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Ride the media wave, minister, don’t feed a tsunami

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

JANUARY 18 — Yesterday, a film’s director and producer were charged in court and a northern state’s MB asked to transfer his sedition case to a high court.

The three of them may end up in prison, for what their movie or they themselves have expressed.

The film Mentega Terbang walks right into the super-sensitive subject matter of religious doubt, and Muhammad Sanusi Nor poked fun at Selangor Menteri Besar Amirudin Shari.

'Mentega Terbang' film director, Khairi Anwar Jailani (left) with his lawyer, N. Surendran, arrive at the Kuala Lumpur High Court Complex January 17, 2024. — Picture by Hari Anggara
'Mentega Terbang' film director, Khairi Anwar Jailani (left) with his lawyer, N. Surendran, arrive at the Kuala Lumpur High Court Complex January 17, 2024. — Picture by Hari Anggara

'Mentega Terbang' film director, Khairi Anwar Jailani (left) with his lawyer, N. Surendran, arrive at the Kuala Lumpur High Court Complex January 17, 2024. — Picture by Hari Anggara

One upsets religionists and the other a state government. The legal actions have clear intentions, be careful about what you say. Or else!

Let’s not condescend. It is self-evident that free speech can lead to harms, but that belief also exists in a plane where fear of consequences can be a convenient means to shut people up.

No one wants a body count because a fool screams “fire” in a packed cineplex, but neither do democrats want “the great silencing” to transpire.

One end of the spectrum cannot be discussed without weighing in on the other extremity.

It’ll be a greater fool — even more so than the pranking idiot in Row 5 — to insist the laws, norms and common sense are adequate to draw the line. It is certainly art, not science. To determine what is on or not.

What can advise the masses is the tone set by the administration.

Mind the gap, mate

It drew my attention to what the Communication Minister Fahmi Fadzil said about free speech. After Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, incidentally his party president, Fahmi communicates the most on behalf of the present government.

Well, this is what he said chronologically in his 14 months tenure:

When he assumed the communication and digital minister portfolio in early December 2022, he was open to ideas due to “many media friends”.

Three months later, he qualified himself by saying the media can do what it does if it is within limits.

Couple of months later in May 2023, he was effusive Malaysia climbed six spots from 119 to 113 in World Press Freedom Index 2022. The top 10 sweat it out as Malaysia’s ascension rankles them, not.

In August 2023, in the lead up to Merdeka, he insisted registered media outlets remained untouched, when responding to possible Internet blocks of channels like TV Pertiwi. Which only underlines that unfriendly media organisations are unregistered.

Last October he preached there are moral limits to free speech.

Last month, the prime minister split Fahmi’s ministry, letting him retain communication while returning minister Gobind Singh gets the digital section.

Three days ago, Fahmi reaffirms free speech is OK if it does not impede democracy. It spooks that the very blood of democracy, free speech, is a threat to its own host.

It appears Fahmi offers excuses for Anwar’s administration rather than answers the allegations of selective persecution. It seems a tone, any non-partisan tone is absent.

The inelegant silences

While Perikatan Nasional (PN) are upset their key leader Sanusi is prosecuted for his words using the Sedition Act, they are not keen to abolish the law.

Parallelly, Internet blocks of their websites and news portals discomforts PN, but does not translate to them opposing ministerial powers, the overreaches of the Communication and Multimedia Act nor the tyranny of the Sedition Act.

In other words, they would like to hold on to those laws for their own benefit when it’s their turn to rule.

They are not that dissimilar to the minister now, despite how he projected himself before power. When the Najib Razak Administration utilised the Sedition Act in 2014, he tweeted “absolutely disturbing”. One can only imagine how incensed he was when his boss and ally Nurul Izzah Anwar was arrested under that dastardly law a year later in 2015.

While Pakatan is more vocal about principles — such as free speech and equality — in reality, them, PN and Barisan Nasional (BN) go around in circles when it comes to holding up those principles. All three rather power than hold up principles which do not assist in the accruing of, well, power.

Principles are merely soundbites to pursue or justify power.

Selfish neglect

Is that the way to go?

To let self-interest dominate when in power is a slippery slope if government changes are frequent.

And there is the other reality.

Modern media, crowded by social media, is divisive.

For every video asking for cultural conservatism is overwhelmed by 10 videos promoting carefree lifestyles in 10 different directions.

The country is more than just about its politicians and their parties.

When parties in power are distracted to no end with what their opponents say and figure ways to use their power to downgrade access or legalisation, they end in a quagmire with no end in sight. They are quarrelsome to a fault.

Mentega Terbang was released in 2021 and since then a bunch of controversial films like Tiger Stripes, Imaginur and Pendatang have captured the imagination of Malaysians. They ask questions which can upset some.

Muhammad Sanusi led PN’s annihilation of Pakatan and BN in Kedah, and despite any misgivings from his opponents, he is on a high. He is the coalition’s darling.

In short, the movies and the political jibes will not only continue, they’ll multiply. Offensive content — to some — compound and personal offensiveness of politicians only to grow louder.

Should the government of the day firefight daily or trust the sensible minds of Malaysians to tell what is real and what is not?

Telling and retelling the people what to believe and punishing their leaders or free speech advocates may work in the short term but eventually will start to grate.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.