Confusion over sedition
Not everything that is regarded as sensitive is necessarily seditious.
IT is common to read about police reports being lodged claiming that someone has uttered words or written or drawn something seditious.
This also happens on occasions when some material is written, discussions held or proposals made which touch on some provisions of the Federal Constitution or some laws of the country.
Just because a person says something that is related to race, religion or language, there are persons or groups that are enthusiastic about making police reports. Sometimes reports are lodged by the dozen, or even more. What useful purpose this serves is anyone’s guess.
Arising out of such reports, the person against whom or with reference to whom such reports are made are called in for questioning. There are instances when a person is detained. In other cases, there may just be a departmental inquiry and the person is dealt with through internal procedures.
A reader who has been observing these developments, asks when does what is said become seditious? And if so, is it necessary to call the person against whom the report is made, for questioning for hours or even detained, albeit temporarily?
The way in which such reports are made and dealt with is certainly worthy of attention. In our increasingly polarising society, almost everything that is said can be connected to race, religion or language. However, not every statement which offends others or is not to their liking, is necessarily seditious.
Sedition is a very serious matter. Our Sedition Act 1948 has its origins in English Law though the need to provide for local circumstances has resulted in additions being made. As said by Fitzgerald J. in R.V. Sullivan: “The very tendency of sedition is to incite the people to insurrection and rebellion. Sedition has been described as disloyalty in action ...”
Seditious words are also said to be “words or writing used or written for the purpose of bringing into contempt the Ruler or the Constitution of the country, or administration of justice, or to excite the Ruler’s subjects to alter existing laws otherwise then by lawful and constitutional means as well as to incite feelings of ill will and hostility between different classes of subjects.”
Our Act has supplemented this by amending the statute to make it seditious to question any matter, right, status, position, privilege, sovereignty or prerogative established or protected by the provisions of Part III of the Federal Constitution or Articles 152, 153 or 181 of the Federal Constitution.
One common observation is that the person referred to in a report is often called in by the police. He or she may be questioned for over an hour or more, going by newspaper reports. In some cases, it is reported that the person may be detained even though eventually allowed to leave.
Unless some other offence has been committed which warrants questioning and detention, it would appear that prolonged questioning or detention serves little purpose. This is because if the content is seditious and the subject matter is in writing, it is an examination of this document that will show whether it has a seditious tendency.
Where sedition is in the form of oral statements made, the need for questioning would be more of people who heard the statements being made so as to establish whether such statements were indeed uttered.
As far as the person complained against is concerned, it is a matter of whether he admits or denies making those statements.
In a recent incident reported in a news portal, a senior officer of the National Civics Bureau was alleged to have made racist remarks. He was reported to have denied making such statements. Whether such statements were indeed seditious would depend on the words actually used, and the context in which they were used.
However, what is interesting is that the bureau is reported to have subsequently issued a statement that the senior officer was expressing his personal views and was not making an official statement with the intention of insulting anyone. Such statements themselves show a lack of understanding of what is seditious even at senior levels.
When it comes to the issue of sedition, the intention of the person making a seditious statement is totally irrelevant if the statement is indeed seditious. Section 3(3) of the Sedition Act 1948 clearly sets this out in the paragraph that follows:
“For the purpose of proving the commission of any offence against this Act, the inten- tion of the person charged at the time he did or attempted to do or made any preparation to do or conspired with any person to do any act or uttered any seditious words or printed, published, sold, offered for sale, distributed, reproduced or imported any publication or did any other thing shall be deemed to be irrelevant if in fact the act had, or would, if done, have had, or the words, publication or thing had a seditious tendency”.
Thus in cases in which individuals have been charged and convicted, it can hardly be said that the aspect of intention was ever taken into account. Of course, in rare cases where a lack of intention exists, it might serve to mitigate the punishment.
Whilst no statistics are available to the writer, one is left with the impression that based on the frequency of police reports alleging sedition, the number of prosecutions that are known to follow would make it appear that many, if not most reports, do not disclose any offence.
This is because as stated earlier, sedition is more than merely making statements which have a link or connection to race, religion or language which make certain individuals unhappy with what has been said and perhaps prompt them to lodge police reports for publicity and mileage.
In Public Prosecutor vs Mark Koding, the court held that statements in Parliament which pose a question whether the Government should allow the continuation of Chinese and Tamil schools, and the use of Chinese and Tamil on road signs, were considered to not have a seditious tendency.
However, Mark Koding was found guilty on sedition not because he had raised the question but he had gone on to say that if the Federal Constitution allowed such use, then the relevant provisions should be amended to restrict such enthusiasm.
Of course, there is undoubtedly a need to avoid the publication of content which is generally found to be offensive. The answer to this may lie in looking into other existing laws or even creating new laws but not on sedition.