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.
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, 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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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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