THE Sedition Act came into being as far back as 1948, yes, even before we achieved Merdeka.
Despite its colonial heritage, there have been subsequent, and substantial, revisions to the Act that have had far-reaching implications on life in the country.
Not many are aware of the catch-all provisions of Section 2 and 3(1) of the Act which state that any act, speech, words or publication are seditious if they have a tendency towards any of the following:
• To bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against any Ruler or government.
• To excite subjects to seek alteration other than by lawful means of any matter by law established.
• To bring into hatred or contempt the administration of justice in the country.
• To raise discontent or disaffection among the subjects.
• To promote ill will and hostility between races or classes.
• To question the provisions dealing with language, citizenship, the special position of the Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak and the sovereignty of the Rulers.
As part of ongoing reforms to promote a more open society, the Government is in the process of replacing this Act with the National Harmony Act. But the Bill is still a work in progress and will only be tabled in Parliament by the end of next year.
The Sedition Act has come under the spotlight because a number of individuals, the latest being Universiti Malaya law lecturer Azmi Sharom (who incidentally is a regular columnist with this newspaper), have been charged with sedition.
We are mindful that with the cases before the courts, it would not be right for us to make comments on the merits or demerits of each case in a way that can be construed as seeking to influence the outcome of the proceedings.
But the reality is that there is already a vigorous debate going on, especially in the social media, which go beyond the legal arguments. The court of law and the court of public opinion can oftentimes be totally divergent from each other.
While there will be the emotionally-charged views, we must also listen to the voices that are balanced and rational.
If we look at the provisions of the Act again, we can see that in the real world, the Act is being breached daily, and if enforcement is carried out, there won’t be enough room in the courts to charge the people.
Even legal scholars have difficulty in drawing the line between what is seditious and what is not.
Context and circumstances will obviously play a major role in determining the verdicts. The courts will have to consider issues with regard opinion, historical context and a vibrant social media that make it almost impossible to control what can or cannot be said.
The process to replace the Sedition Act with the National Harmony Bill is ongoing and the fact that there has been feedback and much debate on the Bill before it is presented to Parliament is a good sign that we want to get it right on all counts.
A recent statement from the PMO said: “The Bill is intended to be a comprehensive, fair and lasting piece of legislation that promotes national harmony while protecting Malaysian citizens from racial or religious hatred.
“The drafting of the National Harmony Bill is taking time because it is being done in consultation with civil society and the public.”
In Malaysia, finding the balance between freedom of speech and national harmony in the age of social media, is not easy. This is the thin line that we are still struggling to define, and not just us, but also the more mature democracies. It is a fallacy to assume that everything is totally free and open even in countries that proclaim themselves as proponents of free speech.
The Act seems to have suddenly gained national prominence in the twilight of its existence.
And we have to ask if this is the result of people not really understanding what sedition is all about, or if the authorities appear to have become sensitive as to what constitutes sedition.
But we should let the law, as it stands now, take its course, for we are still a society premised on the rule of law.
We need to educate the people about sedition, including even the parameters that are not legislated in black and white, but which are useful in maintaining peace and harmony in our society.At the end of the day, let justice be done, and seen to be done. Home > Opinion > Columnists The Star Says Wednesday September 3, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM