Malaysian writer faces blasphemy probe for Facebook post

Uthaya Sankar SB, photo used with permission

Malaysian writer Uthaya Sankar SB was arrested on April 11 after he was accused of insulting Prophet Mohammad in a Facebook post published on April 6.

He was released on bail the following day but he is still facing investigation under Section 298A of Malaysia’s Penal Code for causing disharmony, disunity, or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill will, or prejudicing the maintenance of harmony or unity, on grounds of religion, and Section 233 of the Multimedia and Communications Act for “improper use of network facilities or network service.”

Uthaya Sankar SB’s case reflects the continuing use of repressive laws to harass citizens, including those accused of offending the Muslim-majority population. Activists and media groups have been pressing for the review and repeal of these laws.

Uthaya Sankar SB referenced a hadith (Islamic narration or quotation) when he commented on a Malaysian actor’s post about polygamy. The author insisted that this was clearly not meant to insult the Prophet Mohammad. In an interview with Global Voices, Uthaya Sankar SB highlighted this point:

I have totally no idea what the motive must have been. It’s really absurd, I must say. It seems someone with no basic knowledge of Islam and the Hadith lodged a report. And what’s even funnier, the cops at Bukit Aman actually arrested me to investigate. A simple Google of the said Hadith would have clearly shown them that I did not in any way offend the Prophet or Islam.

Ma Thida, chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, issued a statement condemning the arrest of Uthaya Sankar SB:

Uthaya Sankar SB’s arrest for his social media post highlights the limits of free expression in Malaysia on issues such as religion. However well intentioned, the authorities’ use of blasphemy legislation to investigate any alleged criticism of religion will do little to promote dialogue and mutual understanding, which are central tenets to the promotion of religious harmony in any society.

In an opinion article published by Free Malaysia Today, Mariam Mokhtar warned against the chilling effect of persecuting writers, “Criminalising freedom of speech will lead to a state where the rakyat [people] will not be able to express an opinion that differs from that which is offered by the state.”

The police told the media that the investigation is not yet finished. Federal Commercial Crime Investigation Department director Comm Datuk Seri Abd Jalil Hasa gave this advice to social media users:

The public should also be smart and prudent social media users and not use the platform to cause public anxiousness and threaten national harmony. Firm action without compromise will be taken against any individual who intentionally threatens public order and safety.

Asked by Global Voices about his message to fellow writers and artists with regard to upholding freedom of expression, Uthaya Sankar SB encouraged Malaysians to remain strong in their commitment:

Be brave. Be confident. If you know that you have not done anything wrong, stay firm and never let anyone (the authorities, community etc) blame you or punish you for your action. Don’t “fight” alone. Let your struggle be known so that others can come forward to defend you; or at least show solidarity.

Responding to another question about what the international community can do when writers like him are intimidated by authorities, he underscored the importance of being quick in extending solidarity:

Though we might be writing or expressing out ideas/thought in different languages and different medium (eg poetry, arts, film, drawing, music etc), it is always good to keep in touch. Social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc) makes it easier to stay connected globally.

If we find out that some writer/artist in some far corner of the world is in trouble, we should be able to quickly show solidarity by spreading the news to all relevant contact via social media or WhatsApp. In my case, I managed to send message through WhatsApp to friends and also post on Facebook. They (not all my friends are writers) quickly did what was needed to do next. Before I was brought from Shah Alam, Selangor to Bukit Aman, Kuala Lumpur, news of my arrest was already published in Malaysiakini, Focus Malaysia etc. So, I knew that I had nothing to worry – in addition to the fact that that I did not in any way offend the Prophet.

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