Lost in translation? Well, don’t shoot the messenger!

  • Living
  • Saturday, 28 Mar 2015

You can say something in good faith that is true, but what is really important is how people will react to it. Problem is, you can’t control how people will see your message, can you?

Just a few days ago I received a message on WhatsApp purporting to explain the origin of April Fool’s day. In 1492, when the Moors were trying to hold Granada against the Crusaders, the defenders were tricked into thinking that the attackers would let them leave in peace if they surrendered.

However, when they stepped out into the open, they were viciously ambushed and massacred, thus ending the rule of the Moors in Spain. All this happened on April 1, and thus those who were massacred were known as April Fools. The message ends with a plea for Muslims to not celebrate this day because of its horrifying origins.

Except that it’s difficult to ascertain how true this story is. When you try to research the origin of April Fool’s, you find that most results point to the festival of Hilaria celebrated during Roman times. The 16th and 17th centuries see the first clear references to April 1, but there are no references to Muslims, Moors, or Granada.

I also have doubts if the ambush even happened. The siege of Granada began in April 1491 and was a long-drawn battle of attrition that took over eight months.

A provisional surrender was signed in November 1491, and although Christian soldiers may have sneaked into Granada on Jan 2, 1492, it was in anticipation of last-minute resistance that eventually didn’t materialise.

All this means the message telling Muslims not to celebrate April Fool’s Day may not have any basis in fact. What recourse do I have to remedy this?

The Communications and Multimedia Act has a section that basically says nobody can use the Internet to say anything false, but only if they do so with the intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass anybody.

The message sent to me may have been false, and I may have been annoyed by it, but I don’t think the law is relevant here.

Note that you don’t have to say much to be convicted under this Act. In 2009 somebody made a comment on the online visitor book of the Sultan of Perak. It had only four words and as many exclamation marks, but it was deemed offensive enough that the author was fined RM10,000 for it. It was a rude comment, but no worse than what I’ve heard my mother shout at people who cut her off on the road, and far milder than what I see on Twitter.

Another possibility is the Sedition Act. This law was introduced in 1948 by the British in order to control dissent against colonialism and British rule. There is some irony that this is the same law that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak announced last year would be strengthened to protect Islam, Malays, and the rulers.

It may surprise you that the laws are not specifically about stopping falsehoods about the Rulers or the Government. A judgment for a case in 1978 stated that “... the prosecution is not obliged to prove that anything said in his speech was true or false ...”, while observing that the Sedition Act also states that the intention of the accused is irrelevant if the words themselves are seditious.

You can say something that is not true, and if nobody complains, that’s fine. You can then point out what’s true to correct it, and even if nobody protests it at the time, it can still be found later to be seditious. It’s like a reality distortion field.

Recently, the Inspector-General of Police (IGP) tweeted that the police would investigate a radio presenter over a satirical video on hudud. However, instead of being investigated under the Sedition Act, the IGP said that Section 298 of the Penal Code would be used.

One difference is that the Sedition Act allows for people to point out errors and defects in government legislation (albeit with a number of provisos). Section 298 deals with attempts to cause disharmony on the grounds of religion. Again, a reading of the law would lead one to conclude that the facts presented by a speaker are not relevant, only whether it is “likely to cause disharmony, disunity, or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill will”. The reporter clearly upset a few individuals – the ones who posted death threats as comments on the video.

When asked what would happen to those who made the threats, the IGP said, “it would be difficult to track Facebook users”.

In all this, it means one must be careful when debating sensitive topics in Malaysia, even if you are trying to just make clear what the facts are. You can say something in good faith that is true, but what is really important is how people will react to it.

Obviously, the problem is that although I can control what I say, I can’t control how people will see it. I can’t guarantee that people will hear my words in the correct context, or be bothered to do some research before lashing back.

In fact, I may even say something that is wrong, but I want to know what is right. All that I wrote above about April Fool’s and the fall of Granada was gathered from Wikipedia – a great starting point, but hardly the most reliable of sources. I’m open to anything better.

Yet by pointing out that the post on WhatsApp might be false, I could possibly be provoking disharmony on religious grounds, because I am dividing Muslims on how they should celebrate April Fool’s day.

I might be OK with what I say, but I may be in trouble because others react badly – regardless of who is the greater fool.

Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Speak to him at star2@thestar.com.my.

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