Is M'sia's online world ready for free speech?

The social media and online publishing world have had a busy month in Malaysia.Within the span of a month, several incidents have arisen that have directly involved online platforms and how information therein has been posted, so much so that many, including both sides of the political aisle have also weighed in with their views.
Written by Edwin Yapp, Contributor

The social media and online publishing world have had a busy month in Malaysia.

Within the span of a month, several incidents have arisen that have directly involved online platforms and how information therein has been posted, so much so that many, including both sides of the political aisle have also weighed in with their views.

On Aug. 24, online news portal The Malaysian Insider (TMI) reported that those who supported school principal Siti Inshah Mansor, who had allegedly hurled racist remarks at students at the school where she heads, set up a Facebook fanpage on Aug. 21 to defend her.

The fanpage, which alleged Mansor was a "victim of politics", gained 1,365 fans in just two days after it was set up, with many airing their strong views on the page, noted TMI.

A day later, TMI reported that hours after it had carried a story about Siti's support page, a Facebook page condemning the alleged remarks of the Johor principal was also created. Titled "Do not support Puan Siti," the page then had 454 followers, noted TMI.

A few days following that, a controversial Malaysian musician and rapper, Wee Meng Chee, posted a video he made on YouTube, in which he condemned the racists slurs allegedly uttered by Mansor to her pupils. Wee received notoriety because of the overt vulgarities and obscenities he uttered in his video.

The Taiwanese graduate, popularly known as Namewee, is now under investigation by the Police under Malaysia's Sedition Act, and the video has since been removed from YouTube.

In a third incident, a Federal lawmaker accused the CEO and editor of TMI of having connections with Indonesian nationalist group, Bendera Rakyat Indonesia, better known as Bendera. The anti-Malaysian group had been demonstrating against Malaysian embassy in Jarkata, following the arrest of Indonesian Maritime and Fisheries officers on Aug. 13 for encroaching Malaysian waters, newswire Bernama noted.

In a report filed by Malay daily Utusan Malaysia, Zahrain Mohamed Hashim, a Member of Parliament alleged that TMI's Jahabar Sadiq was in contact with three Bendera leaders and claimed that the journalist was "advising" the radical group.

What was strange was that, according to Sadiq, his views, and indeed his right of reply, were never sought after by Utusan, and thus, he was not given a chance to respond to the charges claimed.

The news set off much chatter on blogs, Twitter and Facebook, once again with many weighing in with their various views on the matter.

Whether we like it or not, the aforementioned developments are a result of the continuing liberalization of the Internet in Malaysia. Simply put, more and more people today are getting used to the idea that the Internet, through social media, online news publication and forums, is a viable platform to air their views--both good and bad.

As impassive as one ought to be about these issues, sometimes people can't contain their emotions and issues like these tend to escalate out of control.

So how does one react to such online postings?

I've always argued that technology is agnostic and neutral and that it's only a conduit by which content transverses through.

By virtue of this fact, technology should never be the target of criticisms per se, and by extension, people should not be prevented from accessing it.

Let me say at this juncture that I believe in the freedom of speech and the notion that one is able to express his or her own views on a particular issue, be it political, social or economic.

As a journalist, I'm also committed to having a free press, the right to report on issues that matter to the public trust, albeit, to doing so fairly and in accordance with universally accepted best journalism practices.

Having said that, one question that comes to mind is: If technology--in this case, access to the Net--should always be made available to Netizens, how then do we filter and manage the barrage of information posted online?

Are there universally accepted principles we could follow to ensure that what we post online is not offensive to others? Are there limits to which we should adhere when posting our views online? Is there a place for self-censorship after looking at the facts before posting information online?

Undoubtedly, there are many principles one can follow, but may I venture to suggest three universally accepted principles for Netizens to consider before posting things online.

First, the issue of responsibility. Everyone should be aware that postings on the Net or publications are subjected to the same rules of responsibility one would practise in the real world. Just because one can use the Net as a conduit to exercise free speech, that speech, while being the right of the one who utters it, should be done so in a responsible manner.

For example, the basic right of reply must be accorded to a person, particularly if a report has alleged a wrongdoing, as in the case Sadiq's claim that Utusan did not seek his views before going to print.

Second, the issue of accountability. Netizens involved in posting any report or comment online must be accountable for what they do. Just because we can somewhat hide behind the anonymity of the Net, we should never think that we can get away with what we post.

Standing behind anonymity does not make one unaccountable for his or her actions as laws against libel and slander are also applicable to those who post online remarks and comments.

Third, two wrongs don't make a right. Trying to damn another person's comments through explicit comments or gestures and doing it offensively and/or against the laws of the land isn't going to solve the problem, as in the case of Namewee.

Comments posted or opinions raised should have been logical and impassively argued. Arguments presented must be based on facts and not based solely on emotion or innuendos, and should not be personal in nature.

Notwithstanding, it's good to note that more people are taking to the Net with their comments, as the right to free speech is the bedrock of any democratic society. Because of the Net, people can now voice their views openly like never before.

However, to truly capitalize on this participatory element of the Net, Netizens also need to learn how to do so in an enlightened manner and not in a "wild wild west cowboy, do what you like" fashion.

Malaysia is going through changes, and like any changes a living organism goes through, there will be growing pains. These changes include learning how to handle free speech in an online world. 

But I believe it's only when we can handle free speech responsibly with accountability can we benefit from the raison d'etre for which the Net exists--to promote better understanding, the exchange of ideas, tolerance and mutual respect for each other regardless of race, religion or creed.

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