Tweaking Our Libel And Slander laws

Sambungan dari  us-dollar-almighty-part-2-where-should-the-ringgit-be   dan us-dollar-almighty-part-1  …. ibuhazim 🙂

By Syed Akbar Ali

When I was in Form 3, my English teacher Miss Chee taught us about the English phrase ‘needless to say’. It is sometimes used when the writer wants to say something that is already obvious. But Miss Chee told us if something is needless to say, then why say it? Thus do teachers incite seeds of rebellion in the minds of their wards!

But only the phrase itself need not be used. It does not mean that the subject of the matter need not be repeated. Because the fact is sometimes we have to repeat something a dozen times or more to get the message across.

So here is an understatement : there is a lot of pent up anger and frustration in our country. There are numerous facets to this anger. Just one of them is the frustration that we cannot speak freely, that we do not have avenues to freely express our thoughts. This is just one of the thousands of reasons why I think the voting pattern in this country has changed, most likely quite permanently, since March 8th, 2008.

A few years ago I was invited to brief a foreign military delegation (from a Third World country) about the general political and economic situation in our country. This was after the 9-11 event. In my briefing I also spoke about the Press and the media here. The reason I recall that event is because what I said then about the traditional media (printed and electronic) has not changed much – except for one significant detail : Blogging has now become the new mainstream media in the country.

In fact Malaysian Blogs are now setting the agenda on influencing public opinion. People who are under constant public scrutiny ignore this fact at their own peril. And Blogging is growing by the day.

The printed media here can be broadly differentiated between the MSM or mainstream media and the ‘others’. In reality the MSM media (Malay, English and Tamil) represents the political-party owned or linked print media which basically champion their respective political masters, toe their line and so forth. This also applies for the MSM electronic media like the TV and radio stations in the country.

The non MSM print media also include political party owned newspapers, publications put out by NGOs as well as non partisan tabloids and gossip newspapers. They are mostly in Malay with some being available in English. Only recently a full fledged non partisan Malay news daily has been launched.

But what really is mainstream media today in Malaysia? A long time ago, the MSM was also the most widely read, the most widely watched or enjoyed the largest circulation. But this does not hold true anymore. Then who actually the readers or the viewers are, is also confusing the definition of what is mainstream media. If the media is read by the Government, does it make it mainstream? Not anymore. If it is read by rural Malays, is it mainstream? If a Chinese newspaper which weighs about a kilo, has a DAILY circulation of about two million readers, is it NOT mainstream?

We have ‘newspapers’ like the Malay language Harakah which also have circulations that are larger than some other MSM newspapers. Among television stations, the ASTRO satellite TV has perhaps replaced the regular MSM TV stations in popularity. But this also depends on which mainstream you are looking at. A very large number of Chinese watch Astro and so do many urban Malays. But what they watch on Astro is completely different. So what exactly is mainstream?

Going by circulation alone, some of the MSM newspapers are on their way to oblivion. Minus the free newspapers and other giveaways they hardly have the numbers to break even. Revenues from advertisements placed by the Government, Government universities, Government Linked Companies and other such crutches keeps them going. But if their circulation physically keeps decreasing by the day, even these crutches cannot prop them up. Are they still considered MSM?

So to me it is unclear today what exactly is the mainstream media in the country. Even the idea of a controlled Press is hazy. The pro Government MSM media is definitely heavily censored and suffers many restrictions.

But we cannot say the same for the Harakah plus the tens of ‘surat khabar nyamuk’ which we can buy at the newstands. English reading Malaysians may not avail themselves of such publications but the Malay speaking readers have access to a very large number of publications and tabloids which are quite unrestricted in what they say. The Harakah for example outsells many other newspapers. The Harakah definitely does not suffer the same restrictions as the other newspapers.

Then the vernacular Press especially the Chinese press is said to be (I dont read Chinese) relatively less restricted than other MSM media. And now with the Blogs so strongly influencing the public’s opinion, the idea of restricting or censuring news dissemination, analysis and comment is becoming almost impossible.

As far as news censorship and Press freedoms are concerned the pro Government media seem to toe the line very well. The non political media as well as the politically linked pro-Opposition media are less restricted.

But for the politicians, not understanding which media is mainstream or non-mainstream, or which part of the populace is mainstream, non-mainstream etc can be fatal. For example some politicians who never imagined that they could lose the support of the voters (but they have lost in the recent elections) have even misunderstood the idea of Blogging. They think that just by opening their own Blogs will make them more acceptable now. Wrong.

You are only acceptable if what you say makes sense and is practically useful to the people who voted you out of office. If you open a Blog and say the same things that made people dislike you in the first place, your Blog simply becomes a beacon to remind the people everyday to continue not voting for you. Your Blog becomes a place where you shoot yourself in the foot everyday. A Blog is just a tool. It is what you say and do that will make the difference. Just having your name on the Blog does not mean anything.

Well dear reader, I hope you are not too bored. That was just the opener. I really wanted to talk about libel, slander, defamation and such. For the future of this country in particular, I think that we have to amend our laws on defamation accordingly, to better serve us the human beings who populate this country.

The ISA, the OSA, the restrictions on the mainstream media, the other outdated laws that we have and so forth are symptomatic of a narrow mindedness, of where we came from, from a time long ago which we have now left far behind. Of course they become evil when they are misused. People are made to suffer through the interpretations and misinterpretations of these laws. And any law can be misused. We need to tweak our thinking and hence we need to tweak some of our laws.

What do we all want? We want to progress – to move on in life at par with the best in the world. Other than the education system (which is a shambles) and the economic system (another shambles) the laws of the country must also help us along this path. Are we there yet? I dont think so. Are we close to getting there? We are not even in the parking lot. So our laws have to bear part of the blame for not advancing us at a rapid enough clip. We must change many of our laws.

To progress in double quick time science, technology, industry, economics, arts and culture should play a gigantic role in our daily lives. But they do not have an important enough role in the lives of a vast number of our people. (Those who bought RM450 tickets for Mamma Mia, RM250 tickets for the Petronas Philharmonic or RM45 tickets for Indy and Andy’s show may disagree but you are in the truly minority league.)

Instead what is taking up so much of our time is the drama of politics, politics and more politics. And it is a very low quality production where the actors are shabbily dressed on a poorly lit stage. Despite the Third World script, our actors cannot even memorise their lines. Yet these are the characters who distract the nation’s thinking. The bulk of our waking hours are wasted listening to these stage players.

And this situation is not going to change anytime soon (no matter who makes up the State or Federal Government). And the fault is ours. We as a populace have agreed to extend the same courtesy to all and sundry, including to this class of people who have now become the single largest cause of much of our unhappiness – the politicians. This must change.

OK lets get to the point. There is such a thing as ‘a public personality’ who should bear more scrutiny (hence indignity) than the ordinary man or woman in the street. Recalling my law classes 22 years ago in college in the Yew-nited States, my law teacher Mr Frueh (pronounced Free) explained that a ‘public personality is any person who offers himself to the public to earn a living, to establish his fame or to win stature in society’.

Politicians definitely fall into this category. So should Government workers (aka Public servants), artistes, pisang goreng sellers, Bloggers and all. We all put ourselves to the public to sell them a product, win their support or sway their thinking. Because we depend on the public, the public must therefore be given a free hand to scrutinise, question and criticise us. This has been done in the United States.

In the US, if you fall into this category of a public personality, then it is extremely very difficult for you to sue people in Court for defamation. Other than real malicious intent, the public can say almost anything about you and you must put up with it – it is very difficult for you to sue them in Court. This is why the US comedy shows (like Jay Leno and Saturday Night Live) can make so much fun of George Bush, Obama, McCain, Sarah Palin, Joe Biden etc and get away with it.

The Courts in the US recognise that not all members of the public have attended law classes, not all people have the same levels of education. Not all members of the public are equally eloquent in a popular language to voice their opinion. Yet all these people have the right to say whatever they wish to say about the people who are demanding either their money, their votes, their support, their endorsement and so on. In other words the Courts in the US are saying that if you are a politician, an actor, a supermarket operator etc then you must grow up. You must be prepared to take the verbal bricks people may want to throw at you.

I feel strongly that the defamation laws (laws of libel and slander) here in Malaysia must be tweaked to accomodate this. We must amend the defamation laws such that the politicians especially, almost cannot sue anyone for defamation.

We dont have our home grown type of McDonald’s, General Motors, Toyota, 20th Century Fox, CNN etc who have such a big impact on American or Japanese society. Hence these corporations are so heavily regulated in the US, Japan etc. Here our continued happiness and wealth depends so much on the polticians. Maklumlah we are Third World. This means they must be exposed to complete comment and scrutiny.

I strongly believe that just this alone (making the politicians almost exempt from the defamation laws) will go a long way towards making our country a safer and more prosperous place.
To their credit the PAS has never sued anyone for defamation despite what anyone has said about them. Neither has UMNO. It is part of the rough and tumble of politics.

To my knowledge Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad sued the Far Eastern Economic Review magazine just once in the 80s when they said that he had gone to meet the Sultan of Brunei to discuss the sale of Limbang (in Sarawak) to Brunei. Dr Mahathir succesfully sued the FEER because that was a particularly malicious accusation affecting the peace and unity of our country. For the reader’s note the FEER went bust sometime ago.

To conclude this piece I would like to say that, yes we all know how to complain and point fingers when something goes wrong or when something happens that we do not like. We should not stop this practise. In fact we should be even more critical. It is our right. But it will help a lot if we also make constructive suggestions, put forward practical ideas and proposals for the people in authority to consider.

Often times even the people in authority realise that something is not right. But thanks to our education system, they themselves do not know how to move things forward. They lack ideas.

The smart folks like the Bar Council , the NGOs, the professionals etc must play a role here. Dont just complain. Make good, workable suggestions.

Coming Next : Saudara Anwar Bin Ibrahim.

p.s. My following pieces will be shorter & hopefully no more wingdings too.

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