Lawyers group Lawyers for Liberty (LFL) today hit out at the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) over its threat against news portals publishing "disrespectful" or "misleading" reports, calling it unconstitutional.
LFL campaign coordinator Nabila Khairuddin said the right to freedom of speech is enshrined in Article 10(1)(a) of the Federal Constitution and that the right can only be restricted as provided by the law to the necessary extent as stated in Article 10(2)(a), such as "in the interests of security, public order, or morality".
"For MCMC to arbitrarily talk of restricting 'disrespectful' or 'misleading' news shows a complete lack of regard for the law and lack of respect for the constitution.
"Who decides what news is misleading, inaccurate, or disrespectful? To allow the government to decide this would set us on the road to dictatorship," she said.
On Sept 20, MCMC, a body under the communications and digital ministry headed by Fahmi Fadzil, gave news portal MalaysiaNow a two-hour deadline to take down its reports on the commotion in the Dewan Rakyat sparked by an accusation thrown by Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who is also the Tambun MP, at Perikatan Nasional MP Radzi Jidin.
It said the reports "do not reflect the true context of the speech in question", and that the headlines were "disrespectful and insulting", referring to the words "Tambun is a sodomiser" uttered by Radzi.
Radzi brought up Anwar's past convictions on sodomy after becoming angered by the speaker's statement that there was nothing wrong with Anwar making the accusation if he was convinced of it.
MalaysiaNow has refused to meet MCMC's demand, saying it will not cave to pressure in carrying out its journalistic duty.
In response, MCMC said it wanted to emphasise "the importance of accurately representing the context of speeches delivered in Parliament".
"MCMC has observed that some reporting has been weaponised to manipulate the content and fuel a disrespectful and divisive narrative.
"In order to prevent the commission or attempted commission of an offence under the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, MCMC calls for full cooperation from news outlets and individuals," it added.
In a statement, Nabila said this was "deliberate intimidation and a dangerous assault" by MCMC on the media that is critical of the government, adding that suppressing dissent and the critical press is "the hallmark of authoritarian rule".
"In fact, it is the role of the press to independently hold the government accountable while enabling the public to be more informed and engaged in the decisions and policies that affect them.
"It is certainly not the role of the media in a democratic nation to be 'respectful' of the government or the prime minister."
Urging the government to stop using MCMC and other agencies under its power to restrict information critical of the authorities, she said if the government finds any reporting as "inaccurate" or "misleading", it should issue a public statement to correct the alleged inaccurate information.
"What they cannot do is prosecute, punish, or shut down news organisations for publishing 'inaccurate' news.
"The duty of the government is not to restrict free speech but to uphold that right consistent with the constitution", she said.