KEY ISSUES:

  1. Who should define the opinion space in the Internet Age — The Court or the People?
  2. Corporate Governance: Should corporate resources be used to fight personal war?

Commenting on the defamation suits The NST et al had taken against bloggers Jeff Ooi and Ahirudin Attan, The Star’s New Media Editor A. Asohan says:

While there may be extenuating circumstances, which those of us on the outside cannot claim to be privy to, as to why these two bloggers were chosen, a defamation lawsuit involves a third party, in this case the country’s legal system, determining if those comments were free and fair.

It also puts the onus on the plaintiff to prove that he suffered “damage” – of reputation, for example – as a result.

The thing is, laws are put in place to protect both individuals and organisations. While they may express their support for the bloggers concerned, surfers should also welcome these lawsuits.

For now lines will be drawn as to what is permissible and what is not in cyberspace; how far you can go in expressing yourself, and more importantly, what legal recourse you have if someone – anyone, including a rival blogger – maligns you on the Net.

Yes, the laws on defamation are there to also protect you, the individual. Given that some political leaders want to introduce new laws specifically for the Internet, that websites and their operators have been threatened with the Internal Security Act, that subtle intimidation has allegedly been tried, and that some media organisations have used their own platforms to unfairly vilify selected bloggers before, it’s a welcome change to see existing legislature being used this time around.

Because now, we finally get a case that will also determine just how relevant our laws are in the information age.

Portions highlighted in bold above are ours as we want you to ponder the key points involved in this NST vs. Bloggers suit.

Contrast this with what Nuraina A. Samad, a former NST editor who had served the newspaper for 27 years before she was VSS-ed by the current management and editorial head-honchos, said in her Open Letter to the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and the entire Cabinet:

You see, people are seeing NST’s action as a terrible thing. A newspaper acting against bloggers, against freedom of expression.

Worse, NST doing this at the behest of the government. Whether or not that is correct is irrelevant. This will be the perception.

People will be seeing it as a bullying tactic by the government through the NST.

NST cannot be dragged into this lawsuit. A newspaper suing bloggers for defamation? Think about it?

We are fighting for Press freedom and this newspaper is suing bloggers, one of whom is its former editor, for defamation.

It goes without saying that the world is watching as this is a precedent and a test case. A very interesting one.

And in the process, this will reflect so badly on the newspaper. And, of course, on the government because of the ties that bind.

We also noted that Nuraina is still a minority shareholder of The NSTP.

In an Open Letter to the CEO of The New Straits Times Press, Syed Feizal Albar, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders reminded the newspaper to remember its position as a mass media that must do the right thing:

We believe that this case is groundless. It looks to us as though legal procedures are being used as a way of silencing two of your newspaper’s critics.

You will certainly agree that bloggers have the right, as have journalists, to comment on the news and to expose practices which appear to them to be amoral or illegal. We remind you that these people, who are not backed by any press group, are particularly vulnerable to any judicial proceedings. A heavy fine could force them to halt publication.

We hope therefore that you will intervene on behalf of these two bloggers with the plaintiffs, especially Kalimullah Hassan, with whom you work closely. Halting this judicial procedure will benefit both parties. You are a journalist like us and we are convinced that you will respond to our appeal and make it a point of honour to defend press freedom in your country,”

The NST management has been made aware of this corporate governance requirement according to the way RSF has underscored it. The International Herald Tribune has carried the related Associated Press story which saw global circulation. The NST management can’t plead ignorance of it.

For those who don’t already know, The NST is majority-owned by Media Prima, which is linked to the Umno president of the day who runs this country as the Prime Minister (See The Star, Jan 9, 2007, which says “Media Prima is owned by Umno”.)

The NST was a key player in the botched merger plan with Utusan Malaysia. The Group Editor-in-Chief of The NST is a political nominee who requires the clearance of the Umno president. Even the proposed NSTP merger with Utusan has to be sanctioned by Umno Supreme Counsel, and this goes to show how serious each of the NST’s manoeuvres will impact the Umno president, and by extension, the Prime Minister of Malaysia.

WHAT YOU SHOULD DO

Dear Malaysians, you job is as heavy as ours. We mustn’t let this democracy called Malaysia to sink further in the eyes of the international community.

Or at the very least, we need to get the plaintiffs — Kalimullah, Hishamuddin and Brenden John — to absolve themselves from using the listed company’s shareholders’ fund to wage personal wars against bloggers who criticise their kind of journalism.

Should these plaintiffs feel strongly that their respective reputation has been damaged by the alleged defamatory blog content, they should use their own money to fund their law suits, and stake their own estates and properties to pay damages should they lose the case — just the same position that the two bloggers are doing right now and we call for a levelled playing field, morally and professionally.

Dear Malaysians, your next step to write Open Letters to the Chairman of the Board of The NSTP to tell him that the minority shareholders do not condone the four individuals to use the shareholder’ fund to enable them fight their personal war with the bloggers.

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Address your letter to the Chairman of the Board, Mohamed Jawhar Hassan, who is also the Chairman and CEO of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia. A man of his stature should under under how corporate governance should work. The snailmail address: The New Straits Times Press (Malaysia) Berhad Balai Berita, 31 Jalan Riong, 59100 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

We will expound on this as we move along. WALK WITH US!

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