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10 APRIL 2024

Friday, May 31, 2019

Freedom of speech for 'fascists'?

The decision by online bookstore and publisher Buku Fixi to drop the works of author Helmi Effendy has sparked an online debate on freedom of speech and expression.
Buku Fixi arrived at the decision when it was revealed that Helmi, who writes for right-wing publication The Patriots, has advocated for the extrajudicial purge and killings of Malay liberals and certain segments of the non-Malay community in Malaysia, akin to the ‘Night of Long Knives’ incident in history when Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party killed hundreds of Hitler’s opponents. The killings were mostly carried out by the Schutzstaffel (SS) paramilitary force and the incident consolidated Hitler’s power in Nazi Germany.
Some have lauded the decision by Buku Fixi, saying that society should not give these fascists a platform. Others have argued that the decision is against freedom of speech and expression.
The situation is far more straightforward. Buku Fixi is a private entity, not the State. The decision to drop Helmi’s works is well within its right as a private entity. Buku Fixi has no obligation to provide a platform for Helmi’s works.
It is also clear that in advocating for extrajudicial killings, Helmi has stepped beyond the boundaries of free speech. Even the most ardent advocate of freedom of speech and expression will agree that free speech stops when you call for injury or death onto others.
But what about situations where it is less straightforward? What about those spreading extreme right-wing narratives, or what is known as ‘fascist’ ideology? How do we deal with such expressions?
For example, when the Isma president claims that the existence of commemorative stamps bearing the image of a church meant that Islam is being sidelined under the current government, should we, including the press, ignore such claims?
Many argue that we should ‘de-platform’ these people. That we should not give such expressions the attention or the media space. Some even argue that the law should be used to silence such expressions.
We must always be slow and cautious in allowing the State to restrict freedom of speech and expression. Once the State is permitted to use its means to restrict the speech of those we deem to be ‘fascists’, there is every possibility that the State will also be tempted to use such means to silence its critics and dissidents.
Perhaps it is because just over a year ago, we were under a regime which did not shy away from clamping down on dissenting views. So never again should we willingly condone the State’s intervention on fundamental rights, unless it is absolutely necessary.
Make no mistake, this writer is not advocating for absolute freedoms. Those who incite injury or death to persons, or damage to property, must be dealt with by the State. So too those who promote hate speech; human rights jurisprudence have allowed such expressions to be restricted.
Don't ignore extremist expressions
Yet, there is a fine line to tread when it comes to State intervention in free speech. ‘De-platforming’, ignoring, disengaging and not challenging extremist opinions and expressions can be counter-productive. 
Firstly, it will create a situation in which differences in society are further entrenched. Secondly, it will also mean that extremist expressions go unchecked and unchallenged, and are allowed to spread right under our collective noses.
Those who spread extremist expressions already have a platform. They even have a political audience. It would be naive to think that they can be defeated simply by being ignored.
Instead, such expressions must be called out. An incredulous claim that Islam is under threat because of a commemorative stamp must be exposed, challenged and even ridiculed.
The open media environment right now means we are seeing a contest of various ideas and ideologies. Those who believe in moderation and progressiveness must be willing to engage and challenge those who hold contrary views.

SYAHREDZAN JOHAN is a civil liberties lawyer and political secretary to Iskandar Puteri member of parliament Lim Kit Siang. - Mkini

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