Free speech must be for all — Azmi Sharom

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Source: The Star Online

Even if we disapprove of what they say, we should defend to the death their right to say it.

Dr. Azmi Sharom is a law teacher in Universiti Malaya.

Dr. Azmi Sharom is a law teacher in Universiti Malaya.

ONE of the difficulties about defending the freedom of speech is that one has to defend speech that one likes as well as speech that one does not.

In the past week there have been two free speech issues that have been of interest in the country. One is regarding Zakir Naik and the other about a truly unfunny television presenter.

Let’s deal with Zakir first. Right off the bat, I want to say that I don’t think anyone should be banned from speaking unless what they say incites violence.

It does not matter if what they say is hurtful, that is not sufficient ground for censorship.

The very same reasons used to defend Zunar’s right to create his highly critical cartoons and not face criminal charges can be used for Zakir.

The problem here is that Zakir’s treatment is patently hypocritical. Can you imagine a Christian preacher being critical of Islam getting not only the freedom to hold large scale lectures but also to get Permanent Resident status?

Exactly. It won’t happen. So the special treatment given to Zakir is indicative of a Government that is biased.

For me, that is the core of the issue: that this Government is selective regarding whose freedom they respect and whose they don’t.

Not only is this freedom given to a person whom many find offensive, they also give him a PR. This is so odd because the fact that he is under criminal investigations in several countries would normally bar him from such a privilege.

It is even stranger considering that there are thousands of honest people born in this country, who can’t get status and yet this person can.

And he is obviously ever so grateful, encouraging people in this country to vote for his benefactors.

But back to the issue of speech. The TV presenter who made fun of Watson Nyambek’s name is clearly in the wrong profession. He was supposed to be funny but merely ended up making a fool of himself.

As such it would be understandable if his employers ended his services. It would also be totally understandable if Watson wanted to take some sort of civil action.

However, it was reported that a police investigation is to be opened based on the possible use of the Penal Code; specifically the provision of insulting a person with the intention to breach the peace.

I think this law was meant for immediate situations where people are verbally abusive and this leads to violence.

This is not the case here; the presenter was being a total idiot, and he should get what is coming to him, but criminal charges should not be part of that.

If criminal law is used too freely against speech and expression, it can be used to suppress legitimate dissent.

I dislike the things that Zakir says. I find that TV presenter to be a total prat. But in the matter of free speech, unfortunately if we want it for ourselves we have to want it even for the offensive and the foolish.

Azmi Sharom (azmi.sharom@gmail.com) is a law teacher. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.