Sunday, May 2, 2021

Press freedom in the digital age

The Sunday Star
by Roger Tan

Can press freedom be further advanced when readers are given carte blanche to post whatever they like including unlawful and defamatory comments under the protection of anonymity?

Tomorrow is World Press Freedom Day (WPFD).

It is a day which we Malaysians must remember and pay tribute to those news media and media practitioners for reporting the truth. Many have done so through their sheer courage and perseverance, by standing up for the independence of the press in this country, without fear or favour. 

Needless to say, since Merdeka, some have also in their pursuits for a free press lost their own personal freedom in one way or another. 

In fact, the WPFD came about after the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) held a seminar in Windhoek, Namibia on the promotion of an independent and pluralistic African Press some thirty years ago. It culminated in the adoption of the Windhoek declaration for the development of a free, independent and pluralistic press on May 3,1991. May 3 was then chosen as the day to mark WPFD by the UN General Assembly in 1993. 

Regrettably, in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders on April 17, Malaysia slipped to 119, falling 18 spots from the previous year. 

On the other hand, if one is to go through the kind of comments being made by readers on the Malaysiakini online news portal, one may draw a conclusion, albeit erroneously, that there is absolute freedom of press in this country. Some of these comment sections, if not all, are accessible to the whole world, that is, to those who are not paid subscribers of the portal. Many of the commenters used a pseudonym when posting their comments. 

But on February 18, Malaysiakini was fined half a million ringgit by the Federal Court for contempt of court over five readers’ comments criticising the judiciary. 

When imposing the fine, Court of Appeal president Justice Rohana Yusuf, who chaired the seven-man panel said in the 6-1 majority decision, that the apex court was mindful that this case would attract world attention as the media had demonstrated their agitation and concern that this case would shackle media freedom and might eventually lead to a clampdown on freedom of the press. 

The apex court ruled that this unfortunate incident should serve as a reminder to the general public that expressing one’s view, especially by making unwarranted and demeaning attacks on the judiciary at one’s whims and fancies, could be tantamount to scandalising the court. 

“Whilst freedom of opinion and expression is guaranteed and protected by our Federal Constitution, it must be done within the bounds permissible by the law”, said Rohana. 

She stressed on the importance of maintaining public confidence in the Judiciary and the need to protect the dignity and integrity of the Judiciary as a whole, considering the nature of the judicial office is one which is defenceless to criticism, that is, judges cannot reply to their criticism and neither can they enter public controversy. 

Rohana also quoted Lord Denning who once said: “We must rely on our conduct itself to be its own vindication.” 

Sunday, January 24, 2021

An independent judiciary saves American democracy

The Sunday Star
by Roger Tan

Image: I Got This by Sousa & Machado
Image: I Got This by Sousa & Machado

CONGRATULATIONS to Joseph Robinette Biden Jr and Kamala Devi Harris for having been successfully inaugurated as the 46th president and vice-president of the United States respectively. It almost did not happen on Jan 20, or at all, if not for the US judiciary. 

On Jan 6, the losers fomented mobs to storm the US Capitol to stop the certification of the 2020 US presidential election results. To former President Donald Trump and his acolytes, this was perhaps their last hope to get rid of what they called the “rigged result” after American courts, including the US Supreme Court, twice refused to overturn the results in battleground states. Despite five deaths, the incident could have been a calamity had any elected legislator been taken hostage or killed by the insurrectionists. 

For a moment, the 245-year-old American republic almost became a banana republic devoid of the rule of law. On that day of infamy, democracy as the best form of government almost died in a country which has always prided itself on being the world’s greatest democracy. 

In the words of national youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman – who wowed the world at Biden’s inauguration ceremony with her poem – “This effort very nearly succeeded. But while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated.” 

The free world heaved a huge sigh of relief at this irenic victory for democracy, though this embarrassing episode has now diminished America’s moral authority as the keeper or beacon of democracy. 

Before I go on, I need to pause here to say that I have not been watching too much CNN. In fact, I watch the conservative-leaning Fox News Channel too. 

To the world at large, Biden did secure an emphatic victory. The world was just simply astounded to see how Trump, who was unable to accept defeat in an electoral democracy, could lie that the elections were rigged and urge his supporters to “Stop the steal”. It is even more mind boggling to see how some Americans could so easily turn cuckoo overnight, deluded by misinformation into believing in conspiracy theories. 

This reminds me of the tactic employed during World War II by the Nazi minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels: Turn a lie into the truth just by repeating it often enough. He reportedly said: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.... It thus becomes vitally important for the state to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the state.”