Malaysian Bar condemns recent spate of sedition cases

KUALA LUMPUR: The Malaysian Bar Council condemned the recent spate of sedition charges and called on the government to honour its promise to repeal the Sedition Act.

Bar Council president Christopher Leong (pix) urged the government to withdraw all pending sedition charges and replace it with the National Harmony Act as promised.

However, Leong said the National Harmony Act must not be a recast of the Sedition Act whether in part or in full as the threshold of what is considered seditious is set far too low and the law can be easily abused.

"Two recent cases, a teenager liking the Facebook page "I love Israel" and Universiti Malaya law lecturer Azmi Sharom's sedition charges, shows how easily it can be abused," he said at a public forum at the Bar Council and the launch of the Abolish Sedition Act movement.

Leong said the courts have now become a dumping ground for sedition charges and pointed out the discrepancy in application, which can be interpreted as selective prosecution against dissenters.

He said while Opposition politicians, an academician, and a journalist have been hauled up to face sedition charges, parties that insulted Hindus, saying "Hitler was right about the Jews", constantly referring to or threatening another May 13 incident have been left untouched.

"The Malaysian Bar is not advocating the use of sedition against them but we are appalled by the discrepancy; the charges are increasingly viewed as a political tool dressed up as legislation," Leong said in his opening speech.

He said the often expounded excuse that the Sedition Act is needed to maintain racial and religious harmony in the country is inaccurate as only education and public discourse about societal issues can achieve that.

"Harmony should be achieved via education, not suppression and prosecution; it is folly to think that the Sedition Act and similar laws can promote harmony, whip and force cannot shape harmony," he said.

Leong said the Bar is concerned that too much time has passed and the government's will to repeal the Sedition Act has dithered, and the Abolish Sedition Act movement was launched to keep up the momentum.

Global Movement of Moderates chief executive officer Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah said it is unfortunate that the law is still in force after Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak had promised that it would be repealed.

Saifuddin also agreed that the bar is set too low for what can be considered seditious according to provisions of the Act.

"The definition of seditious tendency is not required, intention is irrelevant and proof of harm is not needed; the prosecution only needs to prove that the words were uttered," he said.

Saifuddin said many are surprised about the sudden escalation in sedition charges, which by now has included an academician and a journalist, and it severely restricts freedom of speech.

He warned that if the crackdown persists, then there would no longer be anyone to oppose those who attempt to subvert the Federal Constitution as they will eventually fill up the public sphere.

"My worry is that this intensified crackdown on dissent would then give space to people who may want to rewrite the constitution through the back channel.

"Because there is fear, scholars will no longer speak up in public and intellectuals will choose to keep quiet, then the public sphere will be filled with people who want to rewrite the constitution, because nobody can stop them," he said.

Saifuddin said this is why the National Unity Consultative Council's Law and Policy Committee formulated draft bills to the National Harmony Act, which will set the bar of criminal offence much higher.

He said provisions in the bill will include criminalising hate speech, the need to prove intention and harm, promoting equality and outlawing unfair discrimination, freedom of speech for academicians, and a committee to mediate racial and religious conflict.

Saifuddin also cautioned that those who are against repealing the Sedition Act will incite conflict and sabotage the Abolish Sedition Act campaign to prove that the law is still needed.

"There will be people campaigning against us but we need to be steadfast and soldier on; if we believe in democracy then we need to continue with the democratisation process started in the 12th and 13th General Elections," he said.

Former Bar Council president Datuk S. Ambiga said this is the first time in history where when a law is about to be repealed, its use seems to have gone into overdrive.

Ambiga also called the charges against elected representatives of the Opposition an attack of parliamentary democracy as the government is disrespecting the people's votes.

"It is an attack on parliamentary democracy and a complete disrespect for the people's votes; instead of facing the Opposition in Parliament, they (government) are using the Sedition Act to decapitate them," she said.

Bar Council National Young Lawyers Committee (NYLC) chairman Syahredzan Johan said the Abolish Sedition Act campaign's mission is to spread awareness on why the law must be repealed.

He said the Bar Council will be distributing brochures explaining why the Act must be repealed, the Sedition Act's history, and provisions under the law explained in simple language that will be easily understood by the layman.

Syahredzan said both an online and physical signature drive will run alongside the campaign to gather as many signatures as possible so a "critical mass" will be formed to show that many Malaysians want the law to be repealed.

He said achieving "critical mass" is important as only when there is a sufficient amount of people demanding for the Sedition Act to be repealed that the government will have the political will to do it.

Syahredzan said the campaign will run for a year, starting September 2014 and culminating in September 2015 when all accumulated signatures, petitions, and memorandums will be submitted to the Prime Minister.

He said they had not set a specific target for the number of signatures as they do not want to limit themselves, and that a walk by the Bar Council, although yet to be discussed, may be on the cards.

Syahredzan said he had not thought about failure to achieve the campaign's objectives yet but vowed to fight on even if leaders of the campaign are to be charged with sedition in the future.