(pic courtesy of theSun)
WHEN Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak first came into office, he declared that under his administration, there would be greater freedom of expression and the press. Regrettably, “little concrete action has followed” his promise, according to an annual review of freedom of expression in Malaysia in 2009.
Indeed, according to the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ)’s annual report on freedom of expression, all kinds of state violations occurred against freedom of expression last year. These ranged from government and police action because of the Perak crisis, to police partiality when dealing with freedom of assembly, to threats against online media and bloggers, to intolerance of diverse views. Unfortunately, these violations against freedom of expression did not stop at the end of 2009.
For certain, Malaysians have experienced curbs on their freedom to express in 2010 even though we’ve yet to reach the year’s half-way mark. But why exactly is it so important to have freedom of expression as citizens? And why would our government try so hard to limit that freedom?
Banned by-election topics
Let’s take a look at some highlights of what the state declared off-limits for public discussion in two by-elections, one completed and one ongoing.
In late April during the Hulu Selangor by-election, Election Commission (EC) officers, accompanied by the police, tore down a banner which called for justice for the late Teoh Beng Hock.
EC officers going beyond the call of duty (pic courtesy of PKR)
According to Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) Youth information chief Lee Kai Loon, the officers said images of Teoh, who died mysteriously at the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission office after being questioned, had to be removed. Their reason? Teoh wasn’t a candidate for the Hulu Selangor by-election and had nothing to do with it.
In a phone conversation, Lee says he told the EC officers no electoral offence was committed because there were no party logos on the banner. He also reportedly told the officers that if their logic were to be applied, then images of Najib and his deputy Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin should also be removed.
EC officers forgot to remove this banner of the late Tunku Abdul Rahman, also not a
candidate for Hulu Selangor’s by-election
Lee maintained that Teoh’s untimely death, and the need for someone to be held accountable, was a public interest issue that warranted it being highlighted. Lee’s intervention stopped the officers from confiscating the banner but not from taking it down.
And then, on 11 May, police declared that the Barisan Nasional (BN) government ban on the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims was forbidden as a campaign issue in the Sibu by-election.
Sarawak CID chief SAC II Huzir Mohamed said the blackout was ordered because the issue was “sensitive” and could stir religious tension. According to Malaysiakini, Huzir then threatened to use the Sedition Act or the Internal Security Act, which allows for indefinite detention without trial, if campaigners insisted on raising the issue.
Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time the police have declared a ban on a particular “sensitive” topic in a by-election where the BN is contesting. Remember that in March 2009, during the Bukit Gantang by-election, the police did exactly the same thing.
They banned from ceramah any mention of Altantuya Shaariibuu, the murdered Mongolian woman who had an affair with Najib’s aide. They also banned any public discourse about the Perak sultan’s decision not to dissolve the state assembly following the resignations of three Pakatan Rakyat representatives.
Screencap of Greenpeace websiteWhat is the actual effect of these bans?
Let me answer that question by talking about Greenpeace. The environmental defender was founded on the Quaker tradition of bearing witness. “This principle states that once you have witnessed an injustice, you have a moral obligation to choose whether to act against it or not,” the Greenpeace website explains.
The tradition of bearing witness is no different from what Gautama Buddha, Jesus Christ and the prophet Muhammad did. It is also no different from the conscientious and courageous act of not looking away when an injustice occurs; of speaking up and voicing outrage when abuse occurs; of not forgetting an injustice and making sure those in power are held accountable.
And so, what exactly is the state trying to do when it bans public discussion of issues such as the removal of non-Muslims’ rights to “Allah”? Why would it silence discussion on the mysterious death of an opposition party aide while in government custody? Why can’t the public discuss the shocking murder of a foreigner by a special police unit?
To be certain, the state is trying to prevent citizens from bearing witness. If the issue is no longer in the public domain, if less is said about the issue, eventually the public will forget. And those who were responsible for denying the legitimate rights of non-Muslims and who were responsible for the deaths of Teoh and Altantuya will be able to get away scot-free.
Speak no evil, hear no evil, see no evil, remember no evil? (© Bingbing | Flickr)
Eventually, that is sadly what will happen because this is Malaysia. Not because Malaysians deserve less but because not enough Malaysians will challenge the state when citizens’ freedom of expression are curbed. And not enough Malaysians, not even journalists and politicians, will defend the right to freedom of expression. Instead, they prefer to echo the government’s stand. For example, that religion “should not be politicised” or that “Peninsula politics” should not “poison Sarawak” vis-à-vis the Allah issue.
What remains unsaid, of course, is that it was because of the BN government’s banning of the word “Allah” among non-Muslims that Christians in Sabah and Sarawak are now most affected. But no, the “Allah” issue cannot be raised because that would be politicising religion. Surely, though, when the state denies citizens their legitimate rights, it is incumbent on citizens and political leaders to keep bearing witness? How else would we expect those in power to do right if we don’t take them to task and hold them accountable?
Here then is the point of freedom of expression. Without it, none of us would be able to keep raising these issues. Imagine, that would mean that whatever those in power did, they could do with impunity, without any one of us being able to raise a ruckus. Imagine that. And then ask yourself, is that the kind of country you would want to live in?
Jacqueline Ann Surin is not surprised that the police were deployed to Penang’s Speaker’s Square. Imagine what it would be like for the powerful if citizens could constantly hold them accountable.
For related stories, see In the Spotlight: Freedom of expression
Read previous Shape of a Pocket columns
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Malaysia has got no more hope? A salute to the successful implementation of the “ketuanan” policy….well done.
Mark Chan says
Bravo. Well said and articulated. We need more writers like yourself in the main stream media.
David Bux says
Najib is just like any politician. Promises are made just to gain the votes, then go back on their word. Thanks to The Nut Graph, we get to know such misdeeds, the mainstream media would never dream of printing or broadcasting [such opinions] lest their media licence is revoked.