Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Price of Unfettered Freedom

It may be a cliche, but for every action, there will be a reaction.

What more an irresponsible action like the production and dissemination of a low-grade film mocking and ridiculing Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.

Clips of the film have gone viral, courtesy of the unfettered visual based social media platform YouTube as well as the equally virulent and violent reactions of angry Muslims across the globe.

When initial reaction saw hundreds of protesters converging on the United States posts in Benghazi, Libya and Cairo, resulting in the death of US ambassador Christopher Stevens and four others, things begin to look bad -- very bad.

What happened was but one of the many examples of uncalled for provocation aimed at Muslims and Islam. It should not have happened, but it did, thanks to the misdirected anger, which should have been reserved for terrorism and all its many forms.

This time around, like several in the past, the flash-point was the much-touted land of freedom and opportunity -- the United States of America.

This is where personal freedom to do just about anything is jealousy guarded and even guaranteed under the constitution and entrenched in the nation's sacred document, the Bill of Rights.

In Malaysia, since we achieved independence in 1957, the government had always sought to ensure that peace and stability of the country was never compromised. To do so is not easy, given the myriad races who call this country home, and riding on the back of such varied ethnic differences are the disparate faiths.

And when it comes to faith, there can never be any compromise, no matter how insightful the pastors, ulama, monks or whoever presides over a religious flock. The differences in faith and spiritual practice have long been accepted as a unique facet of Malaysia's multi-ethnic populace. Respect has always been the order of the day, and tolerance is but the durable string that binds the hearts of Malaysians together.

However, somewhere along the line, the string of tolerance that has for long bound the hearts and minds of Malaysians to enable them to live in mutual respect with each other's differences seems to have come undone.

It could be due to the ravages of time that have brought rot to the bond, unleashing the demons of greed and disregard for others.

Today, with the advent of innovations in communications technology, the world has taken on a new dimension. The Internet and addictive forms of social media have given rise to stubborn and blinkered demands for more freedom of expression and speech throughout the world, including in Malaysia.

The Internet has, for quite some now, brought with it a myriad of social problems that often spill over into the provinces of politics and religion, with the latter perpetuating violence.

To address all these, governments are today at wits' end trying to come up with a cogent and effective set of laws to control transgressions emanating from the unfettered freedom of the almost lawless frontiers of the Internet.

In Malaysia, the Information, Communications and Culture Ministry, through the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), has been appointed as the gatekeepers in this area.

With the recriminations and brickbats directed at the person at the top, Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim, the task of regulating and bringing some semblance of order to the cyber world is, indeed, not an enviable task.

So serious is this task of dealing with the demands for unfettered freedom within the frontiers of the digital world, which has now became an intrinsic part of "real" life, that other government agencies and institutions, including Parliament, have been called into action.

For Parliament, the latest move was the amendment of Section 114A of the Evidence Act 1950, which presumes publication and ownership of offending items posted on the Internet as the owner's unless proven otherwise.

The amendment is meant to protect the country's security, and for all the recriminations directed at the government, detractors forget that things like acts of terrorism and provocation, as demonstrated by the irresponsible actions of the man behind the film Innocence of Muslims, should be reason enough to understand what the law stands for.

The freedom afforded by the Internet offers individuals the chance to hide behind false identities. It allows them to incite racial and religious hatred, which can ultimately trigger violent hate crimes, yet allows the perpetrator anonymity or immunity from prosecution.

This is but one area of contention that needs to be addressed and the responsibility, invariably, rests on the shoulders of the ministry through the MCMC.

Treading carefully between the need to allow space for the healthy development of new media and public freedom in cyberspace, the people must understand that the rights and sensitivities of multiracial Malaysia must always be guarded before it is too late.

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