No need for hate speech laws, lawyers say

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Source: The Malay Mail Online

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 21 ― Laws on hate speech are not necessary, lawyers said amid a spate of arrests over social media posts on late PAS spiritual leader Datuk Haron Din deemed insulting to Islam.

Responding to questions whether laws to specifically address hate speech should be introduced, the lawyers said clearly defining existing legislation on the subject was sufficient to punish offenders.

They also said this would remove the current ambiguity in such laws that made them open to abusive interpretations.

“Currently the these provisions are just too vague and broad. It has be more specific,” civil liberties lawyer New Sin Yew told Malay Mail Online, pointing out that it must be determined what kind of speech is considered to be a threat to order and safety.

New pointed out the death threats received online by BFM journalist Aisyah Tajuddin last year, after her remarks about hudud, as an example of comments that can be considered threatening and required police action.

“But you cannot use it against a politician because he said something that is just rude. It is rude, not a matter of security,” New said, while pointing out that many citizens are not aware of the existence of these vague laws.

“People need to know what they can do and what they can’t do,” he said.

Laws criminalising speech deemed insulting came into the spotlight again after DAP’s Jelutong MP Jeff Ooi and former journalist Sidek Kamiso were arrested over tweets on Haron.

Among these was Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act, which deals with comments made online that “annoy, abuse or threaten” individuals, and Section 298 of the Penal Code pertaining to “uttering words with the deliberate intent wound the religious feeling of another person”.

New suggested that the CMA be amended for specificity by including a “test” to determine the gravity of remarks.

Civil liberties lawyer K. Shanmuga also argued that the Section 233 of the CMA was currently too broad as it did not define what was considered “offensive”.

Pushing for the amendment or repeal of both Section 293 and Section 298 to comply with international human rights norms, he that “offensive” remarks should only be criminal if they are made to incite violence and where such violence would likely occur.

“I think if Section 298 (of the Penal Code) is amended properly, we probably do not need separate hate speech laws,” he added.

Another civil liberties lawyer, Syahredzan Johan, said that taking action against someone for “causing offense” is a low threshold.

He also said that “offensiveness” was subjective, as something that was considered offensive to some may not be so to others, and went on to say that it was not the government’s business to decide this for the public.

“How you deal with people who are offensive  is that we debate with them, criticise them, insult them back or ignore them ― that’s how you deal with all these offensive comments, not through law,” he added.

Syahredzan said that while he personally did not believe there is a need for new hate speech laws, such laws, if enacted, should be very specific, and must include an “element of harm.”

“It cannot be open ended, it cannot be open to interpretation, it cannot be Sedition Act or CMA where essentially anything that is said can be a possible criminal offence,” he added when saying that there was a need for a comprehensive review of laws relating for freedom of speech and expression.