Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Public debate of ideas best defence against intolerance, says US in Sedition Act caution

Wednesday April 15, 2015
11:08 AM GMT+8

KUALA LUMPUR, April 15 — The US today cautioned Putrajaya over its amendments to the Sedition Act 1948, saying that new provisions in the colonial-era law could end up criminalising public debate.
The US Department of State said it was “particularly worrying” that the new provisions would increase penalties, especially for first-time offenders, and could also make it illegal to share allegedly seditious material on social media.
“The public debate of ideas can be among the best protections against intolerance and can play a positive role in strengthening democracy and combating hatred,” it said in a brief statement.
“We welcome the decision to remove provisions outlawing criticism of the government and the judiciary, and we hope the government of Malaysia will therefore reconsider recent sedition charges brought under those now-defunct sections of the law,” the statement added.
Last week, Parliament passed amendments to the Act that effectively provide the authorities wider jurisdiction to act on speech or activities that are seen as seditious in nature.
Putrajaya’s amendments will allow for criticism of the government in a bid to “create transparent and accountable administration” amid widespread opprobrium over the use of the Act on political dissenters if passed by Parliament.
However, they also made it an offence to excite “ill will, hostility or hatred” on grounds of religion and race as well as to demand the secession of a state from Malaysia, while maintaining prohibitions towards exciting disaffection against the rulers or questioning issues such as Bumiputera privileges.
The Bill also added a new section that imposes a penalty of between five and 20 years jail for sedition crimes that cause bodily harm or property damage, while it increases the jail term for general sedition crimes to between three and seven years.
Prior to the amendments, the colonial era law imposed a maximum three-year jail term or maximum RM5,000 fine on first time offenders, and a maximum five-year jail term for repeat offenders.
Another new section states that a judge shall order the prevention of access to an online publication deemed to be seditious.
Up to 150 opposition leaders and activists have been hauled up under the Sedition Act recently.
Putrajaya previously pledged to repeal the Sedition Act that critics say is used to stifle political opposition and dissent, but later announced in November last year that it will be retained and expanded instead.

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