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State punishment of Malaysian bloggers for offensive post is not the solution

The Centre for Independent Journalism deplores the Government action against bloggers Alvin Tan and Vivian Lee and the denial of bail to the two in response to their 'bak kut teh' Ramadhan Facebook post.

(On 11 July 2013, Alvin Tan and Vivian Lee uploaded a Facebook photo of themselves eating bak kut teh, a pork dish, which ran with a greeting that read, "Happy Breaking Fast, with fragrant, delicious and appetising bak kut teh", along with the official Halal logo. This was deemed insensitive by both Muslim and non-Muslim Malaysians as pork is considered taboo to Muslims. Prior to this, the duo hit the public eye for posting explicit photos on their blog.)

We believe the charges and denial of bail are disproportionate and counter-productive to the reconciliation that is needed to overcome the acrimonious backlash that has resulted.

The two were charged on 18 July 2013 under Subsection 4 (1) (c) of the Sedition Act Section 298A (1) (a) of the Penal Code and Subsection 5 (1) of the Film Censorship Act 2002 for the bak kut teh Ramadhan greeting as well as pornographic pictures in their blog.

Freedom of expression, including freedom of speech, is recognised under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 also provides for limits, which are to be applied under strict conditions, for matters such as national security, public health and threats of violence.

In determining those limitations, certain considerations must be made, namely the protection of the democratic process. Thus, such limits must, first, be provided by law, which are clear, precise and coherent so that they are not easily open to abuse.

Secondly, the aim to limit any form of expression must be legitimate in goal and outcome. It must be for the public good and not in the interest of a select few or to silence dissent against the government. Thirdly, the limitation must be necessary. In this it must be specifically targeted and contained after the state is absolutely certain that no other measure could achieve the objective of repairing the harm.

CIJ recognizes the posting by the two bloggers as hateful and offensive to some Muslims, but a response through criminalisation will not address the resentment that has surfaced. For one, the integrity of the authorities and institutions entrusted to conduct those investigations is questionable, especially in light of their indifference towards hate speech from Malays and Muslims against non-Malays and non-Muslims. Zulkifli Noordin's insults to Hindus in an undated video circulating on Youtube as well as in a talk on 6 March 2013, for example, were not met with any official or state censure. On 12 May 2013, former Court of Appeal Judge Mohd Noor Abdullah, at a public seminar, warned the Chinese community to be prepared for a backlash from the Malay community for betraying them in the 13th General Elections by voting for the opposition. This was a clear incitement of hatred and possibly violence.

Secondly, the situation is such that the actions from the two have generated a backlash of racist and intolerant remarks against non-Muslims and non-Malay Malaysians. Moreover, some have called for drastic action against them - including the death sentence - in the name of supremacist Malay Muslim sentiments. For example, Ustaz Abu Syafiq in a Facebook post, which has been circulated on social media openly, called for Alvin Tan and Vivian Lee to be killed. In the UMNO Cheras blog, Syed Ali Alhabshee, the head of the UMNO Cheras division, called for stern punishment against the duo, citing the example of Sajad Husin in Pakistan, whom prosecutors there are calling for the death penalty for insulting Islam.

CIJ would like to stress that Alvin Tan and Vivian Lee - despite their ignorant and distasteful gesture - did not physically harm anyone nor called for any violent acts against others. Their posting shows immaturity, but surely that cannot be equated with a call to commit a violent act against anyone or any community.

We should also note that Alvin Tan and Vivian Lee, through their actions, have been thoroughly discredited in the public eye. Public pressure has gotten their Facebook page shut down as well as made them apologize for their wrongdoings.

CIJ calls upon the Attorney General to treat the case for what it is - a disrespectful act that does not call for violent acts and not a threat to national security - and withdraw all charges.


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