Determining the fine line between free speech and hate speech

It is high time for Internet users to practise self-restraint, instead of being pawns

pic by BERNAMA

IT HAS been more than a week since racial and religious rhetorics dominate local cybersphere, fuelled by a controversial preacher’s remarks against non-Muslims (followed by the reactions of his supporters) and a tycoon’s with his barmy remark against the military force.

While both Dr Zakir Naik (picture) and Tan Sri Koon Yew Yin have since apologised and were even quizzed by the police for hours, Syahredzan Johan — a political secretary to Iskandar Puteri MP Lim Kit Siang — received a death threat from a Facebook user after his suggestion to revoke Zakir’s PR status. It is learned that the user has been remanded and charged by the authority.

These are just the latest examples of how Malaysians are made accountable — in real life and in cybersphere.

The question of whether these charges are warranted or simply an overreaction should be determined by the court.

Still, it is unfortunate that due to the nature of the topics, some individuals find themselves subject to threats from opposing parties, while others will face the music for their callous actions.

In general, Malaysians enjoy almost absolute freedom of speech as evident with the number of comments across all social media platforms, news portals, online forums and mobile chat applications such as WhatsApp and Telegram.

In fact, the privilege of anonymity emboldens some people on the Internet to spew words that they would not even dare to repeat in real life.

There had been calls for the government to regulate the Internet, which were met with resistance. Many of these opposers ride on the universal right — freedom of speech and expression.

When the Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) announced a hotline initiative which allows people to report social media comments that touch on the 3Rs (Race, Religion and Royal Institution), it sparks another round of debate whether the government is looking into policing the people using “policing guideline” which Malaysians have been threatened and perhaps accustomed to by the previous administration for many years.

There were concerns that this hotline could be abused by certain quarters, simply because there is no guideline or parameters on what constitutes as a genuine, constructive comment and a hate speech.

The track record of police reports and arrests related to such issues does not erase the people’s concerns.

It is also worth noting that surprisingly, MCMC’s initiative was strongly objected by an Umno senator, Khairul Azwan Harun, who called it undemocratic and indicated that Malaysians need policing. He went as far as questioning Pakatan Harapan leaders’ silence on the matter.

Law expert Dr Salleh Buang wrote that there is a thin line dividing free speech and hate speech, and the problem lies in determining where the line is. For Syahredzan, freedom of speech ends when it becomes hate speech.

Activist turned politician Maria Chin Abdullah, who has been a champion of human rights, expressed her hopes that the move would be temporary.

Even Syahredzan suggested for the government to amend Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 at the upcoming parliamentary session to make it clear that only posts which incite violence or hate speech are criminalised, in order to prevent abuse.

The current political climate, with the rise of right-wing sentiment, appears to divide Malaysians with “I against them mentality” further.

It remains to be seen whether the hotline could provide a temporary respite against countless arguments online, but it is high time for Internet users to practise self-restraint, to not be used as a pawn for other people’s fights.

Azreen Hani is the online news editor of The Malaysian Reserve.