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Outcry over move to muzzle freedom of speech


PETALING JAYA: The Federal Court ruling that says governments can sue individuals for defamation has drawn a range of responses, reflecting the gravity of its possible consequences.

Constitutional lawyer Surendra Ananth said the decision was against the right of freedom of speech under Article 10 of the Federal Constitution.

“This includes the right to criticise the government and participate in public discussions. This is part and parcel of the democratic process,” he added.

Surendra, who is the Bar Council’s constitutional law committee co-chair, acknowledged that the freedom of expression could be restricted but in very limited circumstances.

He said it was in the interest of the public that public officials be open to criticism.

“If any individual behind the running of the body is personally attacked and suffers injury to his or her reputation, then he can sue for defamation in his individual capacity.

“However, the public body itself must be open to uninhibited criticism,” he added.

Former Court of Appeal judge Datuk Mah Weng Kwai acknowledged that the decision was of grave public concern. He said the court’s decision must be viewed from both its legal and human rights perspectives.

“We have the ruling that states the right of the government to sue, while on the other hand, we have the human rights perspective of the freedom of speech,” he said.

Mah added that he had yet to go through the court’s lengthy judgement for him to make a better assessment of the issue.

On Wednesday, Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Hanipa Maidin said no government should be given the right to sue for defamation.

“As far as I am concerned, the decision by the English court in the Derbyshire case is very sound and deserves our utmost respect.

“The Derbyshire judgment reflects the true nature of law on defamation vis-a-vis the sacred right of the people to say something – even seemingly defamatory – about their elected government.

“The government must not be given any right to sue for defamation. Period,” he was quoted as saying by a news portal.

On Facebook, former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak said if such a decision was reached during the Barisan Nasional’s administration, dozens of activists and Pakatan Harapan leaders would have protested.

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