PETALING JAYA - The amendments to the Sedition Act passed this week are open to abuse and misinterpretation, said the Institute of Journalists Malaysia (IJM).
In a press release issued on Friday, IJM referred to an amendment to the Sedition Act 1948 which empowers the Sessions Court to issue a "prohibition order" on a "seditious" publication that would "likely lead to bodily injury or damage to property", or "appears to be promoting feeling of ill will, hostility or hatred" between different races or classes; or persons on the grounds of religion.
"The IJM is concerned over the ambiguity of the terms "likely" and "appears" and we fear that these criteria will be open to abuse and misinterpretation," it said.
It also referred to another amendment which requires individuals making or sharing allegedly seditious material to remove or delete the content, and also bans individuals from accessing any electronic device including computers and smartphones.
"The IJM finds this an unfairly harsh punishment especially when there is no expiry date for the prohibition order.
"The inability to access tools of the trade will mean online journalists' careers are at risk and threatens the existence of legitimate news portals," it said.
It added that the prohibition on "propagating" seditious speech or their publication also means that online news portals cannot share allegedly seditious remarks on social media and RSS feeds will cease to exist, further silencing discussion on policies and issues which are of national interest.
"The situation is further exacerbated by the heavy penalty for first-time offenders who contravene a prohibition order, as they could face a maximum fine of RM5,000 (S$1,868) or a jail term not exceeding three years," it said.
It added that the practice of journalism in Malaysia was already hampered by self-censorship that is routinely practised by established news organisations and that the latest curtailment of freedom by the amendment further restricts public discourse and will create a void in Malaysian social media and a deafening silence in news forums.
The amendments, which were tabled in the Dewan Rakyat on Tuesday add to the Act by allowing bail to be denied for those charged if the prosecution feels it is not in the interest of the public, the substitution of fines for offences with a jail term of between three and seven years, a new offence involving bodily injury and damage to property which includes a mandatory jail sentence of five to 20 years among others.
Other amendments include the penalisation of any person who promotes feelings of ill-will or hostility between persons or groups on the grounds of religion, and that inciting hatred, contempt or dissatisfaction against the government or administration of justice in Malaysia will no longer be considered seditious.