Free speech is never a joke



There was a time when freedom of speech would have been considered an unquestionable pillar of Australian democracy. Indeed, Australia’s commitment to speech rights has been considered one of its greatest 'soft power' strengths in foreign diplomacy. Now, however, growing outrage towards freedom of speech laws in Australia are beginning to suggest an alternate narrative.

A cartoonist has been called before the Australian Human Rights Commission for critiquing the current state of Indigenous affairs. A lengthy investigation continues on students from Queensland's University of Technology who criticised segregation on University campuses. Shamefully, only recently were doctors allowed to comment on asylum seeker conditions on Nauru and Manus Island as a potential High Court challenge loomed.

These issues have parallels with our Asian neighbours, particularly in Malaysia and Thailand. Although the issues facing Australia are perhaps less consequential than those of our Asian partners, they nonetheless highlight the vulnerability of an individual's right to free speech from growing governmental power.

The unquestionable King

The recent death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej in Thailand has refocused the spotlight on the country's lèse-majesté laws. The laws stipulate harsh punishments for anyone who defames or insults the King or senior royals. A 61-year old man was sent to prison for sending four text messages that were 'considered offensive to the Queen and the institution of the monarchy'. In 2012, a man was sentenced to three years in prison for selling a documentary about the Thai Royal family. In September 2015, a local printer for the New York Times refused to print copies of the paper because of a story they deemed too sensitive to print.

The law was added to Thailand's criminal code in 1908 and was later expanded after the military coup in 1976. Since 1932, there have been 12 successful and an estimated seven attempted coups in Thailand. King Bhumibol was a widely revered sanctimonious figure whose public prominence was considered critical to overcoming national divisions. And yet, human rights organisations have criticised the laws for enabling powerful political factions to achieve nefarious political ends without scrutiny under the guise of the monarchy.

So serious are the accusations that the judicial system, police forces, and local authorities are 'often afraid to reject allegations of lèse-majesté out of concern they themselves may be accused of disloyalty to the monarchy', according to Human Rights Watch. Many are concerned that without being able to adequately discuss the future of the monarchy, succession plans are sure to be divisive and difficult.

Malaysian malpractice

Under the Prime Ministership of Najib Razak, Malaysia has continued to clamp down on free and independent speech in the face of unprecedented corruption charges. Prime Minister Najib's independence was compromised earlier in the year after 'hundreds of millions of dollars' turned up in his private bank account following revelations about the state-owned and heavily indebted sovereign wealth fund for Malaysia, the Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

The scandal led the government to block online media and suspend print media reporting on the scandal. The government also used the Official Secrets Act to ensure the Auditor-General’s report into the scandal was never made available to the public. In March, an ABC reporter and his camera operator were detained in Malaysia for asking questions of Mr Najib regarding the scandal.

The crackdown on free speech is not limited to the scandal. A student activist has been arrested six times for peaceful protests against the government and was convicted of sedition in 2014 for protesting the general election in 2013. Malaysian political cartoonist Zulkifli Anwar Ulhaque, or 'Zunar' as he is known, was charged with a record nine counts of sedition and has recently been banned from leaving Malaysia. Artist Fahmi Reza is facing criminal charges for posting on social media an image that conflated Najib with a clown.

Lawyer and opposition MP N. Surendan explains the justification used for the Sedition laws that criminalise criticism.

‘They say the [sedition] law is needed for ethnic relations, but the people are fine. They are using it against people who are not doing anything to do with religion and race. They are creating fear of an ethnic explosion to justify laws to keep the people down...”Seditious tendency” is loosely defined with terms such as “ill-will,” “discontent,” and “disaffection,” that are both vague and subjective...When a law is so vague that individuals do not know what expression may violate it, it creates an unacceptable chill on free speech’.

Chillingly, this description finds similarities with criticisms of Australia's own free speech suppression laws in Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Free speech must always be free

If anything is to emerge of these comparisons, it is that Australians cannot take for granted the freedoms and privileges they enjoy. Free speech policies underlined by benevolent intentions are not immune to government intervention, corruption, and suppression as the case studies in Malaysia and Thailand illustrate. Free speech is one of Australia's greatest virtues. We cannot let the tide turn. The risk is that our neighbours lose a guiding light, and we lose our moral compass.

Will Flowers Comino is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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