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Sentence against Malaysian blogger "disproportionately harsh"

The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) disagrees with the recent sentencing of blogger Yusuf al-Siddique Suratnam to two years in jail under section 505(b) of the Penal Code for a posting on his blog Milosuam. A blog post in March 2013, during the Lahad Datu crisis in Sabah, claimed to reveal a leaked police memo which mentioned the possibility of 1,500 foreigners potentially causing chaos in Sabah. Section 505(b) makes it an offence to publish or circulate any statement, rumour or report with the intent to cause, or which is likely to cause fear or alarm to the public...whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the date or against public tranquility.

CIJ acknowledges the dangers of publishing unverified and incorrect information online where it is widely accessible by the public. It also understands the difficult period the nation, and particularly, the security forces were going through at the time of the Lahad Datu invasion.

This does not detract from the fact that there were alternative responses available to the authorities other than charging Yusuf. The authorities could have contradicted the post or ridiculed it as not credible and reassured the public. As freedom of expression is an important component of a democracy and of accountable government, it is worrying that the authorities frequently respond immediately with prosecution and the framing of speech that they disagree with as criminal in nature. It is preferable, to meet international human rights standards and that of our own constitution, that the government and its agencies adopt more conciliatory and communicative methods in dealing with dissent and misinformation, unless there is a direct and immediate threat to national security, public order or public morality. It is acknowledged that Yusuf's post could have potentially caused fear or alarm amongst certain members of the public. However, section 505(b) contains two parts. First, there must be an intent to cause fear or alarm, or a likelihood that there will be fear or alarm amongst the public. Secondly, it must be proven that that fear may induce people to commit an offence against the state of against public tranquility. There do not appear to have been any reports of any violence or crime committed as a consequence of the blog post.

While the publication of such unverified information may not have been wise given the circumstances prevailing at the time, this does not necessarily make it criminal. It is important to distinguish between the two. Moreover, the two year jail sentence that has been meted out is the maximum prison sentence under the law. This seems disproportionately harsh for a blog post containing unverified information that the authorities could have easily responded to.

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