Are darker days for online freedom of expression coming to Malaysia with the amendments passed on the Evidence Act (Section 114A)?

The law usually works under the presumption of innocence, where someone is innocent until proven guilty, and has roots which can be traced back to the sixth century. It is also the underlying principle for the common law, which is followed by all Commonwealth countries, like Singapore and Malaysia. Today, Malaysia decided to change that.

According to The Sun Daily, the Malaysian Government recently passed an amendment to its Evidence Act effective today onwards, where a person who is traditionally presumed innocent until proven guilty, now the burden is on him to prove his innocence. This applies to all the contents of his website contents, publications, as well as the contents of devices owned. Here’s the exact amendments passed to the Evidence Act (Section 114A):

– A person whose name, photograph or pseudonym appears on any publication depicting himself as the owner, host, administrator, editor or sub-editor, or who in any manner facilitates to publish or re-publish the publication is presumed to have published or re-published the contents of the publication unless the contrary is proved.

– A person who is registered with a network service provider as a subscriber of a network service on which any publication originates from is presumed to be the person who published or re-published the publication unless the contrary is proved.

– Any person who has in his custody or control any computer on which any publication originates from is presumed to have published or re-published the content of the publication unless the contrary is proved. (Computer here means any data processing device, including tablets, laptops and mobile phones.)

De facto law minister Nazri Abdul Aziz claims that the law was tightened because “we don’t want (anonymous or pseudonymous) people to slander or threaten others,” according to the article on The Sun Daily. It also holds internet intermediaries like forums or blogs responsible for all its contents, where they would have to remove abusive comments or those that are not politically correct. This would severely impact the freedom of online expression, and online anonymity will be heavily discouraged by forums or blogs.

Photo: International Herald Tribute

Few questions immediately comes to mind: What is the government really trying to achieve? What about the contents made prior to the amendments? Were there any public consultations to get the people’s feedback on the passing of the law? How does the government monitor all the content published onto the web (two million blog posts are published on web everyday)? And according to the Bill, it says “this Bill will not involve the Government in any extra financial expenditure”? Does the law apply only to websites registered in Malaysia?

The way I see it, not only does the Bill prevent constructive exchange of personal opinions, I think its about time the government practice what they preach. A year ago, the Prime Minister promised Malaysians that his administration would never censor the Internet. Najib noted in his speech that his government recognised that practising an open digital democracy is the way forward for Malaysia. What ever happened to that? Being a Malaysian myself, these are the things the government do which makes me slowly lose the trust I have for them.

On another related news, a blogger charged with insulting Johor royalty through a comment on his blog was acquitted yesterday because the court failed to prove that he is guilty. He just caught a huge break because 24 hours later, it would be on him to prove his innocence.

First, the Malaysian government tried to regulate computing professionals. Now, with the new law passed, Internet users are facing more risks in expressing their views online. Have the dark ages for Internt users in Malaysia arrived?