With freedom comes responsibility  

rm_Kurtdhis_th 43M
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10/25/2005 8:36 pm

Last Read:
3/5/2006 9:27 pm

With freedom comes responsibility

Gone are the days when one could say anything behind the anonymity of cyberspace and get away with it

Imprisonment, legal action and intimidation of bloggers (web loggers) on the internet are on the rise in Asia. If you thought blog-policing was prevalent only in countries like China and Vietnam, think again. A few recent cases in Singapore, India and Malaysia have turned the spotlight on the dangers lurking in the alleyways of blogosphere. Last week, in a landmark case, two Singaporean young men were sentenced to jail under the Sedition Act for posting racist comments on the internet.

Benjamin Koh Song Huat, 28, was jailed for a month while his friend, Nicholas Lim Yew, 25, was imprisoned for one day and made to pay a fine of $5,000 (120,666 baht). Koh had posted ``expletive-laced'' entries against Malays and Muslims in his blog. The judge said that Koh's ``vile'' remarks ``provoked a widespread and virulent response''.

This was the first time in the history of Singapore when a person was imprisoned for making ``racist'' remarks on the internet.

Koh had posted his remarks against Malays after a run-in with some Malay families while walking his dog in a coastal park in June. Malay Muslims stay away from dogs because of religious reasons. This experience led him to vent out his feelings against Malays and Muslims on his blog. He also made fun of the halal logo (a symbol declaring that the food product is kosher _ an important decision-making factor for Muslims' choice of consumables) and placed it beside a picture of a pig's head on his blog. Soon, people started posting comments on his blog leading to a chain of heated exchanges.

A week later, when Koh realised the seriousness of the issue, he locked the comments box of his blog and put up an apology.

But it was already too late. At the end of June, police arrived at his home for questioning after a Malay blogger complained to the police.

On his second visit to the police station, Koh was arrested along with his friend Lim.

In another case last year, Seamus Phan, a Singapore-based consultant, had to offer an apology in a local newspaper for publishing remarks against a Singaporean charity.

In his website, Phan had discussed a newspaper report related to the charity's reported mismanagement of public funds by installing a ``gold tap'' in its chief executive's office bathroom. Phan not only had to delete the controversial post from his site but also had to offer the written apology to avoid legal action.

In Malaysia, to take another example, blogger Jeff Ooi was threatened with imprisonment in October last year for an insulting comment against Islam published on his blog.

His blog, http://AdultFriendFinder.com, makes independent observations on Malaysian politics and society. Because of the sensitive nature of blogs and the legal implications of their published content, a large number of bloggers in the region have shut down their sites and restarted them with new names to protect their anonymity.

Even in India -- the world's largest democracy -- some bloggers are being taken to court for making libelous remarks against individuals and companies.

Early this year, one of the biggest media companies on the sub-continent, the Times Group (which owns The Times of India) served legal notice to an Indian blogger, Pradyuman Maheshwari, for defamation after he criticised the newspaper group on his blog, Mediaah! ( http://AdultFriendFinder.com ).

Bombay-based Maheshwari is a senior journalist and commentator.

As Maheshwari did not have sufficient funds to fight a legal battle against the media behemoth, he had to delete all the controversial posts from his blog.

In another case that is currently raging in the Indian blogosphere, a Delhi-based management institute, the Indian Institute of Planning & Management (IIPM), has issued legal notice to a blogger Gaurav Sabnis.

Gaurav had made comments about IIPM's advertisements and its director, Arindam Chaudhuri, after a youth magazine published a report questioning the institute's claim of being one of India's top 10 B-schools.

Even though many Indian bloggers are rallying around Gaurav for standing against an organisation, he had to quit his job with IBM for his contentious views.

Previously, Reporters Without Borders has noted that two countries that systematically place people in jail for posting ``subversive'' topics online are China _ which has placed at least 63 cyber-dissidents in prison _ and Vietnam, which has imprisoned at least seven.

In China, the cases of bloggers such as Liu Di, who called herself ``The stainless steel mouse'', and Zheng Yichun's are too well-documented to need repetition here. While Di and Yichun were incarcerated for political dissidence in an authoritarian regime, bloggers like Koh and Lim and Gaurav are facing legal action because of shooting off their mouths.

Clearly, these cases prove that the blogosphere is no more the wild wild west of freedom of expression.

Bloggers, however self-righteous, must watch their words. Even in democracies, bloggers have the right to express their opinion in their blogs, but in the eyes of the law, that right cannot be taken for granted, cannot be deemed unfettered.

Reporters Without Borders has uploaded a handbook for bloggers and cyber-dissidents that advises ways to establish a blog's credibility by observing basic ethical and journalistic practices.

Finally, if they want to end the rumble in the blogosphere, bloggers must be watchful of their published content. With freedom comes responsibility, right?

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