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Why the government fears satire

WHY is the government charging someone for writing a satirical piece? On 2 Sep 2010, Irwan Abdul Rahman, a Malay Mail executive editor was charged over a blog posting entitled “TNB to sue WWF over earth hour.” Irwan’s posting on his website Nose4news was below a huge banner with the words “The truth is out there (Not in here).” The banner also featured a long-nosed Pinocchio, whose nose grows every time he tells a lie.

Screencap of Nose4News

Screencap of Nose4News

Irwan’s post was clearly satirical. It claimed that Tenaga Nasional Berhad would sue the World Wildlife Fund over its Earth Hour campaign. The campaign involved everyone switching off all their lights for one hour to raise awareness about climate change.

TNB’s president was quoted as screaming, “POWERRR…EXTREME!” in Irwan’s spoof news article, as well as telling “those green terrorists” that “we love our lights!”

Unfortunately, not everyone can take a joke. Irwan was hauled before the courts under the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA). He has been charged with allegedly posting a false blog entry “with the intention of causing hurt to the feelings of others”. Now, is satire really a crime?

Satire exempted

Satire, by definition, is often false. But used well, it can offer critique and insight on issues of the day. George Orwell for example, was not writing a true account of a bunch of pigs taking over the yard in his book Animal Farm. He was, in fact, critiquing the form of communism being practised in the Soviet Union at the time. The use of irony, sarcasm and wit sometimes works better at getting a point across than if it were said directly.

Satire has also been highly successful in news commentaries. Here’s The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart criticising US President Barack Obama for being wishy-washy in his response over the building of an Islamic cultural centre, misreported as a mosque, near ground zero in New York.

And here’s our very own satirical news programme That Effing Show commenting on Malacca Chief Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam’s announcement on Muslim child marriages:

But the CMA says publishing false news on the internet is an imprisonable offence. Does that mean Malaysians are denied the use of satire as a literary device?

Now, it may come as a surprise, but apparently, our Malaysian authorities did take into account George Orwell and his revolutionary animals when drafting the CMA.

As pointed out by blogger and lawyer Art Harun, the government has expressly allowed satire in the Communications and Multimedia Forum of Malaysia content code. Under “Guidelines on Content”, Article 7.3 states, “Content which is false is expressly prohibited except in the following circumstances… (a) satire and parody, (b) where it is clear to an ordinary user that the content is fiction.”

Of course, satire that incites violence and contravenes the Penal Code would still constitute a crime. But it shouldn’t take a lawyer to figure out that Irwan’s blog posting falls safely within Article 7.3 of the content code and should be exempt from prosecution. So why then is the government charging him with a crime?

Control, control and control

Rais Yatim (© British Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

To me, it’s all about control. The internet has long exasperated the ruling party. In 2005, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Mohd Nazri Abdul Aziz called Malaysiakini “a liar”. In 2007, the Information Ministry set up a special unit to monitor and counter “internet lies”. In 2009, Information Minister Datuk Seri Rais Yatim tried to propose an internet filter, which was shelved after public outcry. And in July 2010, the Home Ministry set up a committee comprising Nazri, Rais and Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, to curb the dissemination of false news.

These are the actions of a party that has become so accustomed to controlling the flow of information to the public. Barisan Nasional (BN) owns and controls most of the traditional media, either directly or indirectly. Editors can be sacked or suspended at the executive’s orders. And there is always the Printing Presses and Publications Act and other such laws that have proven effective in keeping the traditional media in check.

It is therefore not surprising that the BN also wants to control internet chatter and its image online. After all, one might say, what’s the point of keeping an iron grip on the traditional media while the new media is allowed to do as it pleases?

Irwan is just the latest in a string of Malaysians arrested or charged for their online posts. Fellow bloggers Nathaniel Tan, Syed Azidi Syed Aziz (Kickdefella) and Raja Petra Kamarudin were also arrested under the Official Secrets Act, Sedition Act and the Penal Code respectively.

Inception

But can the BN intimidate the Malaysian public, as it has the Malaysian traditional media, and curb their expression on the internet? Will these arrests and committees succeed in steering Malaysian public opinion and make it BN-friendly?

<i>Metropolis</i> by Amir Muhammad & Liza Manshoor, based on <i>Harian Metro</i> headlines (pic courtesy of Lainie Yeoh)

Mainstream media - regarded as authoritative? (Pic of Metropolis by Amir Muhammad and Liza Manshoor, based on Harian Metro headlines; courtesy of Lainie Yeoh)

Unfortunately for the BN, probably only in a fantasy world, a-la Inception. In this dream world, the BN’s every attempt to silence dissent would be interpreted as the benevolent act of a government that cares for the people. People would believe that the government is not in any way motivated by their desire to stay in power but by their responsibility towards Malaysian citizens. And everyone would know that everything reported in the traditional media is true, accurate, fair and unbiased. While everything reported in the new media, especially anything critical of the BN, is a lie, biased and distorts the facts.

It appears that some people in the BN believe we do live in this fantasy world, our prime minister being one of them. Datuk Seri Najib Razak recently advised the public to trust the “fact-based” traditional media, unlike websites and blogs, which were “half-truths and inaccurate”.

“If we read the mainstream media, we intuitively regard it as an authoritative report, where its facts cannot be questioned,” our prime minister said.

Again, dialogue

But for many Malaysians, the days of fully trusting the traditional media are gone. Dissent and alternative opinions have always existed in Malaysia, it was not the internet that caused them to exist.

(Najib pic courtesy of theSun)

The days of fully trusting "mainstream" media are gone, but can the government accept this reality? (Najib pic courtesy of theSun)

Attempts to clamp down on expression, especially when it comes to the internet, will only make an already sceptical public more distrustful of the government. Again, it comes back to dialogue and engagement, instead of a paternalistic “Believe this because I say so” attitude. But can the government accept reality and take the necessary steps to change?

Ding Jo-Ann appreciates the diversity of the new media, even though she may not always believe everything it says.

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8 Responses to “Why the government fears satire”

  1. Yeo Kien Kiong says:

    The current “kerajaan BN” will not accept this reality and will not take any necessary steps to change.

  2. Reza says:

    It’s no secret that our government is run by a bunch of “kampung”-minded simpletons. You can’t expect people like these to understand a civilised concept like satire.

  3. Sharina says:

    Imagine if we introduced the government to The Onion. Such chaos would ensue. Why does the Malaysian Government insist on making itself look idiotic to the rest of the world?

  4. azmo says:

    It is not that they’re kampung minded. All this stems from the Mahathir era. He had the tendency to detain people under the ISA who disagreed with his view. Now, political satire is a form of disagreement. And since it wasn’t published in the traditional media, they can’t use the ISA, so they do the next best thing: sue the pants off the satirist.

    All this stems from fear of questioning, rationalising, and critiquing. This leads to questions that needs answers – answers they don’t have.

  5. Anonymous Coward says:

    Your Harian Metro caption: you might want to fix that.

    —————-

    Thanks for the heads up. We have corrected the spelling error in the caption.

    Nick Choo
    Copy Editor / Graphic Artist

  6. 4 says:

    Malaysians are obviously lack of sense of humour.

    Pinocchio? They wouldn’t get it for sure.

    Sometimes people just make themselves look like fools by taking words out of context.

  7. frank peter says:

    It’s all about control. You have to control dissent to stay in power. Just look at China.


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