Online media outlets should not be held liable for third-party content when they have not been involved in modifying that content, and should never be required to proactively monitor content, said Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch on Friday (19 Feb).
Mr Robertson made his comments in light of the decision of Malaysia’s apex court today to issue renowned news portal Malaysiakini a fine of RM500,000 (US$123,000) for contempt of court by publishing readers’ comments that “undermined the system of justice in the country”.
Delivering the six-to-one decision in the nation’s Federal Court in the administrative capital of Putrajaya, Judge Rohana Yusuf, who chaired the panel of judges, said that the comments, which were “spurious and reprehensible”, have spread “far and wide”.
She added that the contents of the offending comments “involved allegations of corruption which were unproven and untrue”.
Prosecutors argued that Malaysiakini had facilitated the publication of the remarks. Lawyers for Malaysiakini, however, argued that the website did not intend to publish them, adding that the comments were removed quickly once police had notified the portal.
The Federal Court’s decision on Friday, said Mr Robertson, “blatantly violates freedom of expression and media freedom, and should be quashed”.
“Holding an online publisher like Malaysiakini liable for reader comments forces them, and any other online media organisation or platform that permits reader comments, to choose between banning such comments, or over-censoring to avoid liability,” he stressed.
Branding the court’s decision “a travesty of justice that clearly violates international legal standards for the protection of freedom of speech”, Mr Robertson warned that the ruling will result in “a significant chilling of the atmosphere for freedom of speech in Malaysia”.
The Federal Court’s decision, he added, has also “opened a can of worms that needs to be urgently addressed”, namely the urgent need for specific legislation protecting intermediaries such as Malaysiakini from such third-party liability.
“The Malaysian Parliament should now enact laws to preclude third-party liability for content and/or amend the laws that currently permit such liability,” said Mr Robertson.
Noting that the fine handed down by the court had “significantly exceeded the amount requested by prosecutors”, Mr Robertson opined that such a move shows that both the executive and judicial arms in Malaysia are “trying to ape Singapore’s tactics to attack independent media outlets” by “seeking to bankrupt Malaysiakini with an outrageously excessive financial penalty”.
“So much for the Malaysian government’s tired, old tactics of pointing their finger at their neighbour and trying to say they are worse,” he charged.
Malaysiakini’s chief editor Steven Gan, who was found not guilty in the same case today, told reporters at the Palace of Justice that the Federal Court’s decision “flies in the face of the fast-changing new media landscape in this country” and “will have a tremendous chilling effect on discussions of issues of public interest”.
The ruling, he added, has delivered “a body blow to our campaign, our continual campaign to fight corruption among others”.
“I think the decision that was made against us and the hefty fine that has been put against us. It’s really, really an attempt to perhaps not just punish us but also to shut us down,” said Mr Gan.
“When there are individuals who are being charged with money-laundering and abuse of power involving millions of ringgit, if not billions of ringgit, walk free. It is definitely unfair,” he said.
Mr Gan said that Malaysiakini is seeking its supporters’ donations to raise funds to help them pay the fine by next week as ordered.