Malaysiakini verdict: The court of public opinion speaks for itself

I Have never been a big fan of Shakespeare, although I had to study a couple of his books at pre-university level. Boring for the most to me at least, but brilliant for his subtle yet piercing metaphors.

So, what would Shakespeare think of the curious case of “house owner charged and convicted for graffiti by vandals on his wall”?  He could be forgiven for rolling in his grave, both at the sheer absurdity of the situation for the former, and the poor imitation of his hallowed works for the latter!

Much discussion and debate has taken place over the recent judgement by the Federal Court against Malaysiakini for contempt of court. Quite a few erudite and learned members from the legal and journalism professions have already weighed-in on the matter, while many individuals have also made their views known in no uncertain terms.

Politicians being politicians, bandwagon responses from them are to be expected, but let us not get into that. In a nutshell, it is clear that in Malaysia, contempt of court is prohibited and can result in charges being filed. Malaysiakini was found guilty of contempt of court due to comments made by their readers in response to an article published on their news portal.

It is worth to note that a salient point raised is technical in nature and pertains to moderation which has been said to be the active governance of platforms meant to ensure, to the extent that it is reasonably possible, productive, pro-social and lawful interaction of the users.

It is unclear whether the algorithm-based filter on Malaysiakini’s news portal could have been better designed to not only block usage of foul language by third parties posting comments but also to recognise nuances in language and sentence construction.

In fact, anything that could be interpreted or misconstrued to resemble contemptuous statements whether direct or indirect; a feat even a council of language professors may have difficulty doing, let alone an algorithm.

There is a great deal of discussion and work being done worldwide on this issue. The judgements of the seven Federal Court judges have been published, including that of the one dissenting judge (the judgement was a 6:1 majority decision).

No individual representative of Malaysiakini was sentenced to jail, but the sledgehammer blow was the quantum of the fine imposed; RM500,000 which was two and a half times the amount sought by the prosecution, which poses a real danger of the news portal being shut down if they had defaulted.

M’sia on the world map, for the wrong reasons

An appeal by the news portal for public donations to help pay the hefty fine was met with the quickest of responses, more than RM500,000 was collected in four short hours in what must be a record of sorts.

A strong message has been delivered by the Malaysian public by any measure. Both print and electronic media in Malaysia have been instrumental in gathering information and reporting them fearlessly, some more so than others. Malaysiakini has been one of those at the forefront spearheading the drive to report on many political transgressions. 

Together with a couple of other news portals, they finally succeeded in blowing the cover off the 1MDB corruption scandal which has been described worldwide as the mother of all financial scandals, tying up much of the public prosecutor’s and the courts time and resources for years to come.

In all probability this will in time become a required case study in universities everywhere and put Malaysia firmly on the world map, albeit for the wrong reasons. This has got the news portal targeted in the crosshairs of many disgruntled and powerful individuals who have much to lose if their illegal activities are found out and reported.

The success of a news media, especially electronic media in weeding out these criminal activities over the last few years, cannot be denied. This has encouraged and emboldened many people to become whistleblowers and genuinely contribute towards draining the increasingly crowded swamp of predatory creatures looking for easy pickings at the expense of ordinary citizens.

It would indeed be a great pity that after so much effort and hard work in the face of adversity and of powerful opposing forces that were brought to bear against them, any of these news portals were to be shut down because of a technical error resulting in severe fines that may appear punitive or disproportionate in nature.

Intelligent discourse and debate on any topic within the realm of decency and of course, the confines of the law should surely be encouraged. Recalcitrant individuals who post irresponsible comments on any legitimate news portal should not be allowed to jeopardise the hard-fought battle to widen the path to a more open, mature and vibrant democracy.

Just as the judiciary cannot be faulted or blamed for the Attorney General (AG) withdrawing charges for any case, so too should the procedure of appointment of judges and the AG be faultless and transparent. These set procedures are a moot point at this stage unless lawmakers get onto the same page and revise them in the future.

Suffice it to say that for laypersons, who to blame for their perception of injustice or lack of justice or misplaced justice is a fuzzy and blurry concept. Perhaps the readers’ comments that got Malaysiakini into trouble is just a microcosm of the average person’s thinking, a manifestation of the collective frustration and disappointment felt by a much larger community.

Some may feel hard done by, with regard to high profile court cases which seem to experience interminable delays, inexplicable withdrawal of charges, unfathomable discharged not-amounting to acquittal (DNAA) and others.

Truth will always prevail

A quote from Horace Mann may sum up the fears of many, “Injustice alone can shake down the pillars of the skies, and restore the reign of Chaos and Night”. The separation of powers between prosecutors and judiciary may not be fully understood and blame may be misplaced. That being said, ignorance of the law being no excuse must always prevail, so each person must be careful not to overstep this line.

In the final judgement, no pun intended, the greatest of care must be taken to place the judiciary and the public prosecutors on high moral ground. Unquestionable integrity, impeccable credentials, always holding true to the spirit and essence of the law and always with good conscience as their guide; and in possession of a moral compass that will point them to the true path without fail each and every time.

 Lest I am accused by “irresistible inference” of criticising or demeaning either institution, let me be clear by saying that it is the processes and procedures of vetting and appointing august members of these institutions that I am alluding to, so as to avoid even the slightest hint of impropriety or political interference.

There is no intention for any other implication whatsoever except to stem the tide of any negative perceptions by citizens towards these august institutions.   It is the duty of any responsible Government in a mature democracy to cause this to be so, and it must bridge the political divide. 

It is often mentioned about the long arms of the law, and how it will eventually always catch up with the guilty. Citizens too have long memories, and the disgraceful transgressions of people in the highest echelons of power which led to the shock results of GE14 in May 2018 will not be soon forgotten.

Tables may have been turned again but as a wise saying goes, “three things may not be long hidden; the sun, the moon and the truth”. – Feb 23, 2021.

JJ Singam is contributor for Focus Malaysia.

The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.

 

Photo credit: Malaysiakini

 

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