Freedom Of Speech: A Tale Of Chained Content

The increasing heat on freedom of speech and the plan to regulate social media content has even the supporters of Pakatan Harapan questioning this government’s intent and discontent.

The recent lamentation by former premier, Tun Dr. Mahathir that the current Madani government is “authoritarian” for placing limits on freedom of speech, tickled me. Of all people!

This reminded me of a scene in the 1987 Tamil film Nayagan (a film “inspired” by The Godfather, 1971), in which an ageing gangster character, Velu Naicker, has a quarrel with his daughter. You see, in the heat of the moment between him, her, and his right-hand man, the girl smacked the latter. The old man smacks the daughter back and yells, “Where did you pick up that habit of hitting others?”

“From us, Naicker,” the aide says.

So, where else did this “authoritarian” government come from? This is his exact quote: “Well, with this Kerajaan Madani (Madani Government), you have to accept that it is an authoritarian government. You are not allowed to speak about anything.”

Whither Freedom of Speech?

Yes, that is coming from a man who used the Internal Security Act like his personal maid and was responsible for the brief shutdown of The Star newspaper. You can read the recollection from the newspaper’s former correspondence here.

As you may know, the Madani government has approved plans to license and regulate social media, which, as this report noted, “includes imposing a content code on such platforms that would also have regulations regarding political content.”.

The reason I used that movie as an example is that it’s galling to see that the man who used the draconian act and was responsible for shutting down what is still the most circulated newspaper is now bitching about the freedom of speech limitation. Where did the current government pick up this trait? From Tun, of course.

Yet, as much as I disagree with him on many issues, I am sure many would agree that not only trying to reign in social media under a certain level of control is unmistakably authoritarian but also incredibly stupid, like trying to clip Medusa’s follicles. Cyberspace is not called the world wide web for any reason; it’s a jungle out there.

How many of us do social media platform hopping, having been frustrated or bored with one, and jump onto the next bandwagon? There are newer and more convenient platforms coming up every now and then, and to regulate them would be an amateur plate-spinning disaster.

Alternative Platforms

As alternative platforms keep spurting out, users frustrated with a lack of freedom would just abandon the current one and grab another, like serial pet owners. Curb one, and the platforms regenerates like the planarian flatworms.

But what amuses me quite a bit is the whole “kicking the ladder after using” attitude this government is fond of indulging in. Not only has it betrayed its own voters with the retail price issues, namely fuel, but it has also forgotten that it was the alternative media platform and the social media that helped Pakatan Harapan and its ilk, I mean, partners, win the 15th General Election, with its trolls continuing to be the chief reason for its subsequent victories.

Coming back to Mahathir, if you think it’s just an old man whining and complaining, get this: even someone as young and hip as Syed Saddiq is up here with the whole curbing of media freedom thing.

Indeed, the Muar member of parliament cited former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Bin Razak as being even more liberal: ““Even the former Member of Parliament for Pekan (Najib, if you do still remember) did not resort to such actions, yet the current government intends to do so, which I find quite strange,” he was quoted in that report. Regrets, Saddiq?

Interestingly, Saddiq’s own party, Perikatan Nasional, when they were in power, was criticised by the then opposition leader Anwar for the slide in the press freedom index at that time. The kettle was already calling the pot black back then, and this will confuse those who have been twice waylaid since the BN of Najib has left the scene.

Lawyers Incensed

Alas, even the usually Pakatan-friendly lawyers are incensed. Here’s what Lawyers for Liberty has to say: “It is… unsurprising that the government’s new plan to impose licensing and regulations on social media has set alarm bells ringing. It stinks of despotism and self-interest. It draws comparisons with North Korea, Communist China, and PAP-ruled Singapore.” Ouch.

Therefore, it is no surprise that this report noted that in 2023, about 1,862 requests were made by this government to take down content—an average of 10 daily—for the second half of the year, 5.5 times the number six months before. “The whole of 2023 saw 2,202 requests, a more than 30-fold increase from the 70 requests made in 2022,” it said.

The curbing of media freedom and its cousin, the regulation of social media, are not going to solve issues. You have to go back to the roots. There’s the culture, the education system, and the good parts of many faiths practiced that’s necessary for life in the 21st century, especially when the so-called goodwill of the previous centuries written in holy books may not exactly be in line with globalisation and the 48,100 McDonald outlets around the world. Those are the ones that need another look. Killing the messengers would just fill up graves.

Thus, it is a bit too clear that social media is just another fodder, something for politicians to blame when the cyberspace guns are trained at them. As for Pakatan Harapan and its cohorts, it is amusing that the dragons they once rode on are now breathing fire down their dirty collars.

I will finish with another movie quote. In the 2008 excellent The Dark Knight, the bad guy, Harvey Dent, says, “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Ditto the Reformasi government. – NMH

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Rakesh Premakumaran Kumar
A movie buff, as opposed to film connoisseur or aficionado, because the last two words are hard to spell, Rakesh has been in the field of writing for more than two decades and hopes that one-day movie “buff”ing is lucrative enough to afford him a Batmobile, the Michael Keaton one.

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