Malaysian lawmaker calls for hate speech law after Reuters' Rohingya report

Rohingyas living in Malaysia protest near the Myanmar embassy in Kuala Lumpur on Sept 8, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR (REUTERS) - An opposition lawmaker on Tuesday (Nov 24) called for Malaysia to outlaw online hate speech, accusing the authorities of downplaying the gravity of an issue highlighted by a Reuters investigation into abuse on Facebook of Rohingya refugees and undocumented migrants.

Citing the Reuters report on rising xenophobia online in Malaysia in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic, lawmaker Chan Foong Hin asked the Communications and Multimedia Ministry last week to state its plans to combat such hate speech.

In a written parliamentary reply last Thursday, the ministry said hate speech on social media platforms such as Facebook was assessed according to the companies' terms and would be removed if it violated community standards.

The ministry did not refer directly to the Reuters' report in its response.

But it said it had instructed state broadcaster RTM and state news agency Bernama to produce reports that would help correct "misconceptions", and curb "external elements that try to make Malaysia look bad".

Mr Chan said the authorities appeared to be deflecting responsibility to Facebook or downplaying hate speech as "misconceptions" or "fake news".

"The ministry seems to be in denial and thinks that the hate speech as reported by Reuters is under control, and there is no need for any further control by law," he said.

"It is time we enact laws that punish makers of hate speech," he said, adding that current laws were not adequate to control "those who create and spread hate speech" among different communities.

Malaysia has broad laws against offensive and seditious comments that cover some aspects of hate speech. But some have called for a specific law on hate speech, citing sensitivities over ethnicity and religion in the multi-ethnic South-east Asian country.

Muslim-majority Malaysia has been long been supportive of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority fleeing persecution in largely Buddhist Myanmar, but sentiment turned in April amid accusations that refugees and undocumented migrants were bringing in the coronavirus.

Rights groups have accused the Malaysian government of failing to counter the rising anti-migrant sentiment.

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