notorious for making seditious and defamatory comments which sometimes landed him in hot soup.

Papagomo was arrested on Nov 29 following an allegedly inflammatory video posted on his Facebook page in the midst of the tense racial relations following the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple issue.

Selangor chief police Mazlan Mansor said the blogger would be investigated under the Sedition Act.

This is the question.

Some disagree to the use of the Sedition Act 1948 to arrest the blogger. Why was it given new life when a moratorium on the obsolete and draconian act was announced recently? After the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government took over Putrajaya following the 14th General Election on May 9, a moratorium was imposed on the Sedition Act, but Home Minister Tan Sri MuhyiddinYassin recently said that an exemption has been granted in the case of the temple riot.

During the former Prime Minister’s regime, the Act was often abused to suppress dissenting voices of the opposition. Used to muzzle legitimate offline and online dissent in the country, it had chilling effects on media practitioners and netizens.

If one is found guilty of violating the Act for the first time, the maximum term of imprisonment is three years, or a fine of not more than RM5,000, or both. Subsequent offences may be punishable with up to five years’ imprisonment!

Some regard the provisions of the Sedition Act as ambiguous and wide and allow anybody to be charged on flimsy grounds without concrete justifications.

A  seditious tendency under this Act is defined as a tendency to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against any ruler or government. Bringing into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the administration of justice in Malaysia, or in any state falls under this definition too.

Apart from that, to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between races or classes of the population of Malaysia, definitely is regarded as a seditious tendency.

Academics, opposition politicians, cartoonists and netizens were not spared. In fact, between 2010 and 2015 about 440 investigation papers on sedition cases were opened involving racism, religion, the royal institution and state administration. Eleven cases involved Sabah and Sarawak leaving Malaysia.

What has happened to all these cases now? Do they fall under no further action files? What does it show? The implication is the Act was used to fulfill the political agenda of the powers that be. It was utilised to hegemonise the Barisan Nasional (BN) government, especially by former Prime Minister Datuk Seri NajibRazak. It was a clear cut case of an abuse of the Act. Actions were taken against individuals who commented on the 1MDB issues that “tarnished” Najib’s reputation though the comments were fair and objective.

I admit there is no absolute freedom, and absolute freedom should not be allowed, especially the creation and dissemination of false and offensive information that could threaten security, jeopardise social cohesion and harmony, and disrupt public order.

But the Sedition Act seeks to curb freedom of expression far beyond what is permissible under international law, in particular Article 29 and 30 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

However, any Act should not be used as an ideological or politically hegemonic tool to suppress the people who may differ in their views and opinions with the establishment.

Bear in mind, any dissenting voice is part of a vibrant and mature democratic society.

To achieve that, freedom of expression should be allowed and the media should act as a market place of ideas and opinions. Therefore, any attempt to stifle freedom of expression should not be entertained especially under Malaysia Baharu.

We should not allow oneness, sameness and homogeneity in opinions in a mature democracy.

Is the decision to retain the Act a right move in the context of promises made by Pakatan Harapan to open up the public sphere and to give more freedom of speech and freedom of expression before the GE14? The cabinet’s suspension of the moratorium is a step backwards.

Why do we have to retain it after PH promised to repeal or revoke the Act? Is it because the Act has played a key role in preserving societal harmony and public order as argued by certain quarters? Is the law still needed and relevant in the modern day?

This archaic and undemocratic law should be repealed. It was introduced during the Emergency Period in Malaya to curb the communist insurgencies and subjugate any challenge to the colonial government.

There are other options available. Why don’t the authorities use the Penal Code instead of the Sedition Act? Several provisions could be used against these individuals. For example, under Section 298A, uttering words designed to hurt members of a particular religious group is punishable with a one-year jail sentence.

Or why not use Section 503 and 504 which is about criminal intimidation and intentional insult with the objective to provoke a breach of the peace? These offences, if found to have been committed, could lead to two years in prison. The Penal Code is more appropriate to deal with cases like these as opposed to the Sedition Act.

It is time to repeal the 70-year-old Sedition Act. The PH government should not find any excuse to postpone the abolishment.

After all, there’s a plethora of other penal laws that can be used against individuals and parties who seek to create violence and harm the harmonious ethnic relations in the country.

This is the way forward for Malaysia. Malaysia Baharu is only meaningful if we allow certain degree of freedom in the country. Draconian, obsolete and British-enacted laws which are no longer relevant in this digital era should be revoked – unless of course we want to go backwards.

Associate Professor Dr Jeniri Amir is a lecturer at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak.