Malaysian defamation laws must keep up

Lawyers urge Malaysia to amend its defamation legislation to keep pace and address challenges brought about by the Internet.

MALAYSIA--Legal experts are urging Malaysia to take a cue from countries such as United States and Britain, and amend its defamation laws to keep pace with the Internet revolution.

Senior lawyer Cecil Abraham said Malaysia's defamation laws have to evolve to face the new challenges posed by the Internet. The country's Defamation Act, Abraham added, should be in line with those in Britain, United States and Australia, which have addressed issues regarding defamation on the Internet.

For example, he said, the United States and Britain both passed new legislation to shield Internet service providers (ISPs) from being sued for libel. "There must be political will to harmonize our defamation laws with others worldwide," said Abraham, during the Universiti Malaya's Law Career Convention held here recently.

"We shouldn't be parochial, but adopt what [is done] in other countries and adapt it to our situation," he added.

According to Abraham, it is not necessary to distinguish between a publication that is online and offline with regards to defamation laws.

"The Internet does not operate in a legal vacuum," he said. "If bloggers alleged a minister was corrupt, they must be able to justify it and not just make allegations [without justification]."

Senior law lecturer Shad Saleem Faruqi agreed, noting that the rules of defamation applied to blogs and Internet forums. "The definition of speech covers every form of communication in whatever form, written or symbolic," the professor of law at Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM), said in an interview with ZDNet Asia.

Asked if defamation laws in the West were more advanced than Malaysia's, Shad Saleem said: "In fact, we tend to give people much more freedom to defame because we have no privacy laws, unlike most Western countries."

He noted that while the Internet offers an excellent medium to facilitate freedom of speech and expression of ideas, it does not exempt online users from having to abide by the law.

The law professor said anonymous bloggers pose a key problem as many abuse the online medium to make defamatory statements, incite racial hatred and promote prejudice and religious bigotry.

Shad Saleem underscored the need for mechanisms to be created so that bloggers have to identify themselves, and be made aware of their accountability.

The Malaysian Bar Council, for instance, does not allow visitors to post comments on its Web site unless they register their personal particulars and indemnify the council against defamation suits that may arise from their remarks.

Shad Saleem, too, said that ISPs and Web hosting companies should be given legal protection from defamation suits because they have no control over what is written or posted.

"ISPs have little chance to vet content on their servers. In fact, it is not practical [to do so] and [something that's] beyond their control," he said.

He added that Malaysian authorities have to revise the country's defamation laws to meet the challenges brought about by the Internet. "The government has no choice but to amend the defamation laws. However, it will take time," he said.

"Already, there have been instances where government ministers have been defamed by bloggers. There will likely be more suits brought against bloggers," Shad Saleem noted.

In January, defamation suits slapped on two popular Malaysian bloggers by government-linked New Straits Times Press (NSTP) galvanized the country's bloggers into action. Malaysia is estimated to have some 10 million Internet users.

Lee Min Keong is a freelance IT writer based in Malaysia.

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