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News portals may be held responsible for comments made by readers, says Gobind

The Communications and Multimedia Ministry may consider taking action against news portal operators who allow their readers to leave comments that can be deemed sensitive especially on topics that touch race, religio and the royal institution.

Communications minister, Gobind Singh expresses concern that such comments may cause the proliferation of discussions that could destabilise the nation’s harmony.

“I have received many complaints from members of the public who also lamented that there seemed to be no monitoring by the operators of the readers’ comments posted on their (news) portals.

“I am considering whether there is a need to formulate a law on this aspect. It is still under consideration and has not been brought to the Cabinet (meeting) yet,” he told reporters at the Parliament lobby, today, the Malay Mail reports.

He was asked to comment on the speech by Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah at the opening of the First Meeting, Second Session of the 14th Parliament.

In the speech, the King called for stern action against actions, including the irresponsible use of social media, which could threaten peace and harmony in the country.

Gobind said news portal operators should be more aware of and be accountable for the comments posted on their sites. He also urges news portals to post news of high value and that could help strengthen national unity.

“It is clear from the message in the address by His Majesty that it is understandable in this era, we depend on social media but at the same time, we need to always give priority to national unity and security,” he said.

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Meanwhile, Gobind said his ministry had prepared some amendments to related laws and hopes that these amendments could be tabled at the current parliamentary session. However, he did not elaborate on what the amendments are nor the related law.

“I hope I will have time to table the amendments at this sitting. I will make a public announcement on these amendments if can be tabled this time,” he added.

Existing laws in place

Currently, there are a number of laws in place that can be used to curb the so-called irresponsible use of online and social media.

For news outlets specifically, there is the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA). The law serves to maintain a general journalism standard that ensures genuine news stories with provisions for defamation, sedition, contempt of court, blasphemy, copyright, plagiarism and confidenciality, among others.

However, some quarters argue that the law restricts political discourse and it can be contended that the PPPA’s jurisdiction only covers content published specifically on printed materials. This leaves online news portals in a grey area.

The onset of the internet and the digital medium has made it extremely easy for individuals to publish content that is accessible on a massive scale. While there are many legitimate news sites out there, online publishing has made it easy for one-man-shows to create websites that appear legit and credible.

These sites live in a no mans land where existing laws can be seen to be insufficient. This is where the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (CMA) comes into play.

Under the purview of the communications minister, the CMA, serves to regulate “the converging communications and multimedia industries”. Unlike the PPPA, the CMA’s authority extends beyond print and stretches to the realm of social media users.

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Under the law, while we are free to use social media to the fullest to exercise our right to freedom of speech as mentioned in Article 10 of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia, we can also be subjected to restrictions and limitations especially under Section 211 (prohibition on offensive content) and Section 233 (improper use of network facilities or network service).

It can be considered that these provisions are sufficient to tackle the irresponsible use of social media and the online medium that can be deemed to destabilise Malaysia’s harmony but as I’ve mentioned in my earlier article, there is a fine line between expression that is genuinely detrimental to our peace and harmony and expression that is merely dissent.

While I can see why it is necessary to have laws in place to protect the country and its people, there also must be a healthy and open discussion about what these laws should be and how it will affect us all.

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Amin Ashaari