KL wants harsher penalties for sedition

JUST hours after the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Bill was passed, Putrajaya tabled a Bill to amend the Sedition Act, providing harsher penalties for offenders.

The Sedition (Amendment) Bill, which Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi tabled yesterday, will introduce Section 5a, which stipulates that anyone charged with sedition may not be granted bail if the public prosecutor provides a "certificate in writing" to say that it is not in the public interest to allow bail.

"The new Section 5a is in line with the proposal to impose a higher penalty for sedition offences involving bodily injury and damage to property," said the amendment Bill.

A new Section 5b will empower the court to prevent an accused, who is released on bail, from leaving the country. This includes ordering the person charged to surrender his travel documents.

Section 6 will be amended to prevent charges against individuals who can prove that any allegedly seditious publication was published without their authority, consent and knowledge, or if they are unaware that it is seditious. 

Similarly, Section 10 will be amended to empower the court to issue an order to remove seditious online publications.

A new Section 10a will be introduced to empower the court to direct an officer authorised under the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 to block access to offending online publications.

The Bill will introduce a sub-clause to make it an offence for any person to "promote any feelings of ill will, hostility or hatred between persons or groups of persons on the ground of religion".

"This is in line with the intention of the government to protect the sanctity of religions professed by multi-religious society in Malaysia. An act of insulting and ridiculing any religion may cause disharmony and threaten public order," it said.

In the amendment, it is also no longer an offence to incite disaffection with the government.

"This amendment is in line with the intention of the government to be more open whereby the public is at liberty to give feedback and criticise the government so as to create a transparent and accountable administration in Malaysia."

De facto Law Minister Nancy Shukri defended the amendments as necessary to safeguard social harmony, but admitted that Prime Minister Najib Razak was forced to make a U-turn after promising to repeal the Act.

"Why was the PM having the U-turn? It was because the pressure was too much for PM to not make the U-turn.

"Because people are talking about (how other) people are forgetting about their values, they no longer have the belief of respecting each other. Certain groups of people are beginning to worry," she told reporters yesterday.

Many in the Cabinet were against repealing the Act after Datuk Seri Najib made the announcement two years ago.

Prominent Umno leaders who have voiced support for the draconian law include Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and the Home Minister. 

Ms Nancy said that while she was not in favour of the law, it was nevertheless the responsibility of the government to look after the interests of the people.

"Although I don't like the Sedition Act to be around, I am worried our youngsters will be like the youth in Singapore who criticised Lee Kuan Yew," she said, referring to an online rant by teenager Amos Yee, who has been charged with three offences in Singapore.

"In Malaysia, this is becoming very common, rampant... I am duty-bound to do what's best for the country."

Although the amendments will allow any group to file a police report against a person promoting religious hate, law professor Azmi Sharom does not think Putrajaya would be able to implement the law fairly.

"There is a double standard as to how the Sedition Act is being used now. While it is good that the amendment will make it an offence for anyone promoting hostility against a group on the ground of religion, the government has been very selective," he said.

"What happened to (Agriculture and Agro-based Industries Minister) Ismail Sabri Yaakob when he called for a boycott of Chinese traders? What happened to Perkasa's Ibrahim Ali when he called for burning of Bibles? Nothing. This is what you call selective prosecution."

More than 160 people, including five top media executives, had been arrested and investigated under the Sedition Act between February and last month.  

asruls@sph.com.sg