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Concern over harsh fine, criminal punishment of Malaysian man accused of insulting police

This statement was originally published on cijmalaysia.org on 21 November 2014.

The Centre for Independent Journalism expresses concern at the 21 November 2014 Malaysiakini and The Star reports which state that a man was fined RM10,500 for insulting the police. Tan Keng Hong, a car salesperson from Melaka, pleaded guilty and was fined RM3,500 under section 504 of the Penal Code and RM7,000 under section 233(3) of the Communications and Multimedia Act. It is unclear exactly what Tan said about the police; an earlier report regarding a car salesperson in Melaka who was arrested for insulting the police on Facebook describes him as calling the police "monkey".

If Tan is indeed the car salesperson mentioned in the earlier report, the punishments being handed out are worrying. Section 504 of the Penal Code makes it an offence to intentionally insult and provoke another person, with the knowledge that such provocation will cause that person to break the public peace or commit an offence. This would mean that to have committed this offence, Tan would have had to know that calling police officers insulting names would have led them to break the public peace. This in itself is insulting to our police officers as it assumes that the police would retaliate with force or violence due to being called names by members of the public.

CIJ certainly does not condone our police officers being labelled with derogatory terms. Nevertheless, not all name-calling, or insults, should result in criminal punishment. To do so would seriously threaten freedom of expression as all manner of speech, including comments that are legitimate and necessary for democracy and accountability, would be stifled. Only expression that advocates hatred and incite violence should attract censure from the state. From the reports available, it does not appear that Tan's comments incited violence against the police.

With regards section 233(1) of the Communications and Multimedia Act, CIJ reiterates that this is an overly broad law that even makes it an offence to post offensive material that "annoys" someone. This goes far beyond the legitimate restrictions on freedom of expression envisioned by our Federal Constitution and international standards of international human rights law. CIJ thus calls for this section to be repealed as it is unconstitutional.

Finally, CIJ is of the view that the RM10,500 fine that was meted out is also excessively harsh. This is especially so in the light of a RM1,000 fine that was meted out on the same day to a taxi driver who caused actual hurt to a woman in a road rage encounter where he slapped and pinched a woman's face until her lips bled. Like Tan, the taxi driver in the case pleaded guilty.

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