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CIJ calls for dialogue and debate over legal action against publication

(CIJ/IFEX) - The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) strongly disagrees with calls to suspend the Malay daily "Utusan Malaysia" for publishing commentary with racial undertones and to penalise its author, the daily's former group chief editor Khalid Mohd, under the Sedition Act. Freedom of expression thrives in an environment where members of the public are free to agree and disagree among themselves instead of censuring each other with restrictive laws, CIJ stressed.

On 3 June 2009, the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) president, S. Samy Vellu, urged the authorities to charge Khalid Mohd, who writes with the pen name of Awang Selamat, under the Sedition Act. This followed the publication of an article "Melayu dikhianati?" (Malays betrayed?) published in his daily column on 31 May, in which non-Malays were said to have "over demanded" their rights. The article and its author drew both supporters and detractors alike, among them prominent lawyer and former minister Zaid Ibrahim, who rebuked the author in his blog.

However, calls by members of the public, as reflected in the Vox Populi in online daily to invoke laws against the paper, and statement such as Samy Vellu's, reveal a reflexive tendency to stop discussion about race relations. It is more disappointing that this is perpetrated by a leader of Malaysia's biggest Indian political party, who should have instead played a moderating role in such a discussion.

According to CIJ, open and civil discussions on race and religion are instrumental for nation-building. Through such discussion, the norms and mores of free expression, such as the ethical boundaries, may evolve. But to ban certain views, especially by giving absolute powers to the state to censor, is a grave violation of freedom of expression for the individual and the community.

CIJ calls on all political leaders and opinion leaders to emphasize the importance of dialogue and debates and refrain from demanding the use of undemocratic laws. CIJ also urges the editors of "Utusan Malaysia" to create spaces in the newspaper for those with differing views and opinions on the issue and show that it is interested in constructive engagement.

CIJ reiterates that restrictive laws on freedom of expression must be repealed and that its proposal for a parliamentary select committee be considered to kick-start the law reform process.

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