Make space for criticism in constitutional monarchy, say lawyers

Lawyers say the public may criticise the conduct of constitutional monarchs so long as it is done in a civil manner. (Bernama pic)

PETALING JAYA: The rulers are constitutional monarchs and as such the public must be given space to question their conduct, say lawyers as a debate takes shape on whether the royalty could be subject to criticism.

Lawyers disagree with the recent use of the Sedition Act to nab those who aired criticism, saying authorities could use other laws or draft new ones to prosecute those insulting the rulers.

But they cautioned that an accused person must be given sufficient latitude to put forward his defence.

They also warned the Pakatan Harapan government against stiffling free speech, reminding it of the mandate from voters in the polls last year.

Lawyer Farhan Haziq Mohamed said the Sedition Act must be abolished and should no longer be used to prosecute anyone for insulting the Malay Rulers through writings or other forms in the social media.

“Under the Sedition Act, intention of committing crime is irrelevant and this made it easy for the prosecution to obtain a conviction.

“Such unfair advantage is against due process and the rule of the law principle which the new government kept reminding,” he told FMT.

Farhan said the police could instead rely on provisions in the Penal Code and Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 to investigate suspects for annoying, abusing, threatening or harassing any person.

Earlier today, de facto law minister Liew Vui Keong said the government was considering to introduce stiffer laws to protect the monarchy from criticism.

“It is crucial. We do not want the rakyat to criticise the Agong and sultans,” Liew told reporters today.

Hours later, Dr Mahathir Mohamad said there should be a proper definition of what constitutes an insult before any introduction of such laws.

“If we close everyone’s mouth, when crimes happen and they can’t speak out, there will be injustice,” the prime minister said.

Farhan said the government must get public feedback if it was planning to enact a new law.

“All definitions must be clearly spelt out to prevent any ambiguity and there must be defences for the accused to rely on,” he added.

Lawyer Syed Iskandar Syed Jaafar Al Mahdzar said the historical status of Malay Rulers as “vicegerents” of God was no longer applicable in the modern context.

“Now they are constitutional monarchs but unfounded attacks against them must not go unpunished,” he said.

He said the Sedition Act could be amended to compel the prosecution to prove intention of the accused.

He referred to a Court of Appeal ruling in late 2016 that an intention must be proved by the prosecution, only for the decision to be reversed by the Federal Court.

“Now, Parliament can rectify it,” he said.

Fahri Azat said the government must also take into account public concerns over the conduct of monarchs.

“They are bound by law and conventions, and have obligations to the people and the nation since they no longer have absolute authority,” the lawyer added.

The debate on the use of Sedition Law comes on the back of the arrest of three individuals for posting remarks deemed insulting to the Malay rules.

It followed Sultan Muhammad V’s decision to step down from the Yang di-Pertuan Agong post, amid intense social media speculation surrounding the Kelantan ruler.

Fahri said there was no detailed explanation on Sultan Muhammad V’s decision.

“This is a matter of public interest and the public ought to know as his salaries are drawn from taxpayers’ money,” he said.

Fahri said Rulers must be held accountable to the people who elected their government, and questioned plans for tougher laws to punish those for airing criticism against the monarchs.

Fahri said constructive criticism must be allowed as long as it was fair and reasonable with the use of temperate language.

“But the government and PH politicians have obviously forgotten who put them in power after the May 9 general election,” he said.