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Social media and the age of sedition

 | September 30, 2014

Are we allowed to have ideas and opinions? Or must they be state-endorsed to be valid?

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hc-social-media-icons-istock-23515213The rise of social media has been uneasy in more ways than one. From privacy concerns to ethics, there are many shades of gray that need to be explored before we truly come to understand and integrate it in our daily lives. One such complication is very prominent here in Malaysia – freedom of speech in a semi-democratic society.

Autocratic regimes such as China have long been wary of social media, a useful tool for organising and disseminating information, but one that could spread news of a government’s missteps within seconds of their happening.

China has implemented a set of tools to curb free speech as much as possible while still being able to dubiously claim “democracy”, such as having proprietary social media platforms more readily available than Facebook or Twitter. But wily Internet users have devised their own workarounds to deliver news to each other on government misdeeds. However, if discovered, they can be arbitrarily taken from their homes and locked up, beaten and abused by secret police, and more. Sounds like a familiar story, really.

Indeed, China’s efforts have not escaped the sight of our esteemed ruling government of the day. Facebook and Twitter have been bugbears for our politicians, as the slightest gaffe is magnified under the spotlight of social media, and free speech runs rampant in forums, without a way for the government to hold it in check. This is mostly due to guarantees made by Mahathir Mohamad – when he was the Prime Minister, that is – that the Internet would be unrestricted in Malaysia.

Observe these delicate, probing remarks to elicit a response on the idea of banning Facebook:

  • “I don’t care how sacred freedom is, but I think the time has come for governments, at least the Malaysian government, to censor the Internet.” Mahathir Mohamad
  • “If the people are of the opinion that Facebook should be closed, we are prepared to look into the matter.”Communications and Multimedia Minister Ahmad Shabery Cheek
  • “The prospect of closing down Facebook was raised because of the frequent cases of abuse.”Malacca Chief Minister Idris Haron.
Note that only 20,000 reports of abuse are recorded from Malaysia on Facebook.

The greatest threat so far, however, has been the use of the colonial-era law, the Sedition Act, to silence dissent under the guise of national security. The charges against Adam Adli, Safwan Anang, N. Surendran, Tian Chua, David Orok, Azmi Sharom, Susan Loone and more were called a fear-instilling tactic by Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch. No one is safe from the long arm of the Sedition Act.

A score of people have been charged under the act since August, leading even the United Nations to make a statement. “We are concerned about the recent increase in the use of the Sedition Act 1948 to arrest and prosecute people for their peaceful expression of opinion in Malaysia,” said the spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Rupert Colville. “We call on the government to quickly initiate a promised review of the act and to repeal or amend it in line with its international human rights obligations.”

But what, dear reader, does all this mean for you and I?

Fair game

Well, for one, there is now proof that we are all fair game under the Sedition Act. Students, academics, lawyers, politicians all are now under equal threat. The opinions they voice out could be deemed seditious under the broad strokes of a 1948 colonial law.

Social media has been the cause of the authorities acting against individuals before, as in the sad but altogether avoidable case of Alvivi, though it should be noted that there is a school of thought that says, with some validity, that whereas social media is for the most part a free space, discretion should be applied when posting. And indiscretion was certainly the case with our former pornographic would-be auteurs.

All in all, the use of the Sedition Act, or at least the theory behind its use, has roots in Mahathiresque political gamesmanship, seen in the infamous Ops Lalang. Silence the opposition, maintain strict control of the media through existing laws, and the public will not know any better.

However, in our current age, where information becomes available seconds after something happens, this mechanism runs the risk of gaining ire from the aware, connected public. Indeed, it takes considerable political will – or pressure – to run this mechanism, knowing that the public will indeed object.

But this also leads us to ask whether we are allowed to have opinions, even if they are not approved of. Are we allowed to form ideas based on what we see, hear, and know? Or must our ideas be state-endorsed to be valid?

At its very core, democracy is an ideology of equality. Essentially, it gives each citizen a voice in the appointment of representatives to carry out the will of the people. In this, one may posit that democracy has become a failed experiment as it is often the elite who are elected, but that is a thought experiment for another day.

In the end, really, it’s hard to come to any conclusion other than self-censorship when it comes to Internet postings – if one has one’s safety in the highest regard.

However, social media, being an instantaneous method of information dissemination and a tool for immediate community organising, will always present a threat to a government that has something to hide. And so it is inevitable that the freedom afforded by social media will always come under fire.

So, have opinions. It’s part of being human, after all. The Internet represents a true public sphere in Malaysia, a place where we can “gather and confer in unrestricted fashion” – to borrow the words of Jurgen Habermas. It is there that we can express our opinions, but more important, perhaps, it is there that we can hear dissenting opinions.

One must be informed and knowledgeable to have an opinion. And we all must aspire to be informed and have knowledge should we want our views to be heard. This should apply to anybody posting a political opinion online.

The bad news is that for as long as the government can hold on to it, the Sedition Act, or something similar, will exist. The good news is that for as long as we defend our free space, some measure of democracy will be maintained on the Internet.


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