Bahraini blogger Mahmood has never been one to shy away from criticizing his government. Today he announced that Bahrain's minister of municipalities and agriculture is moving ahead with a libel case against him. The blog post in question, from 22nd December, was titled "First ministerial brainfart of the season," and posted under the special category of his blog labeled "brain farts" (a most entertaining page indeed). The post's content, while hard-hitting, is not dissimilar to things one frequently sees on sharp-witted political blogs around the world. Mahmood is raring for a fight and says:
I didn’t want this as I still feel that it is a frivolous case at best, which now will probably turn into a benchmark that will further sully Bahrain’s reputation internationally. You can be sure that this case will now be included in all the press indicies for 2007 as a black spot against this country, thanks to a minister who cannot take criticism.
Meanwhile Malaysian blogger Jeff Ooi, who has been involved with Global Voices from the very beginning and who I consider a friend, is prevented from writing on his blog or speaking directly about anything related to the defamation lawsuit for which he and fellow Malaysian blogger Rocky are being taken to court in early March. As a fellow blogger writes:
Whether agree to what Jeff and Rocky blog about or not, I certainly don’t want to lose my last source of local issue in Malaysia, as I’ve given up mainstream media since a long time ago. This is a line I’m willing to help defend.
There must be space on the blogosphere however for free and fair comment, which is anathema in the mainstream media where important national issues and prominent personalities are concerned.
The NSTP defamation suits will have a chilling effect on freedom of bloggers and citizen journalists as litigation is so expensive that its costs will cripple and paralyse the ordinary individual blogger, making no contribution whatsoever to a healthy process to delineate and define the legal rights of bloggers and citizen journalists.
As these are the first two cases of Malaysian bloggers being sued for defamation, it will have far-reaching consequences for the healthy, mature and democratic growth for free speech and expression, not only on the Internet but in the country as a whole.
Without going into the merits or demerits of the defamation proceedings launched by NSTP, which will be sub judice, bloggers and all concerned about human rights should rally behind the two bloggers to ensure firstly, that there is a level playing field in the defamation proceedings particularly in terms of financial resources and capabilities, and secondly, that the legal rights of bloggers and citizen journalists are properly developed and entrenched in keeping with the imperatives of an information society and knowledge economy which Malaysia aspires to become.
In many countries where the news media is neutered or cowed for various reasons, blogospheres have been emerging as influential spaces for citizens to exchange unvarnished perspectives. Are these spaces going to have concrete poured into them until the media landscapes of countries like Bahrain and Malaysia go back to the way they were in the good old pre-blog days? That is what some officials seem to be hoping. Good luck to them..