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“No regrets over Prophet Muhammad Cartoons” – that’s how arrogant and presumptuous a statement made by Charlie Hebdo’s director Laurent Sourisseau at the “Tribunal de Paris” courthouse in Paris on 9 September 2020 recently. What he regretted, on the contrary, was “to see how little people fight to defend freedom. If we don’t fight for our freedom, we live like a slave and we promote a deadly ideology,” he lamented.

This is how some people view “freedom” of expression or press freedom, and unfortunately, in today’s so-called “civilised” world, Sourisseau is not the only one who holds this belief. There are many the likes of him or those who support his absurd complete freedom of expression. They are, if not insane, perhaps foolish. There is no such thing as “absolute freedom” in any part of the world and do not ever attempt to fight or defend such an absolute nonsense notion. Even in a country like Norway which practices the most freedom, a person was sentenced to prison for hate speech by the Norwegian Supreme Court on 12 April 12 2018 for crossing the line of freedom of expression. Limitations to expression include defamation, hate speech, and deliberate contempt of religion.

Recently, our country has just celebrated its 63rd anniversary of our Independence from the British and its Malaysia Day. During the colonial period, our forefathers suffered a lot because there was no freedom at all. The few old folks who have still survived until this day are able to narrate the ordeal the rakyat had undergone during the occupation period. We are a sovereign country now and we have made tremendous progress and peaceful life living together in this multi-racial and multi-religious country. Regrettably, in spite of the harmony, there are always certain quarters of people who do not appreciate the peace and harmony that we enjoy. They tend to cross the boundary of freedom of expression by playing up sensitive issues that could spark anger and provoke others. The bloody tragedy of 13 May 1969 should always be in our mind when it comes to discussing sensitive issues. Unfortunately, those who had witnessed the tragedy are quite elderly by now, or perhaps some have already gone to meet their Lord. The youngsters of today have no idea what had actually transpired then in 1969, for they were not born yet. Some of them do not even bother to read up on the history of their own country and take lessons from it, not knowing that history repeats itself.

With the advent of social media, people turn to it to express their opinion and criticisms. Just by a few strokes on the keyboards, they have exercised their “freedom of expression” and their opinion can then be accessed worldwide.  In doing so, some have gone overboard by not just giving their opinion but also insulting or defaming others, making hate speeches, and derogatory remarks towards other races, religions, or languages. Sometimes, they channel hateful remarks and statements not only to the leaders of our country such as politicians but also to the King or Queen who is above politics and by right should be given full respect, honor, and dignity just like one respects one’s, own parents.

According to Malaysia Crime Prevention Foundation (MCPF) senior deputy-chairman, Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye, there is no specific law to regulate hate speech in this country to date, though there are general provisions that address certain elements of hate speech. He has proposed that “Malaysia should emulate other countries which have introduced specific laws to tackle such issues. The United Kingdom, for instance, has the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 which makes it an offense to incite hatred against a person on the grounds of religion.”

Dealing with this issue is very delicate and we need to strike a balance for we also need to comply with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and Article 10 of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia on freedom of opinion and expression. So far, the government invokes Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) and laws such as the Sedition Act 1948, the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 and Section 504 and 505 of the Penal Code and The Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (SOSMA) to charge those who make hate speeches, apart from Section 298A of the Penal Code that states it is a crime to incite disharmony, disunity and enmity on the grounds of religion.

However, after 63 years of independence and living together, whether we have a Racial and Religious Hatred Act or not, it is not an issue. More importantly, by now we should be able to understand each other better, loving each other like brothers and sisters of humanity—even though of different faiths—like Imam al-Nawawi RA says in his work, the 40 Hadiths (Arba’in al-Nawawiyah), commenting on a Prophetic tradition “to love your brother what you love for yourself”. A self-censorship and self-restraint attitude that prevents us from making any hateful statements or defame and insult others, which would eventually incite disharmony, disunity, and enmity among various racial and religious adherents is perhaps one of the ways to manifest our love towards our brothers and sisters of humanity. That is true freedom, freedom from hatred, enmity, and suspicion.

[The edited version of this article was published in the New Straits Times, 17th September 2020]

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