Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Taking A Stand Against Defamation and For Freedom of Speech

Written by johnleemk on 11:07:24 am Jan 21, 2007.

The recent spate of lawsuits by the New Straits Times Press against two bloggers - namely Jeff Ooi and Rocky - have caused much consternation in the blogosphere. After all, these are the first lawsuits of their kind in Malaysia. The general response has, justifiably, been that these lawsuits will only stifle criticism and dissent. While agreeing with this sentiment, I feel that a broader and more objective view should be taken - one based more on reasoning than on a kneejerk reaction.

I will not be placing that ubiqitious "Bloggers United" tag on this site. This is not because I fear government reprisal, or because I am going to back down from taking a definite stand on Malaysian politics and governance. It is not even because I oppose free speech - if anything, I am in strong agreement with the stand taken by Bloggers United for greater freedom of speech, particularly on the internet. The main reason I will be avoiding joining this campaign is simply because:

  1. Like the recent opposition decision to boycott the Batu Talam by-election, this campaign will be completely ineffective and useless - we all know from past experience how the government will ignore any attempts to point out its errors.
  2. I believe that the possibility should remain open for people to take legal action against defamatory statements made on the internet - something that Bloggers United has been rather ambiguous about (at first glance, they seem to actually want this possibility to be cut off).

Cyberspace allows us a lot of freedom. It permits us to say whatever we like about anything. But as Jeff Ooi loves to say, we must remember that the internet does not operate in a legal vacuum. Even if we want to ignore the draconian laws concerning sedition, etc. (we would be particularly justified in doing so, since the government has publicly promised it will not censor the internet), we cannot ignore the laws concerning things like defamation. Every civilised country permits an individual or organisation to sue if its reputation has been unfairly slandered or libeled by an inaccurate or non-factual statement. It would be a travesty to, for whatever reason, permit open defamation on the internet.

Of course, de facto considerations will prevent major individuals or organisations from suing small-time bloggers for defamation. Any damages that could be gained would be little, and the publicity would be terrible. Most bloggers would (hopefully) have the sense to remove libelous material rather than to fight for the freedom to defame. And for big-time bloggers? Well, they should know the risks that come with posting defamatory material - if they can't take the heat, they should get out of the kitchen.

Note that I am not saying we should tolerate a clamping down on freedom of speech through the mechanism of defamation suits. What I am saying is that we on the internet do not have the right to post what we like. Even if we refuse to steer clear of those dangerous waters, such as posting seditious material, we must at least have respect for the laws of slander and libel.

If the bloggers being sued for libel have not written anything libelous, they should have nothing to fear. Having read both Jeff's and Rocky's blogs, I feel that there is nothing that any court could seriously accept as libelous. A right-thinking judge would throw the case out of court. This would make it clear that while there is room for reasoned and factual discourse, there is no room for defamation. While there is freedom of expression, there is no freedom to defame.

Some people might suggest that defamation laws would have a chilling effect on discourse in the blogosphere. Well, yes, I think that's the point. The point of defamation laws is to keep your mouth shut unless you are willing to stand by the facts of what you have said. You cannot go around accusing people of corruption or wrongdoing without having any facts to back you up. The internet is not a free-for-all. We are responsible for what we write. If you refuse to accept this responsibility, then don't write. It's better not to spread ill-founded gossip and avoid tainting the whole blogosphere.

Having said all that, I agree fully and completely with the sentiment that we must stand for freedom of speech in the internet on Malaysia. But, in doing so, let's please not stand for the freedom to slander and libel. We have a responsibility as authors of content to check our facts and establish the truth before spreading rumours and accusations.

For now, I feel that it's more important to ask the courts to be fair in their judgement. Jeff and Rocky will be let off by any reasonable and independent judge - so let's push for the judge(s) hearing the case to be free from any fear or favour on their part. They must be impartial and independent from external influence, and judge the case solely on its merits. By upholding the rule of law, we will preserve a blogosphere that is more able to express its views and disseminate factual information, while suppressing those who taint the name of the blogosphere by spreading wild and unfounded accusations. Libel and slander should never be tolerated by any society - not even in the name of freedom of speech.

There is one more thing I have to say: I am with Jeff and Rocky all the way on this one. I believe that they have done no wrong, and defamed no one, and I hope the New Straits Times Press gets thrashed in court. We have the right to not be defamed - and also the right to fight frivolous lawsuits. Let's fight this one.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.

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