Criticism is part of democracy


ARE you easily annoyed? What does it take to get you annoyed?

Personally, I find that most annoyances are quite easily ignored (which is why I don’t use any form of social media).

Most annoyances are, except for that idiot with a ridiculously loud exhaust system who insists on revving his engines in the wee hours of the morning as he tears down the road in front of my house.

If I ever get my hands on him (and I presume it is a him as only men tend to do such stupid things), I will grab him by the lapels and gently tell him that such a loud car can only mean one thing: “You’re trying to compensate for something tiny, mate.”

Anyway, I digress.

The reason I raise this is because it is actually a crime in this country to be annoying.

You don’t believe me? Well then, allow me to quote the Communi­cations and Multimedia Act 1998, specifically Section 233, which states that it is an offence if a person intentionally uses the Internet to make “any comment, request, suggestion or other communication which is obscene, indecent, false, menacing or offensive in character with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass another person”.

You can get a pretty hefty punishment if you are found guilty. Fahmi Reza, the artist, was recently slapped with a 30-day jail sentence and a whopping RM30,000 fine under this law.

And according to the police, the rapper (I must admit to giggling every time the term “rapper” is used on a person who is not African-American) Namewee is being investigated under the same law.

Both men were deemed to be offensive and annoying, I suppose – Fahmi for a spot of drawing and Namewee for a bit of music video making.

I have of course seen both works. One is an obvious satirical dig at a person of power and another is either a more subtle dig at corruption or an advert for dog masks, I am not quite sure which.

The point is, it seems ridiculous that such things can be seen as a crime.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The Internet is used for all sorts of nefarious purposes and this law was meant to deal with such things.

Threatening a person is not cool. Neither is sharing photos of people who at one point trusted you.

But these two men were both being critical of government via satire.

Could a law meant to be used to protect people from vindictive exes and criminals be used against government critics? Or to ask a more accurate question, should it?

I would say absolutely not. There are many ways to show displeasure at a government, and other than using violence or inciting violence, anything goes.

This includes satire. It is part and parcel of the democratic process.

Criticism, no matter how biting and crude, is something those in the public eye, especially those who wield power, will simply have to deal with. There is no place for using criminal law against such practices in a democracy.

There are limits to free speech, of course, but as was stated by the US Supreme Court, voices that are critical of public figures, particularly in matters of public interest, must be given as much freedom as possible with the highest level of protection.

Now, some will say that satire is not “our way”.

Well, I am sure there are historians and cultural anthropologists who could point out this is not so. I remember, for example, an old P. Ramlee movie that poked fun at a ruling political party.

But for me, that is not the point. If it is not “our way”, then you can criticise it, you can shun it, but if you criminalise it, then you are in effect placing another shackle on our democracy and stifling our freedom of expression.

And I find that extremely annoying.

Azmi Sharom (azmi.sharom@gmail.com) is a law teacher. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.


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