Freedom of speech through my eyes


One of the greatest discoveries I made as an international student in the United States was getting to learn more about American Democracy, more specifically the First Amendment and how it allows the rightful exercise of freedom of speech. According to a recent article in the Guardian , a Malaysian cartoonist who is known for ridiculing the scandal-plagued prime minister and his family has been arrested for sedition. The Guardian reports that Zulkifli Anwar Ulhaque – who goes by the pen name Zunar – was arrested in Penang state where he was participating in a literary festival.

According to Article 10 of the Constitution of Malaysia,  citizens of the country are guaranteed the right to freedom of speechfreedom of assembly and freedom of association.

However, according to the language of the Malaysian Constitution, “the rights can be restricted if it is deemed necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of the Federation or any part thereof, friendly relations with other countries, public order or morality .” Restrictions are also designed to “protect the privileges of Parliament or of any Legislative Assembly or to provide against contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to any offence.”

I do not claim to be an expert on the Malaysian constitution, but I am aware as to why some people, such as Zunar, have been arrested.

Last week on Nov. 19, thousands gathered in certain designated parts around the city of Kuala Lumpur to take part in Bersih 5.0 — a democratic protest supported by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih). Supporters of the rally claim that the demonstration was held to urge for a new and cleaner electoral system in Malaysia. Many citizens who did take part in the rally and another movement that was against it, were arrested by local officials for “causing disruption.”

I have been privileged enough to get the chance to learn about a different country, and its own governmental system; and what stands out to me the most is the United States supreme law — the U.S. constitution— that not only guarantees the freedom of speech to its citizens, but many more other rights, that are fairly restricted in other countries.

In the Guardian article, Michael Vatikiotis, a writer at the festival, condemned Zunar’s arrest, saying that, “Levels of repression are reaching dangerous levels in Malaysia.

“The fact that Zunar’s arrest happened at the George Town Literary Festival, with dozens of international writers and artists, only underscores the government’s disregard for freedom of expression.”

It’s scary to think one could get arrested for merely criticizing the ruling government. According to a wikipedia post on political scientist Larry Diamond, a professor of Sociology and Political Science at Stanford University, democracy consists of four key elements:

(a) A political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections.

(b) The active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life.

(c) Protection of the human rights of all citizens.

(d) A rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.

The mere essence of a democracy allows the people to choose its governing party, and giving them the opportunity to actively participate in politics. So why is criticizing seen as a threat, rather than a means for improvement?

Political cartoonists are not the only people who have been under attack in Malaysia over the years, local journalists who strive to report on the truth, too, have been under scrutiny.

I’ve always been a firm believer that as journalists, our main job is to inform the public. It isn’t to please the government or to please certain sides of a story. Yes, journalists should always strive to stay balance and fair, but they must also be truthful, but how can they do that when they are impeded from exercising their own rights to perform their journalistic duty of informing the people?



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