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.