25 January 2012

Howls of protest are heard when attempts are made to block hate speech, which is ironic because very often the speaker has no interest in respecting anyone else’s rights either.

I JUST returned from a symposium on social media, freedom of expression and incitement to hatred in Asia.

Forty Asian delegates as well as Frank La Rue, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, gathered to discuss what is happening in our countries and what can be done to meet the challenges that the Internet, particularly, poses.

The good news is that Malaysia is not the worst country when it comes to laws restricting freedom of speech on the Internet.

This is not to say we don’t have such laws but we are still grappling with the whole issue.

Delegates told of how, in some countries, if anything said by an individual online offends anyone, then the person who said it can be prosecuted.

Thus, if you opine that someone is a nobody, or that you don’t like someone’s hairstyle, then that person can say he’s offended by it and report you.

In many countries, there are laws preventing people from insulting various entities, including the government, royalty and religion.

The trouble is often the definition of insulting is vague and governments tend to be insulted on behalf of other people who may not care at all.

But that would be reason enough for them to prosecute someone.

Thus this leads to much abuse by these governments, especially towards people they don’t like.

The right to freedom of expression is of course balanced by responsibilities.

As Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, the exercise of the right to freedom of speech carries with it special duties and responsibilities and therefore may be subject to certain restrictions.

However, these shall only be such as provided by law and are necessary “for respect of the rights and reputations of others” and “for the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals”.

Our own Article 10 in our Federal Constitution allows the freedom of speech, assembly and association, but is then restricted by certain other provisions and laws.

For instance, it should be clear to everyone that child pornography, which violates the rights of children, should be prohibited and nobody should object to the blocking of such websites.

However, the Special Rapporteur reports that most governments rely solely on blocking of such websites and not on prosecuting those who produce them.

Also, despite child pornography being a by-product of child trafficking, most governments have done very little to tackle this root cause of the problem.

Another legitimate restriction to free speech is to censure hate speech, especially those that incite others to violence.

Even these have to be carefully enacted, so that only speech where there is a clear and immediate danger of violence occurring towards anyone or group is restricted.

We know that sometimes people say things in the heat of the moment they don’t really mean or intend to carry out.

On the other hand, sometimes there are people of influence who seem to encourage their followers or supporters to take steps to harm others.

Those are the ones that need restricting or even prosecution.

The other issue is privacy.

In order to be able to express their opinions freely, people need to have their right to privacy protected.

However, we now see governments requiring real name verification before comments can be made online.

This discourages many people in countries where there is legitimate fear of persecution for different views.

Even worse, there is little done when the personal details of people are posted online causing them to be harassed and even threatened.

We have seen very little will in governments to protect the privacy and security of these individuals, just because they may have different views.

Sometimes, it is not just the privacy of these individuals that are violated but also those of their families and friends.

Clearly, in Malaysia, these violations of privacy and of freedom of speech overall are made not just by the government, and by their supporters, but also by those opposing them.

Hate speech has of late been allowed free reign on the Internet.

Every time a blog owner tries to block someone who posts hateful comments, we get accused of restricting freedom of speech, which is ironic because very often the blocked person has no interest in respecting anyone else’s rights either.

Unfortunately, most Malaysians are complacent about these issues.

But as the Special Rapporteur pointed out, the freedom of speech, opinion and expression facilitates other rights such as the right to information, to education, to take part in cultural life and to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress.

Violations of free speech, whether through laws or just intimidation, affect all of us.

We should always be watchful when it happens.

09 January 2012

The last year was one where there were particularly high levels of obliviousness. Why not, in 2012, for the sake of doing something different, have a campaign called “End Stupid Statements”.

IT’S 2012 and if the Mayans are to be believed, the world ends this year. For me, the world didn’t start well because we got up on New Year’s Day to dry pipes. No water in the toilets is not what you call a fresh start to the year.

Could someone make a resolution to replace the old pipes in Bangsar, please?

Otherwise, we Bangsarites will go on a shower strike and stink the place out until our demands are met.

And, yes, our smelly mob will assemble in the streets to protest.

For some other Malaysians, especially some students, the New Year certainly did not start well at all. It makes one sigh again with frustration.

Let us see this clearly; the only people capable of using force on others are the ones with the batons and guns.

Generally, those aren’t civilians, and especially not students.

If this is the way the year is going to start, then we have learnt nothing from 2011, nor will we do anything new in 2012.

We will continue to exhibit our fears by clamping down on those who think differently, or who are simply different.

We display our paranoia by immediately looking for who is behind those who think differently.

We cannot imagine that people can think for themselves, without someone telling them how and what to think and do.

It’s the ultimate indictment of our education system, that every single thing anyone does, especially if contrary to what the establishment wants, must be attributed to a sheeplike disposition to be led.

Well, surely, if those who are contrarian are doing it because they are sheep, then those who are conformists are also sheep.

After all, everyone went through the same school system, no?

The last year, for me, was one where there were particularly high levels of obliviousness among those who rule us.

Oblivious to what people really think and want being chief among them.

Whether it’s deliberate or not, I can’t tell, but somehow there’s mild comfort in believing that it’s just natural gormlessness, and not willful blindness.

I am hoping that this year will be a year of greater imagination.

It would be nice if our leaders suddenly had the imagination to trust their people to be able to think on their own.

And to trust that people thinking on their own is not necessarily a bad thing, nor necessarily a move that will backfire.

I’d also like our leaders to start believing that their people are generally good people, who get on with one another and simply want to live their lives as best as they can.

And they can do all that without any interference from those who think they are leading us.

I don’t need anyone to tell me how to get on with my neighbours; I already do.

I do need someone to tell off those people who keep telling me to constantly be suspicious of my neighbours, including when they are nice to me.

Apparently this is only because they want to dislodge me from my faith.

In that case, my being nice to them must be equally effective at dislodging them from their beliefs.

Why not then have “Be Nice to Your Neighbours” campaigns?

Indeed, why not in 2012, for the sake of doing something different, have a campaign called “End Stupid Statements”.

Every statement uttered by a public figure that simply does not stand up to scrutiny gets printed on a big banner and then symbolically thrown into a giant dustbin at Dataran Merdeka.

My first candidate: Jews and Christians Are Taking Over the Country! (My test for the credibility of that statement is to ask: what for?).

I’m sure it’ll be a full dustbin.

But what am I saying?

We have an election to look forward to, which means there’ll be an endless supply of dumb utterances from all sides of the fence.

We should arm ourselves with deflectors to shield us from the inanities that are bound to rain upon our poor heads.

Or helmets at the very least, because it’s bound to injure our craniums.

But let me remain optimistic.

The first person that says all Malaysians are equal under our Constitution gets my vote.

Or who says, men and women are equal, or who outlaws child marriage.

And I’ll even give some grudging respect to the first person who says: “I lied, I’m sorry, I’ll step down now.”

But I suppose that would be like expecting to see porcine flying objects. Life trundles on, folks.

Try and have a good year!