Govt’s right to sue makes free speech meaningless, says deputy minister

Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Mohamed Hanipa Maidin.

PETALING JAYA: Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Mohamed Hanipa Maidin today joined the chorus of criticism against the recent Federal Court ruling that the government can sue individuals for defamation.

Hanipa, who is deputy minister in charge of law, said the judgment left much to be desired.

“As far as I am concerned, the decision by the English court in Derbyshire is very sound and should deserve our utmost respect,” he told FMT in a text message.

Hanipa, a lawyer by training, added that the English judgment reflected the true nature of law on defamation.

He said the people had the right to comment on their elected government, even if their comments appeared defamatory in nature.

“The government must not be given any right to sue for defamation, period.”

He added that the Federal Court appeared to have failed to differentiate between an ordinary civil suit and an action for libel.

“With the greatest respect, this has made the judgment hard to swallow in any democratic nation. It renders the right to free speech useless and meaningless.”

Adding that the apex court seemed to have taken a literal interpretation of the law, he said this could be seen as a mockery of the law on defamation.

Yesterday, a Federal Court bench chaired by Ahmad Maarop dismissed an appeal by Stampin MP Chong Chien Jen, holding that federal and state governments could sue individuals for defamation.

Ahmad, who delivered the unanimous ruling, said in Malaysia, the right of governments to sue was provided for under Section 3 of the Government Proceedings Act (GPA) 1956.

He said the common law principle based on the 1994 case of Derbyshire was not suitable in Malaysia as there were also restrictions to the right to freedom of speech under the Federal Constitution.

He said Parliament imposed restrictions for defamation and the incitement to any offence.

SN Nair.

Meanwhile, lawyer SN Nair said Attorney-General Tommy Thomas should advise the government to amend the GPA as the ruling was an anomaly.

“A clause should be inserted in the GPA to state no defamation proceeding can be brought against citizens,” he said.

As a matter of public policy, he said, the government must learn to accept criticism. He added that it could reply to critics through the media and the legislature.

He also warned against the government being seen to use public funds to mount a legal challenge against an individual for expressing his views.

“This is like the servant trying to sue the master as governments are elected by the people to serve them,” he said.