SOURCE: CNet Asia Blogs
URL:
asia.cnet.com/reviews/blog/babelmachine/0,39055810,61983776,00.htm

As you may know, two popular Malaysian bloggers have been sued by the pro-Government Malaysian daily New Straits Times for defamation–and one of these bloggers happens to be my fellow CNET Asia blogger Jeff Ooi, whose personal blog Screenshots has gained a following for its commentaries on the political situation in his country.

I’ve yet to meet Jeff personally, but he has always impressed me with his coverage of the IT scene in Malaysia, and more so by his courage in expressing his political views over at Screenshots. The tagline of his Screenshots blog is very apt: “Thinking Allowed. Thinking Aloud.”

First off I’d like to wish Jeff good luck and express my support. I’d like to give the aggrieved parties over at the New Straits Times the benefit of the doubt, but it’s hard, really, not to think this is an attempt to silence bloggers who have expressed views critical of the administration.

In the Philippines, popular opinion columnist and blogger Manuel Quezon III (whose grandfather, incidentally, was the President of the Philippines during World War II) has cited Jeff’s case on his personal blog at www.quezon.ph:

I had the pleasure of meeting Malaysian blogger Jeff Ooi last April during a SEAPA conference on “Free Expression in Asian Cyberspace” held in Manila. Now, there’s news he’s been slapped with a defamation suit by a Malaysian newspaper. He’s a dedicated and very nice guy. So, by way of expressing solidarity in his time of adversity, as he himself says, Good night and Good Luck, Jeff.


SEAPA, or the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, has expressed its concern over the case filed against Ooi and fellow Malaysian blogger Ahirudin bin Attan of Rocky’s Bru. The executive director of SEAPA, incidentally, is Roby Alampay, a fellow Filipino.

Here’s an excerpt from the SEAPA statement:

SEAPA is concerned that the lawsuits and injunctions will have a detrimental effect in encouraging open public debate and legitimate criticism in matters of public interest. Freedom of expression is a democratic feature that has long been suppressed in Malaysia, though a whiff of it has spread in recent years, thanks in large part to the Internet. With the Internet being the focus of the latest lawsuits, however, the boundaries for free speech have reverted to as before.

This is precisely why the case filed by the New Straits Times has many ramifications. In the first place, it’s hard not see this as a media giant going after individual bloggers in what, fairly or unfairly, will be seen by many people, particularly bloggers themselves, as a case of David vs. Goliath.

Secondly, this is happening in Malaysia, which is hardly the bastion of press freedom. Blogs have become an alternative medium to express views that might otherwise never see the light of day in mainstream media. The blogosphere allows ordinary citizens who fear reprisal if they express their opinions in public to tell others what they really think in the relative anonymity of cyberspace. Because of this, it also allows the world to see a truer picture of what is happening in the country, which otherwise might have been filtered.

Obviously, I’m not saying that this is a case of black-and-white, as the plaintiffs in the case claim they are being falsely accused and also have the right as private citizens to protect themselves.

In The Star article “Defamation suit to test the limits of freedom of speech in cyberspace“, A. Asohan writes:

Even the foreign wire agencies are painting it in these colours, prominently quoting Opposition Leader Lim Kit Siang’s view that the case would have a “chilling effect” on freedom of speech in Malaysia, and that it was a “grave development in the defence of the legal rights of bloggers and citizen journalists in Malaysia to break the stifling monopoly of the mainstream media”.

But since when has filing a suit become synonymous with infringing upon one’s legal rights? Indeed, wouldn’t denying due process to NSTP be an infringement of the plaintiff’s rights?

Just as much as bloggers have a right to free and fair comment, those under their scrutiny have a right to legal recourse if they feel they’re been portrayed unfairly.

We aren’t a failed state yet, the last time I checked.

As I’ve said in previous blog entries, we will see more and more issues cropping up as blogs become more mainstream. Ironically, blogging is becoming a victim of its own success–would the establishment have felt threatened years ago when only a few individuals were blogging or had even heard of blogging?

Personally, I would rather err on the side of freedom. Bloggers may say many things I don’t agree with, but the point is we must let alternative views circulate. Otherwise the next one that will be suppressed might be our own. Besides, we can always choose not to read their blogs, right?

Right now, bloggers are mounting a counter-offensive, including calls for a boycott of the New Straits Times and its related publications.

Expect more debates on this issue as more people condemn or support the suit filed against the Malaysian bloggers.

At least, let’s hope the Web will continue to be a place for lively debates, instead of being sued to silence.

Joey Alarilla is a blogger from the Philippines who writes in CNet Asia Blogs alongside Jeff Ooi.

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