Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Abdullah's Comments Don't Interfere with the Judiciary's Independence

Written by johnleemk on 10:09:38 am Jan 25, 2007.

The latest turn in this twisting case of the New Straits Times Press lawsuit against bloggers Jeff Ooi and Ahirudin 'Rocky' Atan is that now some of their supporters are accusing Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi of interference with the judiciary and of being in contempt of court for discussing a sub judice matter. These accusations are supposedly bolstered by an anonymous professional in the common law, which is law in Malaysia by virtue of our colonial heritage.

Now, not being a legal professional myself, and having no legal qualifications besides an General Certificate of Education for Advanced Subsidiary Level Law, I wouldn't claim that this is wrong outright. But it seems to be a bit of an unwarranted overreaction to me. Yes, taking a very liberal approach to interpreting Pak Lah's words, we could say that he is interfering with the independence of the judiciary and that he is passing judgement on the case. But reading his words at face value, or even in a liberal (but not that liberal) way, it's hard to see how he could be guilty of either.

Now, Abdullah was asked by the press to specifically comment on the case, but not on its merits, and he very apparently steered clear of passing judgement on the case. All he did was warble that usual trite crap about the rule of law, which is very true nonetheless:

We do not censor the Internet and thatís our policy, but they (bloggers) must understand that there are also laws on defamation and sedition. These laws are enforced. They should bear in mind that they cannot hide and they cannot take advantage of doing something against the law. The law is the law. They cannot hide and hope to be protected under some kind of a cover or whatever they think that they have. And if you want freedom, what is freedom without responsibility? I don't agree with freedom without responsibility. Freedom without responsibility is anarchy. Actually, it is being irresponsible.
This is actually one of the more sensible things to have proceeded from Pak Lah's mouth during his administration. I don't see how anyone could disagree with this - certainly Jeff hasn't, since he has prominently placed a notice at the end of each one of his postings about how "INTERNET does not operate in a legal vacuum." The laws on defamation and sedition apply to the internet just as much as they apply to any other medium. (However, there is, as Pak Lah noted, significantly more freedom of speech on the internet because it is not subject to draconian censorship laws such as the Printing Presses & Publications Act.)

I don't think the bloggers supporting Jeff and Rocky would disagree with this statement. Nevertheless, they seem intent on using it to whack Abdullah nonetheless, claiming:
Abdullah is an interested party in the defamation suits filed against the two bloggers, and their cases are pending. As such, Abdullah should have refrained from invoking defamation and sedition to incriminate the subject of his comments, and to subtly coerce the Judiciary to prosecute the defendants whose are still at their early stage.
Anyone denying that Abdullah is an interested party in the case would be out of her mind. Abdullah, as the bloggers note, is the President of UMNO which controls the NSTP through a long and convoluted chain of holding companies and conglomerates. However, I find the other assertions highly incredulous and difficult to swallow.

Let's look at the first one - that "Abdullah should have refrained from invoking defamation and sedition to incriminate the subject of his comments". Read his original comment again. Does this sound like he is incriminating the bloggers? He doesn't even sound like he is speaking about Jeff and Rocky in particular - he seems to be addressing the blogosphere as a collective. Does Pak Lah say "Jeff and Rocky have committed defamation", or even that "Some bloggers have committed defamation"? No. All he says is that we have laws concerning defamation and sedition, that these laws apply to the internet, and that we must respect the rule of law. That's it. How is this even subtly accusing the bloggers concerned of defamation or sedition?

Indeed, this is probably the kind of truism any other Prime Minister would spout if he were placed in a similar situation. Would we be pouncing on such a remark had it emerged from, say, Manmohan Singh (the Indian PM) concerning a hypothetical internet defamation case in India? Of course not. Such comments about upholding the rule of law are expected of any Prime Minister who is asked to comment about a particular case. Why are we being so harsh on Pak Lah for such a petty little remark? He does not even imply that the bloggers have broken the law - all he says is that we must respect the law. Tell me, how is this wrong?

Fine, let's say that considering the context of things, and how fragile freedom of speech here is and all that, it would not be unreasonable to take such a wild and liberal approach to reading Pak Lah's comments. Do you honestly believe that any court would take you seriously if you hauled Pak Lah in front of a judge and accused him of contempt of court based on his remarks above? Do you seriously think that the judge would say, "Oh yes, he is quite clearly attempting to incriminate the defendants on a matter which is sub judice through remarks such as 'The law is the law. They cannot hide and hope to be protected under some kind of a cover or whatever they think that they have.'"? Please. Have some common sense. The only reasonable reading of such a remark would be that Abdullah says that nobody is above the law, and that the only defence against accusations of an offense or tort are facts proving that you did not commit the offense/tort. That's all Abdullah is saying. How can you conceivably read anything more into the statement?

Right, now for the second assertion - that Abdullah is acting "to subtly coerce the Judiciary to prosecute the defendants whose are still at their early stage". Putting aside the fact that defamation is a tort, and thus covered under civil law instead of criminal law (meaning that the judiciary can't "prosecute" anyone, since prosecution is only for criminal offenses), how is this coercion of any form? Can anyone detect an undertone in his comment along the lines of "The courts should find the defendants guilty or else"? Anyone?

I can see how a paranoid maniac after being exposed to all the travesties of justice in our courts (my personal favourite: a retroactive amendment to the Constitution to ensure the conviction of someone charged under an unconstitutional law) might take such a strange reading of Abdullah's words. But seriously, if you were a judge, would you feel threatened or coerced by such a vague statement of Pak Lah's? All he did was mumble some trite crap about the rule of law. That's it. He did not say "Jeff and Rocky are guilty, and the court should rule against them", nor did his statement even imply that.

It's these kinds of paranoid accusations that taint the blogosphere. Malaysian bloggers (well, actually, most political bloggers in any country) are very prone to nonsensically hyping meaningless bullshit, and this is one prime example. Pak Lah is incompetent and a failure, but why pounce on him about this non-issue? Why? Of all his wrong-doings, like failing to protect the Constitution from his own party or leading the country to failure, why, of all things, nail him about allegations of impropriety when it seems any reasonable judge would laugh a case against him out of court?

Only one thing heartens me - that at least one of the bloggers involved has some common sense. As this blogger notes, Pak Lah's mistake was not pushing the rule of law line far enough. By only mentioning the bloggers, he was unfair - defamation and sedition laws apply just as much to newspapers, and they have to respect that. Likewise, as this blogger notes, newspapers such as those linked to BN must be held to a higher standard than bloggers by the people, because they have greater responsibility and resources. It is this kind of common sense that bloggers need. This is the kind of reasoning and arguing we should see from commentators, instead of contrived bullshit about a non-issue.

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