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The use and abuse of sedition
Publication Date : 19-07-2012
In the old days, those found guilty of sedition had their heads chopped off. The luckier ones escaped with their ears sliced, noses slit and their cheeks branded.
Among the notably fearless and subsequently earless writers in 17th Century England were Alexander Leighton, a Scottish doctor and lawyer William Prynne.
Prynne first had his ears cropped for writing a pamphlet called Histriomastix, an attack on "immoral" stage plays in 1632.
The puritan's reproof of women actors as "notorious whores" was seen as an attack on Queen Henrietta Maria, the Catholic consort of King Charles I, who had taken part in a play.
But the mutilation, a hefty fine and having the letters SL (Seditious Libeller) stamped on his face, did not stop him from writing what he felt was wrong.
He soon published an anonymous attack on the Bishop of Norwich which incensed the Anglican Church. He lost whatever was left of his ears and his cheeks were stamped with the letters S and L (for Seditious Libeller).
It was a fate he shared with Leighton, who had in 1630, also attacked the church in a pamphlet. He was sentenced to have his ears sliced, nose slit and face branded with SS (Sower of Sedition).
Sedition, which bears the guilt of such brutal punishments, is based on common tenets evolved from some of Britain’s oldest laws, including the Statute of Westminster of 1275.
It is an arcane edict that can be traced to when the divine rights of royalty, the clergy and the structure of feudal society were beyond question.
Seditious libel was established by the Star Chamber (Camera Stellata in Latin) which was a court at Westminster until 1641.
Sessions were held in secret and evidence was presented in writing. There were no charges, no rights of appeal, no juries, and no witnesses.
With the close bond between the church and the government, seditious libel (criticism of the government) was also linked to blasphemous libel (criticism of religion).
The abuse of sedition laws soon became the perfect political weapon for the state and the clergy to either silence or finish off critics.
In this country, the Sedition Act was introduced by the British in 1948 to weed out any challenge to their colonial rule.
But the archaic law remained long after the British left.
While there were cases where it was used judiciously to act against seditious speeches and actions, over the years, its reputation was more of an expedient tool to stifle politicians, lawyers, academics, human rights activists and journalists.
After 64 years, it is finally headed for the scrapheap of history.
Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak announced last week that it would be repealed and replaced with the new National Harmony Act.
It could have been done two years ago, when the UK formally abolished the common law offences of sedition, seditious libel, obscene libel and defamatory libel.
Claire Ward, the justice minister then, said the existence of the obsolete offences were being used by other countries as justification for keeping similar laws to suppress political dissent and restrict press freedom.
Still, it is better late than never.
The scrapping of the Sedition Act is among the major steps under Najib’s political transformation agenda which has seen the repeal of the repressive Internal Security Act and positive changes to the Printing Presses and Publications and the Universities and University Colleges Act.
The changes haven’t impressed the usual partisan critics and cynics but those on the middle ground who want to see reforms through evolution rather than revolution, welcome them.
What can we expect from the National Harmony Act? The PM says it is aimed at "a balance between ensuring the people’s right to freedom of expression and the need to handle the intricate nature of Malaysia’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious society".
In other words, the new law would retain the government’s powers to act against those inciting hatred to create disloyalty to the King or the Rulers; those who spread ill will and animosity between races; and those who question any right, special position, privileges and prerogatives under Part 3 or Articles 152, 153 and 181 of the Federal Constitution.
With the ground rules set, the attorney-general should work towards getting the widest range of views from Malaysians from all walks of life before drawing up a draft bill for parliament.
Let not there be a repeat of a crucial law being rushed through parliament and passed before thorough debate, as was in the cases of the Peaceful Assembly Act, the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act and the Evidence (Amendment) Act.
As for those questioning the need for another law to replace the Sedition Act, they shouldn’t stay blind and deaf to the spewing of wanton hate and racist rants in the Internet.
In the bad old days, the accused would be locked to wooden frames with just holes for their heads and hands. Ears and noses would be cut and unpleasant things would be thrown at them while they are subjected to humiliation and ridicule.
Today, websites, blogs and Twitter are similarly being used as modern day pillories to flog those with opposing political stance – all in the name of freedom of speech or expression.
Shouldn’t there also be rules to tame such brute mentality which is becoming a norm in Malaysian cyberspace?
Those who clamour for a more civil society must also be seen to be civil.
The writer is Associate Editor